I remember the day that Derek Jeter was drafted in June of 1992. Those were dark days for the Yankees, and the shortstop position was a revolving door of mediocrity. Andy Stankiewicz played 116 games at short in 1992, and before that we endured three years of Alvaro Espinoza, and two seasons each from Rafael Santana, Wayne Tolleson, Bobby Meacham, and Roy Smalley. When Jeter was drafted, all I hoped for was a serviceable player who might last a while. A Hall of Famer? I didn’t know what that looked like.
What I don’t remember is when he became my favorite player. There was no moment. I was twenty-six years old when the twenty-one year Jeter assumed the starting job at shortstop, but when I looked at him, I saw myself. Just like Jeter, I had been born of a black father and a white mother, I had grown up a Yankee fan in Michigan, and my childhood ambition had been to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. He was I, if my dreams had come true.
You know how it is with your favorite player. His name is the first you find in the morning box score, you feel a strange type of pride when he’s elected to start an All-Star game, and his at bats serve as mileposts during the course of a three-hour ballgame. And so it was for me with Jeter. Even in seasons when the Yankees clinched a playoff position in early September, I still tracked Jeter’s hits as he pushed towards 200, and I probably started thinking about the possibility of 3,000 hits as long as ten years ago.
And with Jeter, I think I’ve finally figured out why it is that old fans always have old players as their favorites. I’m old enough now to realize that I probably will never have another favorite player. There will be guys that I’ll like more than others on the roster — Robinson Canó, for example, or maybe even Jesús Montero if he develops — but that’s all they’ll ever be.
Thirty years from now my granddaughter will be telling about the most recent exploits of her favorite player, and I’ll listen intently before giving my variation of what we’ve all heard before: “You should’ve seen Derek Jeter play; he was something to see.” I’ll probably start with the jump pass from deep in the hole, pantomime the inside-out swing, and explain how he was better with his back to the plate than any shortstop I’d ever seen. I’ll recount the dive into the stands against Boston, the flip to get Giambi in the playoffs, and the World Series home run that earned the Mr. November nickname.
But the memory that I’ll do my best to give her comes from Game 1 of the American League Divisional Series on October 3, 2006. Jeter had singled in the first, doubled in the third, singled in the fourth, and doubled again in the sixth as the Yankees opened a comfortable lead and seemed poised to cruise through the series against the overmatched Detroit Tigers. When Jeter came up in the eighth with the game already in hand, it was a love fest. With fans standing and MVP chants raining down from the upper deck, Jeter took a 1-1 pitch from Jamie Walker and crushed it to center field for a home run, the perfect cap to a perfect five-for-five night. The M-V-P chants quickly gave way to the ubiquitous “De-rek-Jee-ter!” sing-song, which rolled around the Stadium until Jeter came out for a curtain call, then continued through Bobby Abreu’s at bat.
In the clubhouse that night back-up catcher Sal Fasano explained it in words that have stayed with me ever since: “It gives you goose bumps. It’s amazing to see the love the New York fans have for Jeter. It’s like when you were a kid when your favorite player hit a home run and you jumped up and down. Well, here there are 50,000 people, and to all of them Jeter is their favorite player.”
That’s who he’ll always be to me. I’ll do my best to help my granddaughter understand.
[Photo Credit: Tim Farrell/The Star-Ledger]