"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Well, What Did You Expect?


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]

Categories:  1: Featured  Game Recap  Yankees

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1 coleman42   ~  Sep 26, 2014 9:17 am

Marvelous, Hank. Derek was, indeed, a once in a lifetime player.

I watched last night with two grandsons, age 13 and 9, we were taking care of so that Mom and Dad (born 1967) could visit colleges upstate with my almost-17 year old grandson. We all stayed up for an hour after the game to watch the post-game analysis. We facetimed their family during the game as they watched from a hotel in Rochester. I told the boys that they would remember this night forever.

I will too.

2 Ara Just Fair   ~  Sep 26, 2014 9:33 am

That was a fantastic write up. Thanks.
"When I looked at Derek Jeter, I saw myself if my own dreams had come true." Amen.

3 Sliced Bread   ~  Sep 26, 2014 9:45 am

Beautiful, Hank.

I can't think of anything not to love and admire about Jeter and his game, but he was never my favorite player.

Willie Randolph was my favorite as a kid, Matttingly in my teens, and college years, Bernie in my late 20s and 30s, and most recently, Cano.

For me, Jeter transcends "favorite player" status.

He's been nothing less than the face, and pride of the Yankees since he came here.

The captain, more than any Yankee of the past 20 years, is the guy who gave us our swagger. He's the one who restored our status as first-class citizens of the baseball world. Mo, Bernie, Torre and the rest of them had a role in that, but Jeter was the one.

There's a good chance the Yankees will employ other great players, and winners in our lifetime. But I don't expect to ever see another player like Jeter again.

4 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 26, 2014 10:08 am

Nicely done, man.

Ever hear of a columnist, long dead, named George Frazier? Wrote in for the Herald and later the Globe in Boston, was a jazz critic in New York, and wrote about style for Esquire. He was fixated by a term he once read in a 1963 Kenneth Tynan essay on Miles Davis.

Tynan wrote: "The Spanish have a word, duende. It has no exact English equivalent, but it denotes the quality without which no flamenco singer of bullfighters can conquer the summit of his art. The ability to transmit a profoundly felt emotion to an audience of strangers with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of restraint: that is as near as our language can get to the full meaning of duende. Laurence Olivier has it; Maurice Evans does not. Billie Holiday had it, and so did Bessie Smith; but Ella Fitzgerald never reached it. It is the quality that differentiates Laurette Taylro from Lynn Fontanne, Ernest Heminway from John O'Hara, Tennessee Williams from William Inge. Whatever else he may lack, Miles Davis has duende."

Frazier added, in part: "It was what Ted Williams had even when striking out, but Stan Musial lacked when hitting a home run. Ruth had it, but not Gehrig. It is what stirs suspensefulness, the air of anticipation when Jackie Robinson got on first and the ball park suddenly came alive. Gale Sayers has it, but Leroy Kelly, for all his skills, does not.

...Once you have been in its presence, you cannot ever forget it, for it touches your remembrance with magic—the memory of Unitas going for the touchdown instead of the field goal in the gathering dark of sudden-death against the Giants; of Big Daddy Lipscomb picking up monstrous charging linemen and flinging them out of his rampaging path as he went after the ball carrier; of Jimmy Brown and Sam Huff like two epic warriors approaching each other on a darkling plain; of Bobby Layne; of Maurice Richard. It is the intangible, the presence, the thing that stops the heart—it is what Lance Alworth had, but Don Maynard, for all his greatness, does not."

Safe to say, Derek Jeter has duende.

5 rbj   ~  Sep 26, 2014 10:28 am

I was born in 1964. Almost from the beginning I'd ask my dad to read Richard Scary's Busy, Busy World. My parents got sick of it, but I insisted on it every night. Without realizing it, that was how I learned to read. Enough so that by 1969 I was able to read (not yet having turned 5.) One summer afternoon I found myself in a pharmacy which had the logos of all the baseball teams up. Vietnam was raging and so, when I looked at the logos, the Yankees looked patriotic and so I became a Yankees fan. I knew nothing about baseball or sport, but I liked the Yankees.

I finally understood enough to enjoy 1976, 77 and 78. Was devastated in 1979. Suffered with Mattingly in the 1980s. 1995 was a ray of hope with a playoff appearance. And a good young centerfielder and a bunch highly touted prospects. The next two decades were highly enjoyable, but there's always a price to be paid. Now we are at the end of an era, and while I like the rotation and think the bullpen is a strength, I think we are in for some fallow years.

6 Greg G   ~  Sep 26, 2014 10:37 am

I watched last night's broadcast on the MLB channel and they had Jim Kaat and Bob Costas as announcers. Kaat brought up something many say about Jeter, that for all the talk of his being over-rated, you didn't get that sense if you watched him everyday. The "intangibles" he brought made the players around him better. He used every bit of his talent, and didn't take plays off. His leadership by example is 10 times more effective than 100 rah rah's. And most importantly he enjoyed it as a game. He talked with fans, and had this 1,000 watt smile, and even the guys who competed against him mostly loved him.

I was so glad I was able to watch last night's game, and my sons who are too young to understand the game, know 2 things: Yankees and baseball. I kept telling them, "This might be the greatest Yankee we will ever see on tv."

The kids had made a huge mess, and we were overdue for dinner. Usually, I will not watch tv until they are in bed. I kept telling them to clean up, but I was just mouthing the words, and watching the game. I had Tivo'd it and as fate would have it, caught up to the live broadcast about a minute before Jeter's game winner.

Life is made up of memories, and Jeter gave us plenty of great ones to look back on, and for that I am grateful. Our house was a mess, dinner was late and cold, but I got to have another signature Jeter moment for my memory bank.

7 Alex Belth   ~  Sep 26, 2014 10:52 am

5) Great memory, G. Thanks for sharing that.

8 weeping for brunnhilde   ~  Sep 27, 2014 1:01 pm

Some beautiful thoughts, Hank.

Thank you.

9 Hank Waddles   ~  Sep 27, 2014 1:41 pm

Thanks so much to all of you for your kind words. (And extra thanks to Alex for the platform.)

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