Derek Jeter Lived a Dream, and Never Disappointed
Derek Jeter in 2008 after breaking Lou Gehrig’s mark with his 1,270th hit at Yankee Stadium.
Barton Silverman/The New York Times
the greatest compliment we can give
, as he prepares to leave the grandest stage in baseball, is that he never let us down. He has made thousands of outs and hundreds of errors and finished most of his seasons without a championship. Yet he never disappointed us.
This is no small feat for the modern athlete, in an age of endless traps and temptations.
From cheating to preening to taunting — even to defensible acts, like fleeing to a new team in free agency — the hero, almost invariably, breaks our heart sometime. Not Jeter.
He grew up beside a baseball diamond in Kalamazoo, Mich., dreaming of playing shortstop for the Yankees, and that is what he has done. He has never played another position, never been anything but No. 2 for the Yankees. But this season, he announced Wednesday, will be his last.
“The one thing I always said to myself was that when baseball started to feel more like a job, it would be time to move forward,” Jeter said in a statement on Facebook, adding later: “I could not be more sure. I know it in my heart. The 2014 season will be my last year playing professional baseball.”
When Jeter played his first game at the old Yankee Stadium, on June 2, 1995, the announced crowd was 16,959. By 2008, when he closed the ballpark with a speech to the fans, the average attendance topped 53,000. For the Yankees, Jeter was the right player at the right time, a model of stability and the embodiment of their ideals.
Jeter has compiled 3,316 hits (10th on baseball’s career list), winning five championships while making more than $250 million in salary. But his impact has always been greater than his numbers.
When Jeter joined the organization, as a high schooler drafted sixth over all in 1992, the Yankees were enduring their fourth consecutive losing season, driven to disarray by the principal owner, George Steinbrenner, who was suspended at the time. Jeter would become a centerpiece of the Yankees’ rebuilding, and the team has had only winning records since, building a new stadium and launching a lucrative cable network in the process.
Jeter has had plenty of help, from homegrown stars like Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada to pricey imports like Mark Teixeira and C. C. Sabathia. But Jeter, the captain, has always been out front. When injuries limited him to 17 games last season, the Yankees lost attendance and ratings and fell in the standings.
“I’ve gone to Yankees games and I’ve asked kids outside the park, ‘Who are you going to go see?’ ” said Dick Groch, the scout who signed Jeter. “Nine out of 10 kids say, ‘Derek Jeter.’
“What a marquee player.”
Groch, who now works for the Milwaukee Brewers, continued: “Remember that word: marquee. Babe Ruth was marquee. The money Ruth brought to the Yankees was unbelievable, and Derek Jeter’s done the same thing. You could look at tons of statistics, but they’ll never show you that.”
Jeter is perhaps the most secure, self-confident player in baseball, a sharp contrast to the disgraced Alex Rodriguez, whose season-long suspension means that he will never again be teammates with Jeter. Groch said he noticed these traits while scouting Jeter, who smiled under pressure and showed the leadership skills of a chief executive.
His skills stood out, too, of course, and the inside-out swing that would rifle so many hits to right field intrigued Groch. Sometimes, if a hitter punches too many balls the opposite way, it means he cannot catch up to the fastball. Groch asked the young Jeter if he or the pitcher was dictating the action.
Jeter replied that it was his choice. He was using his ability to wait a split-second longer so he could react to more pitches. And when he got a letter-high fastball over the middle, Groch said, Jeter could still pull it over the left-field wall, the way he would for a pivotal homer in the 2000 World Series against the Mets, and for his 3,000th hit in 2011.
By then, Jeter was so accomplished that it was easy to forget his initial struggles, his 56 errors in Class A in 1993. His defense, especially his lack of range, would remain a flash point deep into his career, with many believing he was vastly overrated in the field. But he made himself reliable enough to stay at shortstop, and in 1994 he was the consensus minor league player of the year. He was on his way.
Jeter was the American League rookie of the year in 1996, when the Yankees won the World Series, and the glare never bothered him. He remains a bachelor who dates starlets, but his rules of engagement with the news media have worked because of his unrelenting consistency. He never answers questions about his personal life — ever — and so is rarely even asked.
No superstar in sports is more accessible than Jeter, who is available by his locker before and after almost every game, mainly to take pressure off teammates. Group interviews can play out like jousting matches, which Jeter always wins. He cannot be baited into saying something that will linger as a story. He does not raise his voice, rarely shows irritation and never goes off the record.
Jeter is often called boring, but that is not quite right. His reverence for Yankees history, and his place in it, is endearing. He insists on using a recording of the late Bob Sheppard, the public-address announcer whose career began the same day as Mickey Mantle’s, before his home at-bats.
At the old Stadium, Jeter dressed next to the empty locker of another captain, Thurman Munson, who was killed in a plane crash in 1979. When Phil Rizzuto, his long-ago predecessor at shortstop, died in 2007, Jeter revealed that Rizzuto’s autograph was the only one in his collection.
Jeter asked for just one artifact from the original Stadium: the overhead sign from the dugout runway with Joe DiMaggio’s famous quotation, thanking the Lord for making him a Yankee.
In his retirement statement on Wednesday, Jeter began by saying thank you.
By announcing his intention, Jeter all but ensures a farewell tour with gifts at each opposing ballpark, as Mariano Rivera experienced last season. Ceremony does not seem to be Jeter’s style, but he said he wanted to soak in his final moments, and who would deny him the privilege?
Last week, Groch sent an email to Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, a former minor leaguer he also signed years ago. Groch asked Close to give his regards to Jeter and his family, and added a plea about the captain’s exit.
“Don’t let him go out not playing shortstop,” Groch said he told Close. “Don’t let him go out playing left field or third base. Let him go out like Mo. Let him go out the way he deserves.”