How time plays tricks on us all, eh?
After all, it seems like only yesterday when a skinny, 20-year-old shortstop from Kalamazoo, Mich., named Derek Sanderson Jeter debuted with the Yankees, on May 29, 1995.
The following year, he hit a home run on Opening Day versus Cleveland (“All right Derek,” announcer and Hall of Fame Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto saluted him) and the kid was on his way. It may or may not be a coincidence that the Yankees went on to win their first World Series championship that season in 18 years. With Jeter making memorable play after play, the Bronx Bombers then captured three straight titles, from 1998 to 2000.
We remember Jeter’s spectacular career with gratitude and nostalgia as he goes into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sept. 8. In his first year of eligibility, in 2020, he received 396 of 397 votes for induction. Who did not vote for a five-time champion, a lifetime Yankee, the team captain, the franchise’s all-time leader in games played (2,747), doubles (544) hits (3,465) and many other categories of distinction? Must’ve been a member in good standing of the Flat Earth Society!
When Jeter was celebrated as Sports Illustrated’s top athlete of 2009, I encountered Charles Jeter, Derek’s father, at the party. I told Mr. Jeter that I had followed his son’s career since day one and was just as impressed with the professional and dignified way that Derek had always carried himself as with his remarkable success on the diamond.
Charles Jeter smiled knowingly. “That means a lot to me,” he said.
Style and SubstanceBut those glittering numbers hardly tell the whole Derek Jeter story of his greatness, of the style and substance.
Oh, how we miss how No. 2 stood at shortstop day after day and made all of the plays – including more than his share of extraordinary ones – and smack his two or three hits a game, flash his patented inside-out right-handed swing, and cock his clenched fist upward after yet another Yankee victory.
We all have our special memories of how he made a difference in adding to the Yankee glory during his two decades on the team. Take your pick.
The Flip: Of course, we can’t forget the backward flip: With the Yankees trailing Oakland two games to none in game three of a best-of-five series in 2001, Jeter somehow had the presence of mind to back up the play and flip outfielder Shane Spencer’s errant throw beyond the cutoff man to catcher Jorge Posada. Posada then coolly applied the tag to an astonished baserunner, Jeremy Giambi (I still wonder, 20 years later, why he didn’t choose to slide into home plate.).
Mister November: Then there was his walk-off home run in game four of the 2001 World Series, against Arizona, at the stroke of midnight, as the calendar turned to November 1. His blow evened the series at two games apiece.
Mister Reliable: When Jeter restored order in game 5 of the 2000 World Series against the Mets. The Yankees, going for the sweep, had lost game four. Jeter led off game five at a noisy Shea Stadium with a home run -- and the Yankees soon won the Subway Series.
The Dive: Remember, on July 1, 2004, against the hated Red Sox, when Jeter sprinted after a pop foul past third base and dived headfirst into the stands to catch the ball? My favorite moment then was the astonished look on Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez after Jeter emerged with the out, his face bloodied.
Mister 3,000: On July 9, 2011, Jeter stylishly got career hit 3,000 off Tampa starter David Price by hitting a home run in Yankee Stadium. By the way, Jeter went five for five that day.
My Way: In his final home game, in September 2014, Jeter singled in the winning run against Baltimore, giving the fans one last thrill.
Missing JeterLet’s not lose our grip on reality. As Jerry Seinfeld likes to say, fans root for the laundry – the favorite team’s uniform – more than any player.
Sure, New York Yankees have thrived since Jeter retired. The team has made the playoffs in every recent season. It is charging toward yet another playoff appearance. There are new stars, such as Aaron Judge.
But I unabashedly miss Jeter. He is a generational player. We’ll never see his like again. His appeal transcends the sport for true believers. Even though he is happily ensconced now in Miami, as an owner of the lackluster Marlins, he will always belong to the Bronx faithful.
When he is inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., you can expect to hear the familiar call that was made popular over the years by the Yankees’ clamorous Bleacher Creatures: DE-REK JEEE-TER. DE-REK JEEEE-TER!
I can hear it already. And I’m very happy to turn the clock back.