In the beginning, Yankees scouting director Bill Livesey called area scout Dick Groch in Michigan to see if a high school kid from Kalamazoo would sign if New York took him with the sixth pick in the first round of the 1992 draft.
“Is he going to Michigan?” asked Livesey. “No,” said Groch.
“Is he going to Michigan State,” asked Livesey. “No,” said Groch.
“Then where is Derek Jeter going?” asked Livesey.
“Cooperstown,” said Groch.
Now, it’s the end. After 3,408 hits in the regular season, 200 more in the postseason , seven American League pennants and five World Series rings, Jeter is retiring to the full-coronation treatment reserved for only a handful of the greatest players, a subset much smaller than mere Hall of Fame players. Tuesday’s All-Star Game here may be the national high-water mark of recognition for one of baseball’s rarest talents and people.
On Sunday night at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jeter tried to hand a baseball to a little girl in the second row. A burly fan tried to take it out of Jeter’s hand. Derek jerked the ball back. Then he handed it again, this time into the beaming girl’s hand even though the same fan took another pass at it.
As Jeter turned back to the field, he looked weary. After 20 seasons of being a Yankees superstar, with his name linked to half the gorgeous women in the hemisphere and a lifetime of people wanting a piece of him, maybe he thought, “Oh, humanity.” Or perhaps, “just 68 more games and I’m done with jerks like that.”
After a rain delay in Baltimore, Jeter didn’t arrive here “until 5 a.m.” Hours later, Jeter’s podium at media day was surrounded eight deep. So, Derek, last all-star game, center of attention, batting leadoff for the American League — how do you feel? “Tired,” he said, smiling. “I think I’m still asleep.”
What about the little girl, the baseball and the apparent souvenir grabber in Baltimore the night before, Jeter was asked? The subtext: Is that your life — public property, a commodity to be ripped off?
“Let’s give him a little credit,” said Jeter, smiling. “Let’s assume he was going to hand it to her.”
The mystery of Derek Jeter has always been: Who’s behind the near-perfect facade, the movie-star smile and the impenetrable reserve, almost worthy of DiMaggio? How do you survive nearly 20 years in New York without any serious controversy, not a mark worth mentioning against your name?
“Let’s not jinx it,” he said.
Other players who truly know Jeter understand his facade is misunderstood. It is not an image built, and defended by everyone who knows him, because he wants to hide his real personality or protect secrets. It is his respectful but implacable shield of cool, constructed because he actually knows who he is and wants to remain that person — as much as possible in a world of social media immediacy.
Jeter runs on rails of family lessons so simple that we are almost too cynical to believe them. “My parents told me to treat people like you want to be treated. Be respectful,” said Jeter. “Speak when you need to talk not just to hear your own voice. . . .
“I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. But I try to learn from other people’s mistakes. And don’t make the same mistake twice,” he said Monday. “You are who you are. If I tried to be something that I’m not, I think after 20 years they would have figured it out.”
Because baseball tradition has included Yankees hostility for a century, the “Captain Clutch” image can be resented, or diminished, outside New York. It shouldn’t be.
“I was his teammate for four months,” Nationals all-star reliever Tyler Clippard said. “When you’re around somebody like that, you’re going to pay attention. He’s a good, genuine guy. The best thing I can say about him is that you would never know he is Derek Jeter. He doesn’t ‘big league’ anybody, no matter what walk of life you’re from. . . . He’s not putting on a show.”
Yet surely there must be sides of Jeter that he conceals. What don’t we know about Jeter? “How funny he is,” said Robinson Cano, his teammate for nine years. Give one example.
“Oh, no,” laughed Cano. “I don’t want to get him in trouble.”
The CIA doesn’t protect its moles more than baseball protects Jeter. But there is also a desire to help the public know the star whose poise can seem like ice.
“When he’d been in the league five years and was a superstar, I went up to him and said how much I respected that he didn’t change much [as a person],” Cleveland Manager Terry Francona said. “He walked 30 feet away, then he turned around, came back and said, ‘I really appreciated that.’
“In ’08, I was riding on a [baseball] bus with his folks,” said Francona. “Let me tell you, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. . . . Derek didn’t lose himself.”
Tuesday night will be the Derek Jeter All-Star Game, just as ’01 was the Cal Ripken All-Star Game. Everyone in the sport will be focused on a beloved star, his talents just a shadow of our memories but his character the best of his game or perhaps even something slightly more than that.
Jeter’s ability to Say Nothing in answer to 999 questions, then respond to the 1,000th with substance is rare in athletes. How can he do it? “Because,” Jeter answers, “I know what I am saying.”
Perhaps lack of sleep loosened Derek’s tongue on Monday, but he actually enjoyed talking. “My favorite All-Star Game was ’99 — the centennial team,” he said. “I felt a tap on the shoulder. It was Hank Aaron. He said he wanted to meet me. ‘You want to meet me?’”
A few years earlier, Jeter had done the same thing at an all-star game, practically introducing himself to Ripken against whom he’d played many times. “I hadn’t gotten to talk to Cal before,” he said. “I hope nobody is as scared of me [in Minneapolis] as I was. I try to be as personable as possible.”
This game will probably not be the night where Jeter lets his (largely non-existent) hair down. “People want me to be so emotional all the time. It’s hard to reflect on a career that’s not over. I’m still in it,” Jeter said. Moments later, a small boy on someone’s shoulders caught Jeter’s eye.
“What’s up, man?” said Jeter to the tyke.
“Are you going to be bored when you retire?” asked the boy.
“No, I’m going to have a lot of fun,” said Jeter, grinning.
Reality check: The little boy was on the shoulders of a cameraman getting a “reaction shot.”
No doubt there are layers under the layers of Jeter. For example, when Alex Rodriguez, a better defensive shortstop than Jeter became a Yankee, Jeter didn’t change positions, A-Rod did. Also, Jeter, without trying, was a torment to Rodriguez, who craved to be loved.
Rodriguez never grasped what Jeter always knew: You can’t force the world to love you — or even like you. Jeter set a different goal, one within his control. “This year, a lot of kind things have been said to me,” Jeter said. “That’s what you play for, that’s what you try so hard to earn — respect. From everyone.”
Here at Target Field, the distinction between respect and love will, for the next day, be almost totally squished and squashed in one of baseball’s most well-deserved fond farewells. Feats will be listed.
In the end, it’s always the person, more than the player, who is remembered. When you recall Jeter — from his calm performance under pressure to his countless small decencies to all the ways he earned your respect — just remember, that was not the facade of a man you never really knew. That was him.