This article might be swallowed up like Jose Pirela’s single that made Derek Jeter’s magical moment possible. But as a lover of the Pinstripes, Derek Jeter since the age of eight and true emotional sap, this is a pouring of emotions and thanks for the last 20 years of Derek Jeter memories.
As I drive to work in a torrential downpour on a rare grey morning in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida, it seemed as if the skies reflected my internal feeling the morning after the “inside-out goodbye.” The magnitude of these past few weeks, and the realization that I’ll never see my favorite player play in a meaning full game again, never really sunk in. I guess that’s what happens when life overtakes you. The 2014 season as been one of my least engaged as a baseball fan and one of the most hectic for me personally.
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In 2014, I’ve rekindled a relationship with one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, packed my belongings in my Honda Civic and drove from New Jersey to Florida in a day, switched jobs, moved apartments, visited five new states in the Midwest and South, buried two childhood animals that were more family than pet, found out my dad, Dennis, has prostate cancer, adopted a dog from a shelter and had a beer at Moe’s Tavern in Universal Orlando. I think you can see how life can get sometimes overtake even one of your most passionate enjoyments.
But the 24 hours, even after all that has happened, belongs in that chaotic paragraph above. Jeter is tied to my love of baseball. No, he wasn’t the signature in my first glove — Bo Jackson was –and no he wasn’t the reason I started watching the sport — my sports obsessed family was — but he was the reason I loved baseball so much. Being from New Jersey, there’s this pride in those who succeed; it’s like that all over, but the fervor seems to be more rampant and aggressive. Mike Trout is the latest example. Trout grew up in the town next to mine, and I would bet a fastball between the numbers that 90 percent of the people in the two towns can conjure some connection to him, myself included. I went to school with his cousins. I don’t know Trout, I watched him on television as he got drafted (one pick before the Yankees, d’oh!) and he actually went, which was cool. Other than knowing he comes from a great family, I don’t know the guy. However, there’s a sense that everyone does. Everyone has some story with Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi, it’s that sense that it’s us versus the world. Jeter, although a Kalamazoo product in his high school years, has Pequannock listed as his birthplace. The broadcasters trotted out the same picture year after year as a kid with his Yankees hat on, and we ate it up.
I remember in 1996 in the series against the Orioles how I became enamored with Jeter’s play. This moment is one of my most treasured of the Jeter era because it was the first. I hold it dear like a hipster holds discovering a band dearly.
I was sitting in my living room watching the game with my dad when my mom walked in after I screamed, “safe!” Jeter had just stole second base and my mom, puzzled by the chyron displaying his name, said, “who is Derek Jet-er?” That’s the most offensive thing nine-year-old me could have heard. “Mom, that’s Derek Jeet-er. He’s 21 and he plays shortstop like me!” That’s probably the last time Jeter did anything like me. But in my mind, he was peer, a player to look up to and model my game after. He wasn’t like the mustachioed Wade Boggs or the stirupped Jimmy Key. He looked young, smiled and always ended the game with a dirty jersey, like I did in dirty jersey.
That moment seems like it was just yesterday, something I always think about, even though it was 18 years ago. Mind-blowing. As I sat in my apartment Thursday night, I got several texts from my dad as I watched on the MLB app. My phone may only be 5’’ x 2’’, it felt like I was sitting in the stands. From there, the moments kept flowing through my memory in random fashion. My first game at Old Yankee Stadium crossed my mind. It was a rainy night during my first week of sixth grade. Oakland was in town and the game was delayed an hour or two. We stayed. I had to see Jeter. I wore my All-Star Game hat with number two embroidered in the mountain logo from the game in Colorado.
I didn’t need ESPN Radio, SportsCenter, Sports Talk Radio or any other possible outlet to play the Jeter highlights, it was much appreciated, but nostalgia was flowing through me as I fought tears flowing out. To hear Jeter’s words and see the stoic shortstop flash anything other than his trademark smile was emotional, shocking, thrilling and ultra-sincere. To see his family was just surreal as they have received face-time in all his big moments. And like a scene jump in a time travel movie, I was back in 1998 watching them beat the Padres, then 2000 against the Mets. I feel the moments as Yankee Stadium chanted for Paul O’Neill and Jeter earned his Mr. November nickname. A name I wish I forgot was associated with losing that series. I remember watching the Yankees lose in 2003 to the Marlins while my friends, all Phillies fans, laughed. I was throwing a Halloween party and sat alone for awhile to recover after they lost to a young, talented Marlins club. Mix in the dive into the stands, the numerous jump-throws, the gorgeous and graceful charging grounds with a throw on the run. The Flip in Oakland, a moment seared into my memory because I did everything to stay awake for that, entering the 3,000 hit club with a homer. All those moments I watched live, but never in person. But, if I’m ranking my Jeter moments, my most treasured above all.
My dad, Dennis, and I went to game one of the 2009 World Series. Dennis is a Phillies fan, and we know where I stand. We got tickets off eBay for the 200 level in left field on my mom’s birthday. She wasn’t that thrilled, but she never gave us grief. She’s always been really cool as a semi-interested sports fan. I was surprised by a limo, and we took the two and a half hour trek to the Bronx. It was an amazing night, despite the loss. We ate, we drank and laughed. It was special moment to share with a special person who is a true fan. More than anything else, what I remember of that night — besides Jay-Z not performing like he was supposed to — was Dennis’ words about Jeter, ones he repeats all the time, “of course he’s going to get a f—ing hit.” It didn’t matter when it was, where it was, but you could always expect Jeter to get a hit. Dennis, some years back, had a seizure due to exhaustion while watching the Yankees-Red Sox alone one night. He never again has watched them play alone, but he’s always repeated that sentence whenever I’m home to watch a game. I think he believes Jeter hit .750 for his career because, like he did in game one of the 2009 World Series, he went 3-for-4 every time he watched a Yankees game. As I thought about that moment, I began getting choked up in the realization there might not be anymore moments like that. In sports, there are no guarantees, there’s no absolute clutch; however, when Jeter is up, the feeling is surreal. He is Joe Montana, never the most talented or brash, he’s just a winner.
That’s when my biological dad, Eddie, a Bronx native, began texting me. The texts ranged from informative to reactive. It’s weird being 1,500 miles away chatting like schoolgirls. It’s his love, as a Bronx native, born in the ’70s, that paved the way for me some years later. Eddie’s love affair with the Bombers began in the ’70s when Ron Guidry was the signature in his glove. Eddie lived through the struggles of the ’80s and never saw his favorite Yankee, Don Mattingly, win a championship. Eddie’s fanaticism never wavered. He brought me into the glory years of ’90s and early 2000s, despite one of my earliest memories being of the Wild Card series against the Mariners. I hated Jack McDowell and Joey Cora more than my arch nemesis, the Crypt Keeper. I couldn’t comprehend Cora hitting a homer in that game (which happened to be one of 31 career homers) and I cried hysterically when McDowell gave up the hit that iconically ended the game.
Sidenote: do you remember that year when he flipped off the crowd? That made eight-year-old me laugh. I just found out that you can get that moment signed by Black Jack himself online. The 27-year-old me cackled (Christmas present hint, mom).
As Eddie’s text went from three sentences to two, Jeter’s final at-bat approached. Eddie’s text dwindled to just one over the next hour, “wow.” And that’s all that needed to be said. The baseball gods shined bright on its model citizen. Three separate decades of life, generations bridged, championships won, controversies avoided, stats accumulated, legendary status cemented, hearts forever empty, yeah Jeets.