More Than Just the Number

“Now batting…for the Yankees…Number 2…Derek Jeter…Number 2.”

For 20 years, Bob Sheppard’s voice graced Yankee Stadium, old and new, with these eleven words.  Even though he had died four years before Derek Jeter hit a walk-off single in his final at bat in his final home game, Jeter was announced by the centenarian every time he took his first home at bat of the game.  This is who Derek Jeter was, and is, as a man: someone who respected the integrity of the game and the names that came before him.  He wanted the “Voice of God” to announce him because it would not have been the same, or right, to be announced by anyone else.  It was a small token of appreciation for what Sheppard had done for more than 50 years of his life, and this is my small token of appreciation for what Derek Jeter has done not just for me personally, but for The Bronx, New York, for 20 years of his life. 

When Derek Jeter first stepped out onto the diamond in 1995, sporting the jet-black “2” on his jersey, I was 2 years old.  Looking at Jeter back then, he looked so thin that it seemed a stiff breeze would knock him over.  And for 13 games in 1995, he seemed like just that.  So much so, that when Joe Torre announced Jeter would be the 1996 starting shortstop, George Steinbrenner approved a trade with the Mariners for SS Felix Fermin…a trade that he was thankfully talked out of, because the Yankees would have sent Mariano Rivera to Seattle in exchange, and The Bronx would never have been graced with the Core 4 of Jeter, Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada.  Torre’s only hope was that Jeter would bat .250 and be reliable at short in his first year.  In Jeter’s 1st game of 1996, he hit his 1st home run, something that, looking back, is very Jeter-esque.  Before the season started, Jeter was the 6th highest ranked prospect in baseball; when the season ended, the Yankees had won their 24th World Series and Derek Jeter, behind a .314 batting average, 104 runs scored, 10 home runs, and 78 RBIs, became the 5th person to unanimously win the AL Rookie of the Year.

The next year, he slumped with his worst batting average until 2010, hitting a paltry .291, and losing to the Orel Hershiser-led Cleveland Indians in 5 games in the ALDS.  Of course, over the next 4 seasons, the Yankees would win 4 ALCS pennants and 3 consecutive World Series titles from 1998-2000.  In 2000, Jeter became the only person to win the All-Star Game MVP and World Series MVP in the same year.  Then in 2009, Jeter finally got a ring for each finger on his hand, defeating the defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in 6 games.  By the time he retired in 2014, DJ amassed the following: most hits by a Yankee (3,465), 3,465 hits (6th most in history), 544 doubles (32nd), 260 home runs, .310 batting average, 1,923 runs scored (11th), 12,602 plate appearances (10th), 11,195 at-bats (7th), 95.5 WAR (wins above replacement, 20th), 5 silver slugger awards, 5 golden glove awards, 14 All-Star games, and the 11th Greatest World Leader in 2014.  The numbers don’t end there; in the postseason, he set the following records: most games (158), most plate appearances (734), most at-bats (650), most total bases (302), most hits (200), most singles (143), most doubles (32), most triples (5), and most runs scored (111).  He is also 3rd in home runs (20), 4th in RBIs (61), 5th in walks (66), and 6th in stolen bases (18), and has a career .309 batting average in the postseason, with a .321 batting average in the World Series.  He was the 13th captain of the New York Yankees, and deservedly so.

That’s a lot of stats right there.  They all speak to the universal truth that Derek Jeter was one of the greatest to play the game.  That said, to imply that this is a story all about the numbers, while true, does not do justice to the emotional impact Derek had on all of us, or to his leadership.  This is a man that looked scrawny from the moment he stepped onto the field, and when he stepped off, looked almost the same in size and stature.  20 years aged him and made him wise beyond those 20, but to the fans, he was and is this kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who we watched grow up and mature into a man we all felt we knew.  He stood tall in the most high pressure moments of his career, from winning 4 World Series titles, an All-Star MVP, and a World Series MVP all before he was 30, to his signature running-leaping throw, to “The Flip” against the Athletics in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, to flying into the stands against the Red Sox in 2004.  This is a man we watched get beaten up by the sport on multiple occasions because in those moments, he thought of nothing but playing the sport.  His body was on the line for every pop-up that required such agility as the one when he collided with Cano behind second base, for no other reason than love and respect of the game.  It was this passion for the game that resounded with his fans, so much so that the man who caught the home run that was his 3,000th hit gave it to Derek without asking for anything in return.

His constant respect towards his opponents, however, will go down in legend.  He never entered the public eye for the wrong reasons; even when the media tried to play the rivalry between Alex Rodriguez and himself to a fever pitch, both before and after they played together, he remained calm and quiet about anything happening behind closed doors.  Sure, he had his opinions of other teams…coughcoughBostoncoughcough, but who didn’t?  He remained loyal to the spirit of the game and never defamed anyone for any reason.  He played with passion like none other, but never let that passion control his emotions, only getting involved in brawls to break them up.  He never asked for anything from anyone other than fierce competition, and that’s all he ever gave on the field.  But it’s not just about the respect he gave the game, the opponents, the teammates, and the fans; it’s about the respect he commanded from all of them in return.  How else do you explain the standing ovations at Fenway Park in his final season, the tributes given to Derek in each park the Yankees visited in 2014, and the Red Sox and Mets players who appeared in his 2014 “Re2pect” commercial?

He earned our admiration by being more than a baseball player.  He was that scrawny kid, yes, but that was what made him the best.  He appealed to kids because he was one himself when he started and when he became a household name.  He appealed to adults because he embodied everything a man should: kindness, fairness, toughness.  He was an example of fundamentals unlike anyone else in the game: keep your damn eye on that ball and then hit it; watch the damn ball go into your glove; point your feet where you’re going to throw that damn ball.  His signature inside-out swing, his jump-throws, his flips…all things that practiced what his coaches preached.

Growing up in The Bronx, watching Derek Jeter and wanting to be him, he holds a special place in my heart and mind.  We wore their stripes with pride, their caps with honor, and his number with respect.  “Don’t touch my Yankees hat” was a frequent war cry of the playground whenever a jealous Mets fan came too close with grubby hands.  He literally could have been any of us, and any of us could be him.  I watched in awe as he passed Lou Gehrig on the Yankees’ all-time hit list, as he won a 5th title, and cheered in the stands the day he became the first Yankee to surpass 3,000 hits.  The Kalamazoo kid gave us small town, forgotten residents of The Bronx the hope that we could do something and be someone great someday.  He made the Yankees our “national” emblem.  Now, his number is going to be retired, and he will be immortalized in Yankee history in their Memorial Park.  But it’s just a formality; the ceremony is just another small token of our appreciation.  His number and name have been etched in our hearts for over 20 years, and will stay there forever.

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