Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Reflections On Derek Jeter's 3000th Hit, Life

I was there. Three words that are oh so satisfying.

I bought the tickets off of Stubhub... well over a month before the game. Well before Derek Jeter was injured, delaying the inevitable milestone. I bought them for my dad, my mom, my sister and myself for Father's Day. I had no idea back then what a momentous occasion we'd be witnessing.

The video above doesn't quite do the job of capturing the euphoria of Jeter's big moment. All the Jeter-haters out there who cry "overrated" won't ever fully understand it, but I know what the Yankee captain's achievement meant to me, and what it probably meant to many others around my age who grew up to be Yankees fans.

You see, the Yankees of my youth were a mercenary organization (and some would argue, still are). They hired the best guns and sluggers from around the league, mostly guys who were too old or had worn out their welcome in other locales. In the late 80s and early 90s, when my baseball fandom was being developed, the Yankees resembled the cast of The Expendables, a collection of action stars past their prime. Sure, there was Donnie Baseball, but back problems signaled his career was near an end.

Then came 1995. I was 13 years old. My Bar Mitzvah theme was "A Night At The Ballpark." For me, that was also the year that cemented the Yankees as my favorite team. I'd grown up rooting for the Mets, against the rest of my family's wishes. My favorite players were David Cone and Darryl Strawberry. But the Mets had betrayed me. By 1992, they'd given away the players I loved. In 1995, The Yankees signed the Straw and Cone. That won me over.

They also briefly promoted a rookie shortstop, Derek Jeter. I identified with the rook, after all, he wasn't much older than me-- only 8 years. I watched his debut against Seattle on TV. The box score says he went 0-5, but I don't remember that. I just remember the announcers saying how much potential he had, how he was a top prospect. Instantly, I imagined myself in his shoes.

I grew up. So did Jeter. He hit his first Major League homer Opening Day, just before I graduated middle school. That summer, I watched him hit his way to becoming Rookie of the Year. I was in the common TV area of my dorm freshman year of boarding school when I saw Jeter hit a deep shot that was caught by a kid just a little younger than me in the home run stands, tying the first game of the American League Championship series. My freshman year of college, for Halloween, I dressed as a Mets fan that had been beaten by Yankees fans-- a tribute to the Subway Series. I won a camera as first prize in my dorm's costume contest, Jeter won the World Series MVP award. This year, as Derek has seemingly entered a new stage in his career, so have I-- I moved in with the girl I love and have come to terms with the fact that at age 29, adulthood is here whether I'm ready for it or not.

So in many ways, it felt like Derek and I grew up together. He was the first player I watched transform from a rookie, to an all-star, and now, in his twilight years, to a legend. In an age where we're reminded daily that sports are a business and the players we love appear on ESPN to announce their departures, it's rare for a fan of any team to be able to watch a player grow up in their backyard. So it was fitting that on the day he reached a milestone only 27 others had reached before, I was in the stands, cheering him on.

I'd seen Derek's 3000th hit before, playing the video game MVP Baseball 2005. In my virtual franchise, it had taken him until 2012, due to injuries (I screamed at my Nintendo Gamecube, "Don't you know Derek never gets injured!?"). With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the bases loaded and down by three, Jeter came to bat. I followed the pitch in and mashed the A button, pushing the control stick right. The ball sailed. An opposite field, grand slam homer. In my head, the crowd roared. The video game announcer congratulated virtual Jeter on the milestone.

Back to reality. Real life doesn't go like that. If it's one thing I've learned growing up, it's that perfect endings only happen in movies. I've experienced many successes and many happy moments, but rarely has my life lived up to the wild fantasies of my imagination.

Jeter's first at bat against David Price, he hit a roller that snuck through the left side of the infield. The type of hit he's been getting recently, as the bat has slowed. The crowd went wild, not because they were impressed with the hit, but because they all were thinking the same thing. He'll be at bat at least 4 more times this game-- I have a shot at witnessing history.

Then came Jeter's next at bat. He worked the count. Fouled a pitch off. The crowd chanted, "Deh-rek Jee-ter!!" over and over again. Price wound up and delivered.

Everybody knew the ball was gone the second Derek swung. It wasn't a grand slam to the opposite field, but it seemed like that, something that happens in video games and dreams, not real life.

Jeter ended the game 5 for 5. Perfect. Won the game single-handedly. And while he may be batting .257 on the year with diminishing range and increasing critics, he looked like the kid I watched when I was just a kid myself, all those years ago.

I was there. So were the others in the stands, screaming their voices out. So were the Yankees fans watching at home. Yes, he's a mensch, and yes, he plays hard, always, but the reason we love Derek Jeter is bigger than that. He's been our benchmark, our standard, a physical embodiment of the best bell curve the course of our lives could follow, from potential, to stardom, to marrying Minka Kelly.

Jeter's 3000th hit wasn't just a milestone for him. It was a milestone for us.


1 comment:

Hot Mama said...

Wonderful post! You captured what Jeter's accomplishment meant to you and so many other fans. Thanks for a delightful read.

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