oh, i've been dreading this post. i've been trying to write it all week, and i just keep putting it off. i can't believe the summer has bled into fall, and we stand here now in the final throws of the 2014 regular season of major league baseball. just the passage of time would make that remarkable enough, for me. but there is something far more weighty on my heart.
now batting...numbah two....derek jeetah....numbah two.
hold on a second. i need to go get a box of tissues before i try typing anything else.
last week as i was in atlanta, i read ian o'connor's biography of jeter called "the captain." as the number of games the yankees' captain has left to play has dwindled into single digits, it was almost too much for this fan to bear. his life has been fascinating in many ways. he declared at an early age that he would one day play shortstop for the new york yankees. everyone laughed. until he went and did it. partly because of his skill. partly because of his relentless drive and determination. and partly because of pure, dumb luck. and i would say those three characters are all the major players in the movie script that has been derek jeter's baseball career: skill, determination, and luck, and not necessarily in that order.
skill. the guy can play. he was the best player in high school. he was drafted in the first round right after graduation. he has played starting shortstop for 20 years. he won a world series mvp, an all star mvp, and has over 3,000 hits, way more than anyone in the history of the new york yankees. you can get all keith olbmerman on him all you want, and tell me that his w.a.r. score is negative and that his numbers are pedestrian at best. that is fine. you go ahead and keep thinking that he is below average, mr. olberman. it just shows the rest of the world how bitter, jealous, and petty you are. no, his numbers will never be of the eye-popping variety. but you can't argue that the guy doesn't have skill. he is a very skilled athlete. and here's what i love about the numbers argument: he doesn't care. over the course of the last 20 years, thousands (this is not an exaggeration) of journalists have asked him tens of thousands of questions about his numbers, and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, much to the chagrin of those journalists, he has answered in a consistent and classy way: it isn't about my numbers. it is about winning the games. it is about helping the team win. if i can do that by getting a hit or a walk or a sac fly, or taking a pitch to the forearm, then so be it. here's the deal: derek jeter, as much as anyone you've ever met, just wants to win. that brings us to the second character up for an academy award in jeter's feature-length career.
determination. the man is relentless. he is dedicated to his craft in a way that would embarrass most of us. he works harder than you. now, i need to say that he is so blessed because his work is playing baseball. he gets to play a game, trying to hit and chase a little white ball around a magically-green field. you might think that is too easy. but don't forget that the "playing" part, the part that gets televised and talked about ad nauseum, is only a portion. it is also hours in the batting cages. it is studying pitchers. it is watching film on outfielders and their arm strength so you know who you can go first to third on. it is off seasons without any break, because you have to get better. and beyond all of that, it is an unending line of reporters, begging you to answer their questions and give them something - anything - to get their bosses of their back. it is beat reporters, looking for some new angle, and it is scoundrels looking to manufacture any kind of dirt they can turn into a TMZ story. and it is the keith olbermans who have felt compelled over the years to keep writing baloney about how he isn't good enough, fast enough, agile enough, powerful enough. the bottom line is that he was never juicy enough for most writers. he just did his job. too well for some, it would seem. no, he never had the numbers of some of his teammates, but they have come and gone, some falling prey to injuries that could only be the result of chemicals doing things to their bodies than were unnatural in every way. others falling prey to not only taking those chemicals, but lying about it until they couldn't hide it anymore (we're looking at you, a-rod). and through all of that, jeter still stands. he still gets into position at shortstop, holding his glove out over his sharply bent knees before every pitch of every game. if the skipper suggests he get a day off, jeter complains loudly. he wants to play. he wants to compete. he wants to have a chance to get the hit, or the pop-up floating towards the stands. he wants to win. and he wants it way more than most. he just isn't willing to cheat to get it. he is only willing to work harder than you. whatever it takes.
luck. oh, don't be deceived, luck has been a major character in jeter's story. how in the world he didn't get drafted by another team in that first round, before he fell to the yankees, can only really be attributed to luck (we see you, cincinnati reds). how he got to be surrounded by great players who helped him get to the post season year after year, rather than play on some other team, the pirates for example, whom he would have had to try and carry by himself, can be credited to luck, too. but they say something important about luck, and it is important because it is true.
you make your own luck.
if jeter hadn't carried himself with class, what then? if he hadn't, even as a rookie, willed other teammates to play better, to be better, what then? if he hadn't lit into some teammates when they demonstrated a less-than-absolute commitment to playing hard and winning, what then? if he hadn't treated his manager and his owner (the volcanic george steinbrenner) and his gm with respect, what then? would he have stayed a yankee at contract time? if he hadn't treated the media with class and respect while really only giving them answers that wouldn't serve as a distraction to his teammates, what then? would he have had the same luck? or would some of his teammates have quit on him? would his manager had lost some trust in him? would his gm have shopped him somewhere else? would players on other teams have singled him out? would beat writers have found ways to take out personal vendettas in black and white ink? any or all of that could have happened. but it didn't. why? luck, you might say. luck that was forged in the way derek jeter has always carried himself, behaving as if his mom and dad were sitting right there in the stands watching, because, for the most part, they were!
i've written before about how he is not perfect and i am under no illusion about this. i know he has had some problems with some individuals, and i am certain that as an entitled, sickeningly rich young man, his life is full of ugly excesses. i know his personal life has been somewhat cloudy, and could be much worse than most of us know. i get all of that. i am simply talking about the way he has played the game.
i have never seen anyone do it better.
i have had several players that i've loved. mattingly. van slyke. melky. mariano. mccutcheon. but none of them have done it better than jeter. none of them have played that way, acted that way, behaved that way, and rose to the occasion that way. which leads me to one final actor in the film-story of derek jeter's career.
and the oscar goes to: clutch. derek jeter is clutch. he rises to the occasion. he plays big. when the lights are the brightest, and the knuckles are the whitest, derek wants a bat in his hand. and time after time he has delivered. not just with that signature inside-out swing to right field, but also with a foundation that has helped thousands of kids make good decisions for their own lives and careers. not just with that jump throw, ranging far to his right and throwing across his body like ballet, but with tens of thousands of little-leaguers who have had the chance to watch a guy who isn't playing the "me-first" brand of baseball that has become the most popular kind. he has come up big, with world series home runs, with selfless dives into the stands, and with one unthinkable shovel pass to the plate that will never ever be forgotten. but he has come up big in a million smaller ways, too. by giving the same interview to the Middletown Reporter as he has to the Post or the Times. by shaking a rookie's hand, some guy on the other team, and knowing his name and asking him about his family. by not showboating when he comes up with a big hit. by not dragging down teammates in the papers, even when they deserved it. by being himself, with honesty and integrity, determination and grit, class and conviction.
i want to play games and work at my career and deal with colleagues and competitors like derek jeter. i don't care what his o.p.s. is. i know what his character is.
congrats on a great career, derek jeter. i am watching these last four games with a deep sadness for all of us who will not get to watch you anymore. i am watching with a kind of sadness for the game, because i don't know who will carry your torch. i am watching with joy, for all that you've done, for all i've been a witness to, and for what you've taught me and my children. and i am watching with a box of tissues in my lap. it has been an honor to watch the film that has been your career. thanks for making it the best i've ever seen.