Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Derek Jeter and All That

The first time I heard of Derek Jeter, he was not a star shortstop, but instead a politician.

In 1996, my fifth grade teacher, Ms. S, tried to teach a group of fidgety ten year olds about the presidential election between Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

To do that, she had the class divide in two, and each group had to dress up a life-size paper doll, come up with a name and come up with a platform for the candidate. Someone in my group decided that ours should be Derek Jeter. I didn't know who Derek Jeter was, and I didn't ask.

When I did start to follow the Yankees closely, I made a conscious decision that Derek Jeter could not be my favorite Yankee. Everyone loved Derek Jeter, and I needed to be different. I chose Mariano Rivera instead.

I don't regret my choice, but I've also come to realize that there's a reason everyone loves Jeter, and it's not entirely about his looks.

It's hard to explain Jeter to the uninitiated--he's not the most prolific home run hitter nor is he the greatest fielder--but there's only one Derek Jeter.

It's not just that Derek Jeter has a knack for doing the right thing at the right time, like that October night in Oakland in 2001, or that he won four World Series rings in his first five years (discounting 1995), or that he's now tied with Lou Gehrig as the Yankees all-time hits leader, but that he's done it all in a simple way: team first. Always, always, team first.

During Spring Training, Jeter was asked if he'd consider batting leadoff instead of batting second, to reduce the chances of him hitting into a double play. Jeter has the pull and the clout that he could have said no, and it would have gone unchallenged, but that's not who Jeter is. Jeter agreed, and now not only is 2009 a great year for him, but it's also been a great year for the guy with whom he switched places--Johnny Damon.

If ever the Yankee ghosts and the baseball gods have blessed someone, they've blessed Derek Jeter, and they've blessed all of us who have had the ability to watch him for these fourteen years.

It strikes me that Jeter should be tying a mark set by Lou Gehrig, because in many ways the two are similar: they play(ed) with grace and with class, role models in every sense of the word.

Gehrig and Jeter will likely have the two most well-known speeches in Yankees' history--Gehrig's already is, and Jeter's, given at the end of last season, will be made more with the passage of time. There aren't any other two Yankees you would want to give such speeches.


My nephew's much too young to understand all this--he's only four months--but when he's old enough, I'll take him to a Yankee game, and if his father hasn't already, I'll tell him to be like Jeter. To put one's team first. To play hard, even if you don't play well. To behave with dignity and class.

That's just the Jeter way.