There are countless statistics that fill out Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame résumé, and I’ve heard them all on an infinite loop over the past few weeks, the final weeks of the Yankee captain’s career. I know that he is the all-time Yankee leader in games played, at bats, hits, runs, doubles, and stolen bases, and I know that only five players in major league history have more base hits than Jeter. I know that he won five World Series rings and has more postseason hits than any player ever to have played the game.
I know all of that, but none of that begins to explain why he has meant so much to me for so long.
I fell in love with the New York Yankees in the summer of 1977 when I was seven years old. I was already crazy about baseball, so during a family vacation to New York City, I convinced my parents to take me to a game at Yankee Stadium. Chris Chambliss hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning for a 5-3 win over the Royals that afternoon, and my life changed forever. The Yankees would win the World Series that season and again the next, but I looked to the team’s past.
I devoured every baseball biography I could find in the local library, especially those of the Yankee legends — Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, and Mantle. I memorized their statistics, marveled at their World Series success, and wished with every ounce of my baseball-loving heart that I could’ve seen them play or that I could’ve lived in an era when the Yankees were always in the World Series.
And then came Derek Jeter.
The Yankees drafted him in 1992, and I monitored his progress through the farm system, digging through the minor league stats in the back of USA Today’s Baseball Weekly. When he finally took over as the Yankees’ starting shortstop in 1996 at the age of 21, he was already my favorite player. When he helped the Yankees to a World Series championship that season, then three more from 1998 to 2000, the seven-year-old boy in my soul rejoiced. I finally had my Joe DiMaggio.
Baseball is about statistics, and many of the game’s legends are so connected with a particular number (Henry Aaron and 755, Ted Williams and .406, Lou Gehrig and 2130, to name a few) that we’ve actually lost a true understanding of how great some of these players were. They’ve been obscured by one glaring measure of one aspect of their game. This will never be so of Derek Jeter. His career is measured in moments, and the back of his baseball card will never explain the player that he was.
When my grandchildren ask me about Derek Jeter, it’s these moments that will come flooding back, not the numbers, and I’ll weave them a story of greatness one play at a time. I’ll rise to my feet and act out the improbable flip from foul territory to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate, salvaging a playoff win over the A’s in 2001, and I’ll certainly tell them about Game 4 of that year’s World Series, when he lived out every kid’s Whiffle ball dream and hit a game-winning home run on a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning. I’ll describe his bruised and bloodied face following his dive into the stands in that epic regular season game against the Red Sox in 2004, and I’ll detail the playoff game in 2006 when he capped off a 5 for 5 night with a majestic home run to center field, sending the Old Stadium into delirium. Oh, and I’ll probably mention the day he got his 3,000th hit, a can-you-believe-it home run that was just one of five hits he had that afternoon, the last one driving home the game’s winning run.
Jeter certainly had a flair for the dramatic, as if he were secretly writing the script himself, then jumping in front of the cameras to act out one improbable scene after another. (It should’ve been no surprise, then, when he came up with the game-winning walk-off hit in his last game at Yankee Stadium on Thursday night. Just Jeter being Jeter.)
But as iconic as those moments are, none of them does justice to the player that Jeter has been for these past two decades. What I’ll remember most — and miss the most — are the moments that we saw every day. His last look over his shoulder at his teammates just before leaping up the dugout steps to lead them onto the field for the first inning; the tip of his cap to the opposing team’s manager before his first at bat; his good-natured banter with the media who covered him day in and day out.
I can’t imagine a great player who had as much fun as he did. He never stopped ribbing Alex Rodríguez about his struggles with pop flies, and he never grew tired of giving teammates the stone face when they returned to the dugout after hitting a home run. The game belonged to him, and he knew it.
As I watched his final game in Yankee Stadium with tears in my eyes, my nine-year-old daughter asked me who my favorite player would be now that Jeter was retiring. I’ve know the answer to that question for quite some time now. For me, no one will ever replace Derek Jeter. When he arrived twenty years ago, he was more than just a baseball player to me. He was hope, but he was even more than that. When the cameras found his black father and white mother in the stands, I saw my own parents. When I read about his childhood declaration to one day play for the New York Yankees, I remembered countless birthday wishes from my own youth. When I looked at Derek Jeter, I saw myself if my own dreams had come true.
The thing about growing up, though, is that you quickly realize that the reality is sometimes far better than anything you could have imagined for yourself as a child. When Jeter rifled a line drive through the right side of the infield to win the last game he’ll ever play at Yankee Stadium, I sat on the couch watching with my two youngest children; I’d watch it again an hour later with my wife and older daughter. Tears were rolling down my face, but I couldn’t have been happier.
[Photo of Jeter/AP]