By Jennifer Azano / @jenniferazano
When Derek Jeter first announced his retirement back in February, after shedding some tears, I immediately began reflecting upon his illustrious career and what he has meant to baseball … and to me.
There’s no doubt that when most people think of baseball, Derek Jeter is one of the first names to come to mind. Derek Jeter is baseball. He’s a legend in his own right — a five-time World Series Champion, 14-time All-Star, five-time Gold Glove recipient, the 1996 Rookie of the Year, the 2000 World Series MVP, “Mr. November,” the Yankees Captain. At different points in his career he has led the league in hits, singles and runs scored; he has eight seasons with 200+ hits; has tied Lou Gehrig for the most doubles in Yankees history; and is now ranked ninth on the MLB all-time hits list. A sure-shot Hall-of-Famer, he has joined the likes of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle as one of the greatest and most memorable to ever play the game.
But what sets Jeter apart from the rest? Sure, there have been other players to produce better numbers … so, what is it that makes him so special? The answer is simple. Even more impressive than his undeniable talent and passion for the game is the way he carries himself — on and off the field. In a day and age when so many athletes and celebrities are known for the wrong reasons and the trouble they get into, Derek Jeter, perhaps the most famous athlete in the world (this side of LeBron), has proved to be a fantastic role model and an overall remarkable human being.
For the better part of two decades, Derek Jeter has been the face of baseball. And he has handled the role with appreciation and grace and has never let us down. He is the epitome of class — always cool, collected, poised. He plays the game and lives his life with integrity, and quite obviously treats his teammates, opponents and everyone else he encounters with respect. A true professional, he is always humble and responsible with his fame.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Jeter this season. How can you not? Every time he steps up to the plate or visits another stadium and is given a special farewell, the impending heartache of saying goodbye to our dear captain seems closer and closer. And now that we’ve passed the All-Star break, and halfway point of the season, the reality that our days with Jeter are numbered seems all too real. Some days I try to just watch and enjoy the game, but mostly I find myself thinking back on all the incredible moments he has given us. Since I’ve rarely missed a game in the last 20 years, I have witnessed all of his greatest moments: his walk-off homer in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series, his infamous, face-first, foul-ball catch at Fenway, his epic 3,000th hit (that could be done in no other way than a home run), the incredible backhand flip to Jorge Posada in the 2001 ALDS, his heartfelt speech at the closing of the Old Yankee Stadium, and most recently watching him and Andy Pettitte go to the mound, in that emotional and unforgettable moment from Mariano Rivera’s last game.
But perhaps even more memorable than all of those moments combined, what is truly unforgettable and what people will remember first, are the hustle and heart he approached every play with throughout his career. You never see Jeter just trot to first, even if he knows he’ll never beat the throw. He always pushes himself, always hustles, always plays with his heart.
Baseball fans are romantic, and Jeter’s story is just that. Born in New Jersey and raised in Kalamazoo, Michigan, he grew up loving the Yankees, dreaming of playing baseball professionally. He even predicted in a school essay that he would some day suit up and play shortstop for the Bronx Bombers. And he did just that and remained in pinstripes his entire career. His loyalty to the Yankee organization and his fans is quintessential Jeter. His reverence for the history of the game and his team, and his role in it all, is what makes us love him all the more. He is a man, that no matter what team you root for, you respect. To hear even the most devoted Red Sox fans sing his praise says a lot about the man wearing #2.
I’ve been a die-hard Yankees fan my entire life. There are photos of me as a baby in a Yankees onesie. I was probably the only little girly-girl who bought a scorecard and actually kept track of every ball, strike, hit and run at every game I attended, and spent my time memorizing stats. More recently, during a stadium tour, I got caught snapping a photo of the “I thank God every day for making me a Yankee” sign that Jeter touches before each game (they made me delete it, but you can’t blame a girl for trying!). Why? Because I LOVE the game. As a child, my bedroom was half covered in ballerinas and half in Yankees posters and memorabilia. It was a funny mix to some, but my passion for baseball and the Yankees has always been there and has only grown stronger throughout the years.
I’ll never forget going down to spring training when I was 16 and calling out to Jeter as they were wrapping up practice at Legends Field. He looked right up at me and pointed over to the side of the ballpark. Before even telling my mother where I was going, I was out of my seat running over to the side of the field. I was the first fan over to the fence where the Yankees walk out, and Jeter said hello and gave me his autograph. It was amazing. He probably doesn’t remember that, but that moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.
As a teenager and a young woman, I would often get asked, “Who’s your favorite Yankee? Wait, let me guess, Derek Jeter because you think he’s hot?” and I would get infuriated. It was so insulting. Sure, Jeter is a handsome guy, but that is not why I adore him. I respect him and everything he means to this game. I admire his talents but, even more so, his heart. He is in it to win it, and for all the right reasons. It has always impressed me, that no matter what great feat he may have just accomplished, he always makes it about the team, the game, the season, not himself. He’s a real team player, always giving credit where it is due, and never losing sight of how lucky he is to be wearing pinstripes and doing what he loves every day.
No matter how big a star he is, he has always maintained a sincere, humble attitude that people just respect. It amazes me that after so many years in the spotlight, I have never heard one person say something bad about that man. I don’t think anyone has.
He has used his fame and notoriety for so much good, becoming a true philanthropist. At just 22, he founded the Turn 2 Foundation and has since raised more than $16 million in grants to create and support programs and activities that motivate young people to turn away from drugs and alcohol and “Turn 2” healthy lifestyles. He has also taken a real hands-on approach. Instead of just donating money, he is actively involved in making a positive impact on the lives of so many. And it doesn’t feel like he does it just for show or because he feels like he has to; Derek Jeter is apparently just that good of a guy.
There’s so many times you see him go out of his way for a young fan, to take a photo or sign an autograph. There are countless stories, not widely publicized, about Derek Jeter going above and beyond to help those less fortunate … from his involvement with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, to the time he flew in a helicopter to Connecticut to visit a boy who had contracted a rare disease that robbed him of his legs and part of his arm, to the time after 9/11 when he even went out of his way to call a little girl who had lost her father in the attacks and invited her and her family to the stadium. It’s those little things that really make him stand out.
Of all the amazing things he has accomplished on the field, I think the most impressive of it all is what he has accomplished off the field. To live your life, and be so loved and respected, to have contributed so much to so many, and to have nothing but praise about the person you are, those are the real accomplishments. That is rare and should be acknowledged and celebrated.
Last January I traveled to Uganda, Africa, for a project I was working on. I spent time with a lot of children from different villages. Uganda is a place where most do not have access to clean water, enough food or proper medicine. Many of the children I spent time with did not even have electricity — and yet they knew who Derek Jeter was. They look up to him. He is the dream. Little boys in Uganda, where baseball has just recently been introduced, lie in bed at night with old photos of Jeter stuck to their mud walls, dreaming of one day playing baseball like him. That right there really resonated with me and made me realize how much he means not only to baseball, but the positive impact he has made on the world.
Non-sports fans often argue the importance of sports in the grand scheme of things. Why get so wrapped up in just a game? Especially after visiting a place like Uganda, you begin to ask yourself these questions. And it made it all the more clear just how important sports are. They give enjoyment, hope and something for kids to dream about. They take our minds off the tough times, especially the way baseball did in my city, New York City, after 9/11. And like our New York teams, Jeter stepped up and took on the enormous burden, as if it were his own.
The idea of going to Opening Day and not seeing #2 take the field just doesn’t seem right. Sitting in the bleachers doing roll call and not chanting “Derek Jeter” is something I am not prepared to face right now. Watching someone else scoop up the ball at short and try to flip it as effortlessly as he does into a double play will never be the same. Baseball will never be the same.
When I was a kid, I was always fascinated by the stories family friends and grandparents would tell about the days they were lucky enough to watch the greats like Ruth, Mantle, Munson and DiMaggio in person. I always thought about how incredible that must have been. The stories this generation has of watching Jeter … those epic moments that will forever be immortalized in books and films … are really special and something I know we will want to share with future generations.
There will be players to come that may surpass his records, but a player like Derek Jeter comes around once in a lifetime. I was so fortunate to be able to witness him take the field as a wide-eyed kid and watch him grow into the seasoned veteran and leader he is today. What he has meant to this city, this team, this sport and to me personally is difficult to put into words. For the past 20 years he has been the heart and soul of the Yankees … a leader, a champion, an example, an inspiration, an icon, a legend.
So I thank you, Mr. Jeter, for all of it — it was magical. Thank you for the memories and allowing us to be a part of your incredible journey. It has been an absolute privilege. And wherever life may take you, know that you will remain in the hearts of your fans forever.
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