It was July 1996, Derek Jeter’s first full season as the shortstop of the New York Yankees. I was watching the Yanks play the Orioles at Camden Yards when Jeter came to bat in the eighth inning of a tie game against the Orioles’ ace, Mike Mussina. After two quick strikes, I turned to my wife and said sagely, “He’s a rookie. He’s no match for Mussina.” Jeter promptly propelled the next pitch into the left field bleachers for a game-winning homer.
In this deftly told biography of Jeter, Ian O’Connor mentions that hit as “the shot heard ’round the American League East,” a key moment in the Yankees’ drive toward their first World Series championship in 18 years. I’ve been watching Jeter work his magic ever since. He told his fourth-grade class that he intended to play shortstop for the Yankees, and as he turned 37 this season, his record spoke for itself: almost 3,000 hits, five World Series rings, a certain spot in the Hall of Fame.
And he did it without a hint of scandal or steroids. O’Connor calls him “the most respected and beloved figure in the game,” and he leads the league in product endorsements. “He also won the title of patron saint of clean players in an era defined by performance-enhancing drugs.” As a rookie, he started the Turn 2 Foundation, aimed at keeping kids away from drugs and alcohol (his father is a substance abuse counselor), and it’s given away more than $11 million. No wonder rivals admire his personal values as much as his professional skills. Jim Leyland, who manages the Detroit Tigers, made a typical comment: “Every man would like to have a son like that. Every guy would like to have somebody like that marry his daughter.”
Jeter has his flaws, of course, and one’s a very thin skin. A teammate who dared to criticize The Captain for avoiding an on-field brawl “was dead to Jeter, and there was no resurrection on the schedule.” He held a damaging grudge for years against Alex Rodriguez, a great player but an “insecure wreck” of a human, for knocking him in a magazine interview. And Jeter puts up “impenetrable walls” around his private world. “If you knock on his door,” says Michael Kay, the Yankees’ TV broadcaster, “he’ll talk to you for four or five hours through the screen, but you’ll never get invited in.”
This book has flaws, too, and one is overstatement. The new Yankee Stadium is not a “monstrosity,” and even at the height of the steroid era, baseball was not “reduced to a battle of pharmacology,” since most stars — Jeter chief among them — never juiced up their bodies or records. O’Connor (a New York columnist and radio host) seems very worried about what Jeter will think of him, and this book could use an occasional helping of skepticism.
Still, some heroes are worth worshiping. In fact, we need more of them. And we’re going to miss Jeter. He went from being “a young thirty-five to an old thirty-six,” and his struggles over the past two seasons have been painful to watch. But even as he strikes out swinging or muffs a grounder up the middle, he always hustles, he always cares, and he always keeps his balance. “Ah man,” he told a teammate during a tense playoff moment, “we’re just playing a game.” Perhaps for that reason, Jeter has always understood that the fans are as important as the players. Whom you sit next to in the stands is as meaningful as whom you watch on the field. And Jeter had good models. Over the years, Yankees loyalists have grown used to TV shots of his parents (a mixed-race couple who met in the Army) cheering him on.
After watching, Jeter hit that home run in July, I returned to Camden Yards in October, to see the Yankees destroy the Orioles in the playoffs (led by Jeter’s .417 batting average). I was with my father, who was about to turn 80 and had never attended a postseason game. He had taken me to my first Yankees games as a child, but this time our roles were reversed. I was the one asking: “Dad, are you hungry? Dad, do you need to go to the bathroom?” He died of a stroke seven months later, and on the last day of life, he asked about the ballgame scores from the night before.
When the old Yankee Stadium closed in 2008, Jeter spoke for the team and directly addressed the fans: “We are relying on you to take the memories from this stadium, add them to the new memories that come at the new Yankee Stadium, and continue to pass them on from generation to generation.” Will do, Captain.
Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University.