"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Jeteronomy the Milestone: V

Reggie Jackson was my idol when I was growing up. He was more than just a Yankee and I stuck with him when he signed with the Angels. My favorite Yankees were Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph. Later on, I loved Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson but Don Mattingly was my guy. Which is to say that there is something about the quiet guys that I’ve always admired. Derek Jeter is one of those guys.

But Jeter is more than just a Yankee too, he’s Mr. Yankee. You can argue that Mariano Rivera has been the most crucial Yankee of the past generation. He is the best short-closer of ‘em all, but he’s not the public face of the franchise. Jeter is and it’s hard to write about him and not stumble into a field of cliches–he’s the modern Joe DiMaggio, polite but removed, guarded, plastic. He hustles, never complains, and “plays the game the right way.”

All of which is true but here’s what I’ll always remember about Jeter: he looks like he is having fun. He’s composed, the good student who knows enough to cut a joke when the teacher isn’t looking, not effusive like Jose Reyes, but I’ve rarely seen Jeter not enjoying himself on the field. The opposing players all seem to like him and he’ll chat with the catcher or the first baseman. He smiles–he’s no DiMaggio, he’s not Garbo–and he loves the competition of the game, the big moment. Here’s Tom Boswell:

Baseball has a name for the player who, in the eyes of his peers, is well attuned to the demands of his discipline; he is called “a gamer.” The gamer does not drool, or pant, before the cry of “Play ball.” Quite the opposite. He is the player, like George Brett or Pete Rose, who is neither too intense, nor too lax, neither lulled into carelessness in a dull August doubleheader nor wired too tight in an October playoff game. The gamer may scream and curse when his mates show the first hints of laziness, but he makes jokes and laughs naturally in the seventh game of the Series.

That’s Jeter. Doug Glanville, a former teammate, offers a sharp appreciation today in the Times:

Jeter’s career has been more like a plateau curve. He came on the scene at 20, made a near-instant impact, then stayed remarkably consistent and virtually injury-free year in and year out, cruising on a plane of excellence. In many respects, he spoiled us. When you progress on a flat line, outside observers are lulled into the tacit expectation that this is how it’s supposed to be. Players like this produce so deceptively that we miss the escalating work ethic required to stave off age, the sheer dominating focus it takes to be so steady at such a high level.

Now we are watching him slow down, finding out that not even Jeter can avoid the human condition. The fact that the Yankees won 14 of 18 games during his recent time on the D.L. is a reminder that even great personal accomplishment stands on shaky ground when it comes to a humming team machine. So Jeter has two ways to go. He could take his foot off the pedal and ride gravity down the gradual curve to the bottom. Or, it could end much as it began for him and he’ll go down as precipitously as he rose in the game, though his superhero status in the eyes of his supporters may grant him a parachute to soften the landing.

I was at the Stadium one day early in Jeter’s rookie year when I heard a girl yell his name: “Deh-rick Gee-dah.” She had a classic New York accent and she screeched his name again and again. I still here that voice in my head when I see him play. I appreciate that he takes his job seriously but  is grounded enough to realize he’s playing a game. He’s never forgotten to enjoy the ride. And we’ve enjoyed it along with him. What more can you ask?

[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]

16 comments

1 Just Fair   ~  Jul 8, 2011 1:43 pm

"What more can I ask?" To wait until after Sunday to get the big one. That way I will be watching live on Yes. C'mon, Joe. Give the man a few days of rest. ; )

2 Dimelo   ~  Jul 8, 2011 1:56 pm

[0] You can't ask much more of him. He's as steady as they come.

3 Steve Flack   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:17 pm

I still remember the first time I heard about Derek Jeter. It was the early 1990's, and was a tough time to be a Yankee fan. My father, a die hard, had told me they had this kid in the minors "the next Phil Rizzutto." When the strike came around, and they started talking about replacement players, I asked my dad if the Yankees were going to bring this kid up, "No, he's too good for that."

We all know what happened next. 1996 Rookie of the Year, 1996 World Champion, 1998 World Champion, and so on and so on. But along the waym Derek Jeter became little sister's hero.

There's a seven year difference between me and my sister, and that leads to a generation gap in players. Mine is and will always be Don Mattingly. My father's is Mickey Mantle. But, her's is Derek Jeter. She lives and dies by what he does.

I don't know when it happened. Supposedly, she said it's because my father described him in 1998 as "the Leonardo DiCaprio of baseball." she was 9, and I guess that was all it took. All of a sudden she was obsessed with the game. And ever since then, it was all about Derek.

He gave my family something to bond over. Together, me, my Dad, and her watched the Yankees. He gave my Dad and my sister something to bond over. Through good times and bad, Jeter was the constant. Over the last few years, we've been to the Stadium more than we've been to church. We were there when it closed, we were there when it opened. My sister even ended up dating a classmate who works at the stadium.

I remember watching her sob uncontrollably at the start of the 2003 season. She had a really tough first year of high school, and seeing Derek go down with what looked like a season threatening injury was all she needed to just release any pent up frustration she had.

I still remember her 16th birthday. She didn't want a Sweet 16 party. She just wanted tickets to a Yankee game and her name on the board. So that's what we did.

On July 1, 2004.

She just moved into her first apartment, and a giant picture of "The Dive" hangs above her TV.

A few years back, I got my first tattoo. It's the interlocking NY on my right forearm, and underneath it, in uniform font, are the numbers "7 23 2". Some people think it's weird to have permanently etched the number of a guy still playing baseball on my arm. But no matter what happens from now on, it'll never change what the last 15 years have meant for the relationship between me, my sister, and my father.

4 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:27 pm

Like how Adriana La Cerva would pronounce it, as in: Christaphuh. Takes me right back to high school in Yonkers.

(Also, mind your homonyms, Alex: "I still here that voice in my head when I see him play, reminds me to smile." :)

5 Dimelo   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:28 pm

[3] Wow! That was pretty cool to read. As I was reading, I thought it was going to get into some tragic event and how Jeter was a big part of overcoming.

Anyhow, I'm glad it didn't turn into what my mind was thinking and getting ahead of itself.

6 ms october   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:39 pm

[5] i thought the same thing!
[3] that was cool - thanks for sharing.

7 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:40 pm

[3] That was very moving, thanks, Steve.

Mine, ftr, is Mattingly, too. First it was Reggie and of course I loved Randolph and Winfield and Rickey electrified me (though I never had the same deep affection for him as the others, I loved watching him but he wasn't a hero, for some reason), but Mattingly was the one, the god among men who remains my gold standard for what a baseball player should be.

My loss of innocence on that front occurred in 1995 when Randy Johnson struck him out three times in clutch situations. I remember Kay, I think it was, making two remarks: "He just looks overmatched," which devastated me just to hear the words. How could Mattingly be "overmatched?" God, talk about pathos.

I also remember, in his fourth ab, Kay (I think it was) musing, "Now, I don't think Mattingly has *ever* struck out *four* times in a game..."

As much as I love Derek, he never quite attained that status for me, though I'm not quite sure why.

The closest player to occupy that place in my heart was Andy, and he only gradually. Not sure quite when, but the day I saw him on the front of the newspaper in that Houston cap, I felt like my best friend died and when he re-signed, I felt like he had been raised from the dead.

Ah, baseball.

8 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:41 pm

[6] Well, look who it is! Howdy, stranger. :)

9 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:43 pm

[4] Sometimes the words rush out before the brain realizes what the fingers have typed. ;)

[3] What a great story - is your sister going to tonight's game?

[0] I think Jeter is absolutely a gamer, but the way Boswell defined the word, I don't see how he could think it applies to Brett or Rose. Too intent is exactly how I would describe Brett and Rose. YMMV, I guess.

10 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:46 pm

[9] Oh, I know, I do it *all* the time!

11 Steve Flack   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:48 pm

Mattingly, was and will always be, my childhood hero. I remember going to a game in the late 80's, where my uncle scored us a reservation to the fancy club in the old place for a pregame dinner. I was upset because there was a dress code, and couldn't wear my new Don Mattingly name&number shirt to the game. I still remember changing into in the bathroom in between dinner and going to the seats.

1994 was going to be the year. Then, I was there on August 11, crying in the bleachers. It was, and still is, the only time I ever left the game with a ball (a batting practice ball I snagged from a Blue Jay). I got Mattingly to sign it a few years back, and it's one of my prized possessions.

His last game is etched both in my mind and my parent's basement ceiling. I was watching the game with the dad, and left, dejected as Griffey scored the winning run. I went downstairs to my bedroom at the time, and as I reached the bottom stair, I saw my Ken Griffey sneakers, emblazoned with his number 24, and in bright Seattle green (he will always be my favorite player to never wear pinstripes). I grabbed it and flung it a cross the room, and into my parent's cheap drop ceiling. To this day, I won't let them fix that dent.

12 Steve Flack   ~  Jul 8, 2011 2:51 pm

[9] No, we thought about scalping tickets, but it wasn't worth the $100 each if he went 1-3. We have a family party tomorrow, and tickets for Sunday as a part of our season ticket plan. We're kind of hoping for a drought.

13 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 8, 2011 3:28 pm

[12] A draught is certainly possible - and I'm sure the Steinbrothers would not mind a draught until Sunday. So many more sell outs that way! =)

I'll keep my fingers crossed for you and your sister to be able to witness history in person.

14 RIYank   ~  Jul 8, 2011 3:50 pm

Steve Flack, Yay! Great story. Much better without Dimelo's tragic ending.

15 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Jul 8, 2011 4:32 pm

[14] :)

16 Shaun P.   ~  Jul 8, 2011 6:10 pm

[12] How about a rainout?

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver