I grew up rooting for Derek Jeter.
Living in New York, I didn’t have much of a choice. But even had I not grown up amid Yankees fans, I like to think I still would have cheered for such a player who embodied the highest personal and professional character in modern sports. Over the years, I watched Derek Jeter don the pinstripes and trot out toward the left side of the Yankee infield. I saw how he dug into the batter’s box before launching another single to right field. How he ran out every ground ball. His jump-throw to first. But what impressed me the most was how seriously he took his job; how he worked on the little details to improve; how important it was that he acted as a leader on and off the field. It wasn’t long before he began captivating audiences during the Yankees’ remarkable late-90s postseason successes. He was a winner; he was a Yankee. But most importantly, he became one of the most important faces for Major League Baseball. In an era rocked by performance-enhancing drugs, Derek Jeter’s character epitomized the way that our national pastime was meant to be played. He said all the right things. He worked hard and never took anything for granted. He was a role model for the thousands of kids who fight over wearing number 2 on their Little League jerseys.
The Yankee lineup changed; players arrived and left, but something remained the same: Derek Jeter. The same Jeter was the starting shortstop and batted second in the lineup. The Yankees were Derek Jeter’s team. In the eyes of many, he took the field every year as the same young athlete with enough talent to be the best and a work ethic that would never settle for anything less. I remember sharing the shock of a nation that read the headlines stating Derek Jeter’s retirement at the end of the 2014 season. We never expected that day to come, and yet arrive so soon. Other players would retire, but not Jeter. He was supposed play baseball forever, to lead the Yankees to more wins and more championships, to become the all-time leader in base hits. He wasn’t supposed to get old. He wasn’t supposed to leave. Without him in the lineup, the Yankees would feel incomplete; baseball would feel incomplete.
But that’s not how these stories go. Every long journey reaches the end. And while few people can dictate what that end is, Derek Jeter has decided that the end will arrive sooner than most fans would like. No doubt the previous injury-filled season affected his decision. A player who prides himself on showing up to work and improve everyday wants to play in more than just 17 games in 2013. And while fans just want to see him play baseball, Jeter has publicly stated some of his off-the-field goals, which I’m sure he will approach with the same diligence and preparation that he brought to every ballgame.
Now Derek Jeter has chosen to go out on his own terms, which for him, means chasing one last World Series title that would put the final exclamation point on a legendary career. 5 World Championships, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 Silver Sluggers, 3300 hits, and more “Did you see that?” moments than we can count on both hands. I’ll admit that I’m selfish. I wanted him to accomplish more, because I know he deserves it. If the ball bounces a different way, he might have 7 or 8 rings. Had it not been for a dislocated shoulder and fractured ankle (the only major injuries of his career), he would have been within striking distance of 4000 hits. He will likely retire without a league MVP or a batting title, but multiple seasons have a strong case for either award. I figure a player of his caliber deserves a career that would unquestionably be considered one of the greatest of all time. If ever a player deserved to end his career with a championship, it is Derek Jeter. This last season will be his awaited victory lap, when players and fans around the country will salute a true ambassador of baseball. He will meet fans who have cheered for him during his entire career. He will probably have to sign a few more autographs and pose for a few more pictures. And he should enjoy the ride. He deserves to hear how much we appreciate all he has accomplished and contributed to baseball. But don’t expect his personal reflection and farewell to diminish his zeal for another championship. As we remember how his storied career began with his first ring in 1996, we know he wants to end it the same way. He doesn’t have to say it, but we all know how hard he will work to bring home the Yankees’ 28th championship. Because that is what the kid from Kalamazoo always wanted: to play for the Yankees and to win as a Yankee. Derek Jeter has always allowed his actions to speak louder than his words. For that matter, don’t expect the Captain’s final curtain call to end quietly. AN