Jeter state of mind
Savor the last season of the incomparable Yankees shortstop
To Derek Jeter's kids (whenever you come along):
You were born too late to know your father the way we did, so I want to take just a minute to let you know what he meant to us.
He was a kind of prince in baseball cleats, George Clooney in pinstripes, the guy every woman wanted to bring home to mom, and very few did. He was humble and handsome and yet hard to hate.
He was like a good magician. You could never figure out how he did it. He was the best player in baseball for a good 10 years straight and yet he never won a batting title, never won an MVP, never was the highest-paid player in the game. The only thing he did better than anybody else was excel: five rings, 13 All-Star games, the greatest New York Yankee since Mickey Mantle. He spoke to the media every day, yet managed to say nothing. He dated the most traffic-stopping women, yet never seemed to wind up on Page Six or TMZ or "Extra."
He never showed up in the clubhouse with a black eye to explain, a headline to deny or a photo to justify.
"He could sense trouble coming," said his best friend, former teammate and retired catcher Jorge Posada. "We'd be at a restaurant. He'd say, 'That guy in the blue shirt. He's going to come over here and ask for an autograph.' And sure enough, 15 seconds later, the guy would be standing at our table."
And he'd always sign. And look them in the eye. He got that from his parents, of course, your grandparents, Charles and Dorothy, who made him sign a contract every year promising to behave. You could swear he kept signing that contract every year he played.
How he was loved! In a league full of bloated steroid cheats, he kept the same body, the same weight, the same helmet size. In a game full of bat-flipping prima donnas, he ran out every ground ball, hard. In a world of my-agent-doesn't-want-me-to-play multimillionaires, he played hurt more than we know. "Most of the time, he wasn't 100 percent," Posada said. "He'd come out of spring training and tell me, 'I'm already hurting,' but he wouldn't tell anybody else. He just kept going."
Your father was everything men wanted to be. The guy with the $15 million Trump Tower penthouse. The dude dating Miss Universe. The man with all of the talent and none of the jerk. He was everything women wanted, too. The elegant athlete who loved books, paid for everything, and had a limo waiting for them when it was time to go.
The stat-heads scoffed at him, but then the stat-heads never figured out a way to measure the things he did. Some guys would lean over the wall in foul territory to make a catch. Jeter would launch himself over it, sometimes two rows deep. He'd come out with a bruised face, a cut chin, and the ball.
Fourteen Yankees were captains, but none longer than your father, and that includes Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Your father was like a rooster's crow. You could always depend on him. The only way to make him mad was to give him the night off. "He hated to sit out," says 39-year Yankees trainer Gene Monahan. "He'd drive me crazy. 'What am I supposed to do all night?' he'd say. I'd go, 'I don't know. Go run some laps!' He'd just sit there hoping they'd pinch hit him in the seventh."
Oh, he had his faults. If you crossed him, even once, you were out forever. If he didn't get to the World Series, he would slip into a terrible funk. He could be a bit of a germ freak. He refused to use public bathrooms unless it was an emergency.
He had zero patience for excuse-makers. One time, in Chicago, when he was a rookie, he tried to steal third with two outs and the big slugger Cecil Fielder up. He got caught. What did he do? He went and sat next to his manager. "I knew I'd screwed up," he said. "I wanted him to be able to yell at me if he wanted."
Nobody had to yell at him much. He threw right, hit to right and did right. He began a foundation called Turn 2, which helps kids growing up in lousy situations, and he gave far more to it than money. One time, he showed up to watch a hapless Turn 2 Little League team. Not only hadn't they won a game, they hadn't even scored a run. When they finally scored one that game, he celebrated as though they'd all just landed on the moon.
King or cook, he cared about you. When Monahan was fighting throat and neck cancer, Jeter would text him instead of call him, because he knew talking hurt. "Get back here," he wrote. "We've got your spot right here waiting for you." Said Monahan: "That kept me going."
He had this way of making you feel you belonged. Before the first World Series game at Yankee Stadium after 9/11, President George W. Bush was to throw out the first pitch. Everybody was tense. Jeter walked up to Bush and said: "Throw from the mound or else they'll boo you."
He was hilarious, but he didn't want you to know it. In his final goodbye season of 2014, I asked, "Who would you cross the street to avoid?"
"You," he said.
More than anything, he cherished playing for his beloved New York. "It's like a Broadway play here every night," he said. "You never know what's going to happen, but you know it's going to be a thrill."
When his body just couldn't do it anymore, it was bittersweet. Nobody loved playing baseball more than your dad, but he was ready. "I'm going to finally see what Europe is like in the summer," he told me. "I've been on a schedule my whole life. The plan now is to have no plan."
After that, he said he was going to settle down and have a family, which was unthinkable. Derek Jeter settling down? It was like an eagle deciding to take the bus. Glad he did, though, because genes this good shouldn't be wasted.
If there was a better man in sports, I never met him. Your father was a gentleman. A charmer. A 1,000-point star. "He was the kind of guy you wanted to be next to," Posada said.
He was ours for 20 years, but he's yours now, and I just wanted you to know how lucky you are.
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