Where do I even begin?
To try to start a career retrospective on Derek Jeter is next to impossible considering everything he has meant to and done for the Yankees over the last two decades. I’ve really been putting this off since I really don’t know I can truly do the man any justice here in print form. But I don’t want to just not do it, because that, I believe would be a bigger disservice to the man whose career unfolded right in front of my eyes. So with that said, here goes nothing…
I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, going back to when I was a kid and my family would go to a Yankees game here and there back in the mid 80s and early 90s. Liking the Yankees was just something I was born into. My Dad’s family lived in the Bronx and my Grandmother was a big fan of the boys in pinstripes and I always got to hear stories about how great the Yankees were back when guys with names like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Maris, Berra, Munson, Jackson and a slew of others played for the team, but by the mid 80s…all those names were long gone and what was left was a mediocre team filled with names like Randolph, Henderson, Winfield, Kelly, Sax, Barfield, Righetti & my favorite at that time…Mattingly.
Now don’t get me wrong, these guys weren’t nobodies…but when stacked up against the names first listed, essentially they were. Those teams couldn’t hold a candle to what the previous bunch of guys did. They weren’t about to have any streets named after them in the Bronx or anywhere else, but they were still my team and I still watched as many games as I possibly could in those days.
Listening to the stories I had been told by my family about championships and amazing postseason heroics, I kinda wondered if I was ever going to get to see this side of my team who (for my lifetime) hadn’t sniffed post-season baseball for the time I had been watching. Being born in 1978, I wasn’t aware of that year’s great run to the World Series win, nor was I aware of the run to the World Series in 1981 since I was only 3. So for the entire time that I had been following the team, I hadn’t seen anything really resembling the stories I had been told.
Finally in 1994, it looked as though my team would finally make the playoffs and show me some of those post-season heroics I had heard so much about. Then the strike happened and the playoffs were scrapped and once again, I wouldn’t be able to witness my team succeed in the playoffs.
The 1995 season would start and as a Yankees fan, you couldn’t help but feel robbed the year before because the team had been so good and was a clear front runner to win it all only to have the season cut short and the playoffs cancelled. So this year was going to be our year, Don Mattingly was finally going to be able to do his thing in the post-season with a good team around him and this was going to be the year….until it wasn’t. Sure, this team finally made it into the playoffs as the first Wild Card winner and had to face Seattle in a new, best-of-5 game Divisional Round of the playoffs.
The Yankees would start off the series strong, with two wins at home, but then the tables would be turned on them as the Mariners would take games 3 & 4 in Seattle, and would finally wrap up the series in extra innings in game 5 in Seattle. Donnie Baseball had finally made it to the playoffs, but a team anchored with players like Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez, Tino Martinez, Vince Coleman, Jay Buhner, Ron Villone, Jeff Nelson, Jim Mecir and Alex Rodriguez proved to be just too much for the Yankees and when the they made their exit from the playoffs, Mattingly would call it a career.
But on that 1995 team that reached the playoffs was a rookie player who would eventually take a major role in the future of the team’s leadership. That kid, who would eventually become the face of the Yankees for years to come was Derek Jeter.
In the coming years, the Yankees would see many different players step up into the leadership role as we had some truly great players on the team in the years following Mattingly’s retirement. Guys like Paul O’Neil, Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius & David Cone. These guys knew how to win and were cornerstones for the teams that followed. All through this time period, Jeter did what he did best…he went to work, played hard and had a knack for coming up with the big hit when the Yankees would need one…and somewhere along that path, he started to take on a leadership role within the team. He really had some great players around him to learn from and he used all that knowledge in the years to come.
Instead of being the player who assumed he’d be out on a badly hit ball, he always ran full-speed down the first base line in hopes of beating out the throw to first. Instead of being the player who would watch an errant throw not hit it’s mark, he became the only shortstop in the game to relay a throw from right field to the catcher from outside the first base foul line just in time to get Jeremy Giambi out in the American League Divisional Series. He also would go the distance, leading by example as he did what it took to catch a foul ball and hold on to it while letting his momentum carry him into the third base side stands. He always did what was needed when called upon. He even became the first player in major league history to hit a home run in the month of November, when because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2001 baseball season was put on hold with everything being pushed off a couple of weeks following the attacks, pushing the World Series back to the last week of October, running into November as the series went the full 7 games.
As time went by Jeter would win himself (literally) a handful of World Series Championships, was named team captain by (then) team owner, George Steinbrenner, and soon that kid who we watched all those years, all of a sudden was nearing age 40 and was thinking towards retirement as injuries started to plague the latter years of his career. And so, entering spring training of 2014, Jeter would announce that this would be his final season in pinstripes. As the season progressed, it was Jeter’s farewell tour as we got to see teams all around the league present Jeter with gifts to thank him for all the years of service not only to the Yankees but to Major League Baseball in general. All through the steroid years, Jeter was always a shining light as he never “juiced up” and always played the game the right way. While plenty of big name players were being brought up on charges and being put through the ringer in front of federal hearings and whatnot, Derek Jeter continued doing what he did best and always kept his nose clean. He showed kids that you didn’t have to go the route of performance enhancing drugs to have a successful career in the major leagues. Hard work and ability can get you there. He also never got his name dragged through the dirt for any domestic disputes. He was a good guy both on the field and off. Plus, he was always good to his fans, signing autographs at spring training. He was everything you’d want a baseball player to be.
So it’s a sad time for us fans now as we have now seen the last game of our “Captain Clutch”. I’d like to say a personal “thank you” to Derek Jeter for always being the guy who wasn’t like everyone else in baseball, who didn’t look for shortcuts to achieve goals, who showed day in & day out that with hard work and perseverance, anything is still possible. As a father now, I now have great stories to tell my son of the great Yankees teams and of the great feats achieved by Derek Jeter just as my father had told me about Micky Mantle. Hopefully he won’t have to wait as long to be able to witness some Yankee Magic for himself.