Derek Jeter changed everything.
This is why the New York Yankees shortstop for the past nineteen years and the team’s fourteenth captain for the past eleven is more than a ballplayer; a rarity that some sports figures get to be – not unlike the rare political figure, movie star or musician – an icon. And it is this week the icon leaves his post, one that has defined him to a generation of baseball and pop culture fans for nearly two decades, in which he emerged from talented kid to symbol; something not easy on a team playing in a city bloated with them.
Derek Sanderson Jeter was a great baseball player, some believe greater than most and vice versa. That kind of thing is left to the sports pages and the Internet’s growing number of statistical gurus, and maybe even some of us still left to the vagaries of the tavern debate. What is certain is that for these past nineteen years, Derek Jeter did big things on a baseball field at its highest level on the grandest stage in the biggest city for the nation’s most storied, popular, successful, and, thus, richest franchise.
Along the way he accumulated more hits than anyone that has ever played Major League Baseball save five; this includes more hits than any NY Yankee, a list that boasts the giants of the game; Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra and Mantle. He played in 158 post season games; almost an entire regular season’s worth, and starred in a gaudy number of them. My favorite of a dozen cool Jeter stats is that he scored 32 runs in 38 World Series games.
He has exploits; catches, homers, hits, runs; moments ingrained in the infrastructure of baseball. During his lengthy career he has played in 2,744 games and, at the time of this writing, only one did not count for much. In other words, there pretty much was no time that Derek Jeter did not play in a meaningful contest for his team, which in his time at shortstop would compete in the MLB play-offs 16 times, winning 13 division titles, including nine years running, seven American League pennants and five World Series championships – three consecutive from 1998 to 2000.
For a huge portion of that indescribably never-to-duplicated in anyone’s lifetime run of sustained excellence was Jeter considered the best player in baseball or even at his position. Although the four or five guys who were have since been either discredited or given the shuddering asterisk of PED’s; an epidemic in science versus integrity that fractured the sport during Jeter’s era, enhancing his legacy. It also put him on the track of “overrated” or some such anti-New York palaver enjoyed by the sports world, especially the baseball world since I began paying attention.
But one thing is for certain, for his time no player transcended the game as Derek Jeter did. In the media, as he was regularly depicted in celebrity circles dating models and actresses. In advertising, as he was the sports figurehead for three of the top sponsors of professional sports in the last half century; Ford, Gatorade, Nike – two of the three the central component of making Michael Jordan a transcendent sports figure a generation before, as MJ and DJ would become friends and business partners. In pop culture, as in 2001 when Jeter became the only active baseball player to ever host Saturday Night Live. In fact, the only people associated with baseball at all to previously host were Bob Uecker, lousy player/great comedic spokesman and actor, Billy Martin, crazy man manager, and DJ’s boss, George Steinbrenner, who was also immortalized in pop culture as a recurring character on Seinfeld, a show in which Jeter also appeared. HBO did an entire documentary on his rehabbing an injury and he was a character in a recent Broadway play.
Alas, none of it approaches Derek Jeter’s seminal part in keeping my beloved NY Yankees in the Bronx, where I was born and raised and where they belong.
There was a time when the Yankees seriously considered and threatened to move operations to New Jersey. The Giants and Jets had already jumped state in the late ‘70s’, to pretty lucrative results. Owner George Steinbrenner, famously combative, furiously capitalist, and a man known for a Herculean lack of patience, was convinced that the South Bronx was a deteriorating sinkhole. Crime, crumbling infrastructure and an ill-conceived Major Deegan Expressway had led to reasons to why this glorious franchise playing in a cathedral to the game (renovated and modernized in 1976) failed to draw the magic 3-million attendance mark that less popular teams did. Even the cross-town Mets had done so in the team’s brief ascension to the top in the mid-80s’. The mantra was the Yankees had never and will never draw 3 million fans to the Bronx. This was true during the Babe Ruth era of the 1920s’ all the way through Steinbrenner’s reign in the 70s’ when the Yankees back-to-back titles and back page shenanigans made them the most talked-about and star-studded team in the game.
By the early 90s’ (the Yankees mired in its longest run of futility ever) when Jeter was drafted as a skinny kid out of Kalamazoo Central High in Michigan – the man who scouted him, Dick Groch, famously told a nervous Yankees front office that was convinced the prospect would follow a girlfriend to the University of Michigan; “The only place he’s going is to Cooperstown” – Steinbrenner began making inroads to get out of the Bronx for good. There was no talk of “fixing up” the area around Yankees Stadium or “construction” along the Deegan, just “Bye-bye, Bronx”.
Then the new Yankees manager by the name of Joe Torre, who had never won a thing of consequence in 15 years, named a 21 year-old first-round draft pick to start at arguably the most important position on the league’s most expensive team. And things started to change around here. Fast.
Beneath Steinbrenner’s loud protestations, the kid started at shortstop and hit his first home run in his first game in Cleveland (Jeter had a cup of coffee the year before, about 15 or so games as a sub), including a stellar over-the shoulder catch. Jeter would go on to win Rookie of the Year honors and literally lead the Yankees to its first championship in 18 years. The next year the Yanks were ousted from the play-offs by the Cleveland Indians, but in the off-season Jeter made himself available to tell anyone who would listen that that kind of ending was inexcusable and that he personally worked his ass off to make sure it didn’t happen again.
In 1998, the Yankees went an inconceivable 125-50 (the best record in the history of the game) to recapture the championship, which turned his team from good to great to immortal.
The following year the Yankees drew 3.2 million, and did so for the next six straight years while doing crazier winning (Yanks were 11-1 in the ’99 play-offs and won 14 consecutive World Series games from 1996 through 2000, including the first Subway Series since 1956, in which Jeter was the MVP).
Jeter was named the first Yankees captain in eight years in 2003 and from 2004 through 2008 the team drew an unprecedented 4 million fans a year.
They have never drawn less than 3 million since.
All of it on River Avenue and 161st in Bronx, New York, USA.
In 2009, the Yankees built a new stadium across 161st street, as Jeter was handed the microphone to bid farewell to the House That Ruth Built in a wave of similar celebrity nearly a century before. The Yankees then went out and won the World Series, Jeter’s fifth.
During the late 90s’ I covered baseball as part of radio and newspaper gigs around Westchester County, NY. I had left sports reporting and my professional association with baseball during the tragic 1994 owner’s lockout of players, which resulted in the canceling of the World Series for the first time. Jeter and this Yankees resurgence brought me back. I remember sitting next to Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame during a World Series game in the press box at Yankee Stadium. I bugged him for background on arguably the most important work of American journalism of the 20th century. He bugged me about Derek Jeter.
I told Bernstein what I tell you; I had met and spoke with Jeter a few times; mostly boring baseball stuff. He never once said anything close to profound. Most reporters will tell you that. Always cordial. Always humble. Always assured. Always boring.
Jeter didn’t say things. He did things.
There is a great story told by NY Times baseball writer, Jack Curry of Jeter’s high school basketball coach telling him; “You’re going to go out there and hit the winning shot and we’re going to win” and he did. That kind of unflinching confidence held firm in Jeter’s heart; the heart that moved him up the latter of some of the greats of the game and an ambassador for a generation of players – dozens of which cite him as inspiration; the heart that resurrected the NY Yankees back to its iconic franchise tag and kept them in my Bronx.
I never got to thank him for this.
I do now.
Pulitzer Prize winning sportswriter, Dave Anderson (who covered Namath in the 60s’) said it best when he told me once in a press elevator during the 2000 World Series, “The difference is the Yankees have Derek Jeter and the other team doesn’t.”