It will be here before we know it. Opening Day April 2015. The Yankees will take the field without their Hall of Fame shortstop, #2, The Captain – Derek Jeter. I’ve been a diehard Yankee fan for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching Mantle, Maris, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra on our 15″ low definition black and white T.V. Those were the glory days. Then came the lean years when the Yanks were mired in mediocrity. There wasn’t a whole lot to cheer about from 1964 through 1976. I can hear Yankees broadcaster and former shortstop Phil Rizzuto wondering out loud how Oscar Gamble could fit his fro under his baseball helmet. I can hear him saying, “Holy Cow, Messer, I don’t know how he does it!”
I’ve seen some great Yankees come and go. Guys like Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Petitte. All of them gave us lots of thrills and left me with some of my fondest sports memories.
My saddest day as a Yankee fan was the day Thurman Munson died tragically landing his private plane. He was so dedicated to his family he got his pilot’s license so he could fly back to Canton, Ohio from New York for his kids birthdays and other special occasions during the season. He had made that flight hundreds of times without incident. On that fateful day, instead of a smooth landing his flight ended in a fiery crash. Thurman didn’t have a chance. He was such a good man and a great Yankee.
While Derek’s departure won’t be tragic, it’s going to be sad for any true fan of the Bronx Bombers. For 20 years he’s been the heart and soul of our team. What makes his departure even more significant for me is my sons, now 26 and 21, grew up watching him play. They’ve only known one Yankee shortstop.
Can you think of anyone better in all of sport for your kids idolize? I know it’s all been said about Jeter however I’m one who believes it can’t be said enough. In a world where personal values seem to be negotiable, Jeter is an anomaly. He didn’t talk about it; he just did it. For 20 years and over 14,000 at bats, no matter where he hit the ball he sprinted to first base! Even the casual fan knows this is what you are supposed to do. In this age of guaranteed contracts so few actually do it. In many ways it’s the little things Derek did that separated him from the rest.
Several months ago, my oldest son Jeff called me. We were talking about this being Jeter’s last year. He said something I’ll never forget – “Dad, Derek was a common bond for you, me and Bryce (his younger brother) growing up!” An interesting thought from a twenty-something whose becoming more and more sage as time passes.
Both my boys played sports and the 3 of us watched as much Yankees baseball as humanly possible. I know on several (thousand) occasions I pointed to Derek as an example of the way to play the game. However it went beyond that… We talked about the way he carried himself off the field, his leadership, his winning spirit, his work ethic, the way he handled the media, his charitable work, his relationship with his teammates. We also marveled at his uncanny ability to deliver when the game was on the line.
On Thursday, his final game in pinstripes, he did it again. He provided us one last thrill. We knew he could do it when the game meant something – like advancing in the playoffs. Some wondered if he could do when he was filled with the emotion of ending his glorious Hall of Fame career. He was clearly uncomfortable. The 50,000 fans were there for one reason only – to see their beloved Yankee Captain play his final home game. For Derek it was always about team. Thursday night, with the Yanks out of the playoff picture, it was all about him.
When he smashed the ball off the top of the left center field wall in his first at bat, you got the feeling it was going to be a special night. However with the cameras on him constantly he was fidgety which is so uncharacteristic of the guy who always remained cool regardless of the situation.
In the top of the 9th, like the millions who watched, I was thinking this will be a nice ending. The Yankees were leading 5-2. Even though there were no huge moments Derek had an impact in his final game at Yankee Stadium. The closer was in and we all expected the Orioles to go quietly. We anticipated, after the second out, Girardi would pull his shortstop so he could leave the field and soak up the adulation of the Yankee faithful. Two batters later, it was tied. Yankee fans didn’t know whether to be pissed or grateful. Scheduled to bat third in the bottom half, they were going to see #2 hit one more time…
It started with “call up” Jose Pirela’s base hit, then Gardie laying down the perfect sacrifice bunt advancing the pinch runner to second. At that point, not a Yankee fan in the world cared that their team wasn’t going to the post season. The stage was set. The immortal voice of Bob Shepard announced #2 for his last at bat in pinstripes… When he did what we all expected him to do, with his classic “Jeterian” inside out swing, it was bedlam in the Bronx.
Immediately, my phone lit up. First Bryce, then Jeff. One last magical moment for the 3 of us courtesy of The Captain. For 20 years he’s been our hero. For two decades we trusted him to come through. Not just at the plate or in the field but in life. He didn’t disappoint. Sadly, during that time we’ve seen so many professional athletes crash and burn. There’s a lesson in this that transcends baseball. Stay in the moment, focus on doing things the right way, don’t ever compromise your personal values and the universe will take care of the rest. There will never be another Derek Jeter. One can only hope, in this next generation, there will be more professional athletes that follow his example.