Friday, February 14, 2014

Derek Jeter Lived a Dream, and Never Disappointed

By Tyler Kepner
February 12. 2014

The greatest compliment we can give Derek Jeter, 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

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

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 rightplayer 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

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 remaina 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.”

Image: Gregory Heisler, SI

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