As the World Series comes to an end, and with it another post-season, there was one noticeable absence: Yankee shortstop, Derek Jeter.
During the last two decades, Jeter, the Yankee captain, has been a constant, larger-than-life presence in the playoffs and World Series, thrilling fans everywhere. But not this year. The usually proficient New York Yankees failed to even qualify for the playoffs, let alone the World Series, making the 2014 seasonJeter’s lastespecially poignant.
When Jeter played in his final games in September, Gatorade released a commercial dedicated to his storied twenty-year career. Filmed in black and white, it shows images of Jeter greeting wildly enthusiastic fans outside of Yankee Stadium; paying his respects to previous Yankee greats, at Monument Park; and finally taking the field in uniform himselfall to the tune of Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Way.”
For almost any other athlete, it would have been seen as a romanticized, over the top gesture, but not in Derek Jeter’s case. Instead, it was received as a well-deserved tribute to one athlete’s extraordinary career.
It is not that Derek Jeter’s life as a high-profile superstar has been perfectas he would be the first to acknowledgebut he never did anything to bring dishonor to his profession. His name has never been associated with performance enhancing drugs. He never showed up the opposition, or his teammates. He never charged the mound, began a fight, made an offensive gesture, or got himself thrown out of a baseball gameeven oncedespite playing in 2,747 of them.
With a .310 lifetime career batting average, and 3,465 hits6th on the all-time listJeter is a sure-fire Hall of Famer. But Jeter’s standing as a baseball icon goes far beyond statistics, impressive as they are. His approach to baseball has often reflected life’s many challenges, and affected people in a special way.
Among the many qualities which have endeared Jeter to his fans, several stand out.
The first is his close relationship with his family. From his earliest days as a ballplayer, to his final game as a Major Leaguer, Dorothy and Charles Jeter have been there to support their son. Derek has always praised his parents as a source of strength and wisdom, and made it a point to include his sister, Sharlee, as well. Jeter’s family bonds became so well known that camera crews often showed images of his parents and sister cheering Derek on. Fansespecially those with children involved in sportsidentified with them, and became part of Jeter’s extended baseball family.
Secondly, just as his parents inspired Derek, so too, has he served as a role model for youth. Soon after winning Rookie of the Year in 1996, Jeter and his father started the Turn 2 Foundation, dedicated to steering youth away from alcohol and drugs, and rewarding those who achieve academic excellence. Though famously reserved, Jeter has never been shy about talking and being photographed with his youngest fans, offering them autographs, encouraging their aspirations, or even joshing with them in the on-deck circle.
In a moving personal homage to Jeter, student Kayla Lombardo, now a star athlete for Fordham’s softball team, describes her early enthusiasm for the Yankee captain, how she finally met him, and the impact he has had on her life:
While the constant reminders of Derek’s greatness on television, in the papers, and on social media, make parting with my hero like losing a loved one, what gives me solace is knowing that his impact is not ephemeral on my life, or in the lives of millions of other fans.
He will live on forever in my mind and heart, not as much for what he did in between the white lines, but for what he unknowingly and unintentionally did for my soul; he invigorated my young spirit at a time when circumstances were bleak; and he ignited a competitive fire that has taken me to incredible heights and places . . . on the softball field and off it.
Third among Jeter’s gifts, was his tremendous grace under pressure. During the regular season, Jeter played like the fourteen-time all star he wasat one point, even diving into the stands to catch a tailing fly ball, nearly shattering his teeth. But it was in the post-season that he took his game to another level. The more importance attached to a game, the more brilliant Jeter performed. In sixteen post-seasons, he batted .308, and had more hits, runs scored and total bases than anyone who ever played. He batted .321 in his seven World Series, and helped the Yankees win five championships. Jeter’s uncanny ability to be his best when it counted most was his greatest assetand a lesson in how we should all strive to perform in our most challenging moments.
Since the time he was a rookie, Jeter also exuded a quality rare among young athletes: maturity. He was a throwback to an earlier erawhen the grass was real, and the game more traditionaldemonstrated by his legendary work ethic, courtesy toward reporters, and passion to succeed. Others may have had more talent, but no one had more class on the diamond, practiced harder, or burned more to win.
Off the field, Jeter has not led an uneventful lifeas the celebrity columnists are quick to remind us. But in an age of social media, Jeter has managed to keep his personal life largely private. More important, he told the New York Times that he is Catholic, recently revealed he always prays, and now talks about marrying and starting a family. In retirement, the process of maturity continues.
With his quiet demeanor and athletic grace, Derek Jeter has been called the Joe DiMaggio of our generation. He was, as Joseph Bottum maintains in his elegant Kindle essay on Jeter, genuinely important for baseball as well as our sports-oriented culture. Whether anyone sings a popular song about his mystiqueas Simon and Garfunkel did for DiMaggiois yet to be seen. But Derek Jeter’s standingboth as a baseball player, and human beingis secure among his legion of followers. His is a legacy that will endure.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.