Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Yankees Moment

I’m a big New York Yankees fan. Like so many others, Derek Jeter is my favorite current player. I met him once, a few years into his major league career, when he appeared at the opening of NikeTown in New York. He shared the stage with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, as I recall. What I remember is that he was a lot taller than I expected. He’s 6’3”.

Jeter’s my favorite current player. Perhaps my favorite all-time player, and that’s saying something as I’ve been following the Yankees since the mid-1950s. I’m judging Jeter against the likes of Mantle, Ford, Berra, Howard, Kubek, Richardson, Munson, White, Mattingly, Williams, Rivera and Posada. (I really find it hard to lump rent-a-players like Jackson, Hunter, Mussina, A-Rod, Giambi, Clemens and Matsui with those other Yankees, despite their significant contributions to the team’s heritage, though I will admit to liking Giambi the most of that group because of his frailty, both physically and emotionally.)

Watching Jeter year-in, year-out brings joy to any true baseball fan. Sure he’s had a full reel of highlights. But it’s the everyday work ethic and performance that impresses me.

During the early Joe Torre years it seemed whenever we needed a late score, if Jeter led off an inning he ignited a rally. Because he was not a home run hitter, or exceptionally fast, or had the best arm or range at shortstop, Jeter made you feel comfortable, made you feel that you too could do his job if only you had dedicated your life to his career choice, to baseball. But then he’d corral a pop up into short left field with an over the shoulder, back to the infield catch and you’d say, “I couldn’t do that.” or he’d glide into the hole and do one of his now patented jump throws to first, and you’d say, “I couldn’t do that.” or he’d hit a home run when you least expected it, as he did to become Mr. November in the Series against Arizona in 2001, and you’d say, “I couldn’t do that, not under the pressure, the constant pressure, he’s under.”

Jeter tied Lou Gehrig’s Yankee career hit record on September 9, exactly one year to the day after passing Babe Ruth for second place on the Yankee hit parade. He broke Gehrig’s record for most hits on September 11.

For many New Yorkers he turned a day of eternal mourning into a day of celebration. Like all great performers, Jeter has an impeccable sense of timing.