Going on 20 years ago, in a rough batter’s box in suburban Los Angeles, my youngest reached out to tap the plate. The bat landed with a light thud. He raised his right arm, requesting a moment from an imaginary umpire.
We hadn’t ever talked about this. I hadn’t shown him videos or told him this is how the guy in New York does it. I was just throwing batting practice, hoping I didn’t hit this one in the neck. My oldest still had a welt.
My youngest brought his fists to his right ear, his elbow in line with his shoulder. The bat was too heavy. His wrists sagged. He was handling it, though, his teeth gritted. He torqued the bat head once forward, then again. He nodded. Good to go.
He was so earnest. So I let it be. Little dude’s been watching Jeter, I thought. Threw a pitch. Missed his neck. Hit his bat. Held up another baseball.
He went through the whole thing again.
Derek Jeter had more hits than Mays, batted for a higher average than Brett, played more games than Banks. He won five championships. He made hundreds of millions of dollars. He was one of those New York Yankees, with Ruth and DiMaggio and Gehrig and Berra and Mantle. Generational Yankees. Iconic Yankees. Big as the sport, almost. Thick and rooted as one of those monuments they’re always talking about.
And that was fine. Just fine. Good for him. He dated models. Landed a good post-career job. Was voted Tuesday into the Hall of Fame, where, at some point, they’ll talk about immortality, a funny topic for a bunch of paunchy old ballplayers on cholesterol meds who’ll stack their canes in the foyer and need glasses to read the program. But, fine. They were the greatest to ever play the game and they all started in some rough batter’s box somewhere, adopting a swing they saw, or on some pitted and weedy mound, replicating a leg kick that romanced them.
It’s what echoes today. That it started so purely, with a sign-up sheet and some silly vision no one could see, time granted by a metal post holding up a chain-link backstop. Maybe it ends in a week or a year or five or the best part of a lifetime, and maybe the best catch you ever made was witnessed only by your dad or by everyone who ever knew your name, and maybe the two arenas aren’t all that different.
Derek Jeter arrived in the major leagues in May 1995 as the game’s third-youngest player. He left in September 2014 as its fourth oldest. In between, he was a mostly grown-up version of the wispy and angular kid from Kalamazoo who seemed born to ride a slider into right field.
Now he’s 45, wears a suit a lot and runs a franchise that could not be more different than the Yankees. He’s married, has two daughters and a dog named Kane. He probably has to pay attention to his cholesterol.
What I remember, other than throwing him batting practice that day, is that all his days looked the same. Sometimes he wore pinstripes and others he wore gray, but beyond that he showed up the same, played the same, went home the same. He’d lead the league in hits or plate appearances and bat somewhere in the .300s and pretty much rake in October — across two decades he played the equivalent of an entire extra season in October — and the next day or night or season simply start over.
His finest moments — team championships, mostly, and his part in them — fall so readily into that construct. At his best, he was part of this machine known as the Yankees. It was said more than once he was in the right place at the right time, that being the Bronx while the Yankees were great or better, over two decades in which they endured all of three dark Octobers. They, too, were in the right place at the right time, however, that being Jeter’s place and Jeter’s time, what he required and what he made routine, and what he chased and who followed. They all followed.
In the end, he is a Hall of Famer because the raw numbers say so. He was a forever All-Star. He amassed 3,465 hits, 3,665 including the postseason. He hit .310. He was eight times in the top 10 of the American League MVP vote. He was a good enough shortstop to be a shortstop. He had the old stats and the new stats and the eye tests.
And so he was the best player in every arena he ever played in or conducted himself as if that might be true, which is the game, right? That way, maybe, at the end, he would be. He’d lace up a pair of high tops and knot ‘em a few times, pick up a navy helmet by its ear flap, tap the plate with a thud, hold up his right hand.
The same. Every day the same. So, in the end, he’d stand not just among the best who ever played, but as the guy in just about every rough batter’s box on every patch of grass that might’ve passed for a ballpark. Sometimes, you make your own arena and it is gloriously perfect. Sometimes it really is Yankee Stadium.
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