On May 14, Derek Jeter's No. 2 will officially be retired, but his place in Yankees lore was cemented long ago
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
Derek Jeter has never been the most expressive interview subject. For that matter, the former Yankees shortstop, known for always saying -- and doing -- the right thing, has rarely been comfortable talking about himself.
But with his legendary career in the rearview mirror, and now with a ceremony to retire his number and dedicate a Monument Park plaque set for May 14, Jeter has become slightly more candid with his words, or at least with this journalist who has covered him for almost 15 years.
As I sat across a desk from Jeter in his Tampa, Fla., office on a February afternoon, I told him that, in my opinion, the six greatest Yankees players -- and certainly the most transcendent -- were Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and the guy sitting a few feet away from me.
"For the most part, I would agree," Jeter said. Then, the sense of humility that helped make him such a beloved figure in sports set in.
"I'm being honest with you when I say this, but I don't look at myself like that," he said. "It's strange, because I understand the fact that I played in New York for a long time. If you do your job, and you do it consistently, great things happen.
"I never felt as if I was such a great player. I just feel like I was fortunate. I got to play for the only team I ever wanted to play for, play the only position that I ever wanted to play, and I had a lot of success doing it. As far as where I rank among Yankees players, I will leave that to everyone else."
While still on the topic of Yankees lore, I asked Jeter to join "everyone else" in reeling off a few thoughts about some of the other legends so widely regarded as the greatest in team history, starting with Ruth.
"When you think of baseball, Babe Ruth is the first name that comes to mind," Jeter said. "He was a larger-than-life figure. Even if you're not a baseball fan, even if you're not a sports fan, you know who Babe Ruth is."
The next name I threw out was Gehrig's.
"Class and leadership," Jeter said. "Obviously those are the qualities that you hear about and read about when you're learning about Lou Gehrig. It's hard to imagine anyone who was more well respected than him."
When I mentioned DiMaggio, a Yankees legend who Jeter had met early in his career before the Yankee Clipper passed away in 1999, the former shortstop smiled.
"Intimidating," Jeter said. "He never did anything to intimidate me. It's just when I saw him, I was so afraid to approach him because he was Joe DiMaggio. I didn't really want to get in his space, or crowd him, or bother him at all. So I was intimidated by Joe DiMaggio. The most I ever said to him was 'Hello.' I was in awe of him, so I felt more comfortable staying away. Looking back, I wish I would've tried to have a conversation with him."
Following Jeter's comments about DiMaggio, I uttered the name of possibly the least intimidating Yankees hero, the always-approachable Yogi Berra.
"Oh man, what a relationship I had with him," Jeter said. "Yogi was special. He was someone who you just felt comfortable talking to as soon as you were around him. It was like that from the first time I met him, and I guess the best way to put it is I don't even remember the first time I met him. What I mean by that is, when you're around him, you just feel like he's been your good friend forever. He used to always find his way to my locker, and we'd joke around back and forth. I really love Yogi, and I miss him."
As I peered down at my notebook, I realized that there was only one player left on my list, Mickey Mantle.
"He's another ultimate New York Yankee," Jeter said. "He was the King of New York. I used to love to hear Yogi tell stories about Mickey, because it made me feel like I had a connection with him."
While the differences between Jeter and the hard-living Mantle are immeasurable, there was and still is a connection between the two Big Apple matinee idols.
Not since Mantle has there been a Yankees player more beloved by the team's fan base -- and the city as a whole -- than Jeter. Mantle is the definition of a legend, someone who has been gone for more than two decades but who is immortal in the hearts of an entire generation.
With all due respect to the great players that followed The Mick, winning two championships during the 1970s, and to Don Mattingly, whose class and dignity made him a fan favorite in the '80s and '90s, no one matched the status of Mantle until Jeter came along.
"The one thing with Yankees fans is they never forget their history," Jeter said. "You do something special for the organization, and they will love you forever."
As proof of Jeter's overwhelming popularity, he has received the loudest and longest ovations during recent ceremonies honoring many of his former teammates. Jeter was at Yankee Stadium for celebrations in which the Yankees retired the numbers of Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte in 2015 and Mariano Rivera in 2016. As thunderous as the ovations were for the men being honored on those days, the Yankee Stadium crowd showered Jeter with even more applause when he emerged from the dugout.
"I grew up with Yankees fans," Jeter said. "I came up when I was 20 years old, and I left when I was 40. Many of the fans, especially the younger kids, don't know anything different than me playing for the Yankees. I grew up during the time I was playing for the Yankees, and for people my same age, they grew up coming during those same years. As far as how they feel about me, all I can say is that the feeling is mutual."
Based on the reception Jeter has received in the few appearances he has made at Yankee Stadium since his final game in 2014 -- in addition to his iconic stature -- his big night on May 14 is expected to be one of the most celebrated and remembered ceremonies in Yankees history. While Jeter's celebration will take place nearly a half century after the team retired Mantle's No. 7 at the old Yankee Stadium in 1969, it's fair to assume that the shortstop's mid-May festivities will have a similar impact on the fans in attendance that night.
"A lot of special players have played here," Jeter said. "Their numbers have been retired, and they've gotten plaques out in Monument Park. The Yankees do it right. They know how to honor their great players of the past, and I've really enjoyed being a part of the celebrations for my close friends and teammates. When you're playing, that type of recognition is far from your mind. You think so much about playing the game and continually getting better, and you rarely even visit Monument Park."
But with the clock ticking on Jeter's coronation, I wondered what goes through his mind when he thinks about officially entering that pantheon of Yankees immortals on May 14.
"It really hasn't sunk in yet," Jeter said. "And it may not until that day. The one thing that stood out the most from the celebrations for my teammates was what it meant to them to have their families there. Fans only see the player on the field, but for someone like me, the support that I got from my family was one of the most important things that helped me to do what I did out there."
For Jeter, the loyalty and gratitude he has for his parents has long been something he has enjoyed talking about, and that was especially apparent in our conversation.
"It's kind of strange to refer to my parents as people behind the scenes because of how close we've been," Jeter said. "They were there for every good game I had and every memorable moment I had. More importantly, they were there every time I struggled and had bad games. Every time I got hurt and needed someone to talk to, they were the people who were there for me. My dad always jokes around, saying he's played every single game with me. They've always been supportive, and this day is as much about them as it is about me. It's going to be a proud moment for them."
Of course, the date of Jeter's ceremony is also Mother's Day, and when I asked him if it was a coincidence, he began his response before I could even finish the question.
"It was my choice," he said. "I thought it would make it even more special. I have close relationships with my entire family, but I thought it was a great opportunity to do something special for my mom. She's been very important to me, always being positive and telling me from a young age that I could do anything I wanted to do as long as I worked hard at it. I thought it was a good day to not only acknowledge my entire family, but especially my mom."
Jeter and his wife, Hannah, are expecting their first child. Although millions have witnessed the father-to-be's greatness on the baseball diamond, his future daughter was obviously not around for any of those heroics. For Jeter, someday having the opportunity to bring her to Monument Park will be meaningful.
"Having kids this late in life, they will never know that side of me even existed," he said. "You can show them highlights and things, but they won't really be able to comprehend how much the game meant in my life. I don't try to think too far ahead, because at this point, I'm just so excited about being a dad. But this will allow me to brag a little bit just like my dad did when I was younger. He was a good player in college, and he used to pull out his scrapbook and show me two or three pages of highlights he had. This is a great way for me to talk about what I used to do."
Long before Jeter was thinking about his number getting retired, his professional baseball career began in Rookie Ball. Things didn't go smoothly early on for the Yankees' 1992 first-round draft pick, as he made 56 errors at shortstop during his second professional season.
Although so many years have passed since then, Jeter has not forgotten just how far he has come. When reminded of the fact that 15 of the 38 first-round picks from his draft class failed to even reach the Majors, Jeter discussed the intangibles needed to succeed at the highest level.
"I think it's beyond talent," he said. "Once you get to the professional level, everyone is talented. Some guys may be able to do a couple things better than others. They might be able to throw harder or hit the baseball farther, but for the most part, everyone has talent. You have to be able to deal with failure.
"When I first signed, I was completely overmatched. I played at a small high school in Kalamazoo, Mich., and when I came down to Florida, I was playing against some of the best players in the world all of a sudden. I was struggling for the first time, and it was hard. If you can't figure out how to get over that, you won't make it, especially in New York. I learned how to deal with failure pretty quickly.
"There were a lot of nights during those first few years in the Minors when I was calling home and crying on the phone," he continued. "I was homesick, and I was thinking that maybe I made the wrong decision and that I should have gone to college first. My parents were always positive. They told me to stick to it and work hard. They constantly reminded me that I was always passionate about the game and about trying to improve. They made me realize that this was the perfect time to play the game and to take on the challenge of improving."
With hard work, Jeter turned things around in the Minors. A year later, he was in Big League camp for the first time, but before he donned the No. 2, he wore a few double-digit numbers. The little-known backstory about how he eventually settled on the number the world saw him in for 20 seasons still makes him laugh.
"I wore No. 73 in 1993," he said. "Then, in 1994, I got No. 70, so I was trending in the right direction. When I got called up in 1995, they gave me No. 2. I assumed, and this is me being honest, that it was the smallest jersey, because Mike Gallego (a former Yankees infielder, who was listed at 5 foot 8 in the Yankees' 1993 media guide) wore it before me. I didn't even think much about it because I was just happy to be in the Big Leagues. It never crossed my mind how special it was to have one of the few single-digits that the Yankees hadn't retired."
When Jeter came to camp the following spring, he wanted to wear No. 13, which he had worn as a child and in high school as a tribute to his father, who wore that number in college. But veteran catcher Jim Leyritz had worn No. 13 since 1993.
"The former clubhouse guy thought I didn't like wearing No. 2, so they gave me No. 17," Jeter said. "When I got to Spring Training, I told him that if I couldn't get 13, I wanted to keep No. 2. By that time, they had already listed me as No. 17 in the Spring Training guide."
So what did Jeter do from that point forward to cement his legacy as one of the greatest and most beloved Yankees -- or baseball players for that matter -- ever to play the game?
According to the man himself, it was the fact that he helped his team win five championships, beginning with the 1996 season, when Jeter won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and the Yankees broke an 18-year World Series title drought.
"It's the most important thing," he said. "You're remembered if you win. That's the bottom line, especially when you play for the Yankees, because they have such a great tradition of winning. The more championship teams you play on, the more Yankees fans appreciate you. I think they appreciate everyone who puts on a uniform, but we had a great deal of success. You always want to think that you helped contribute to those championships, and I'm proud that many of my most memorable moments came in the playoffs. That's what people remember the most."
While nothing is more important to Jeter than the championships he contributed mightily to, his legacy is built on more than those campaigns.
He was always humble, and his respect for the game and just about everyone on the field with him stood out from Day 1. Additionally, it's difficult to remember a day at Yankee Stadium or any other ballpark when Jeter didn't sign between a few dozen and a few hundred autographs for the fans who supported the game he played.
Jeter finished his 20-year career with a .310 batting average and 3,465 hits, good for sixth on baseball's all-time list. In 10 of his 18 full seasons, Jeter ranked among the top nine in hits throughout the Majors, twice finishing first.
"One of the most underrated qualities in any profession is consistency," Jeter said. "You want to be good for a long period of time, regardless of what profession you choose. I always wanted to be accountable for how I played. I wanted the team to be able to count on me year in and year out. You have some great seasons and you have some down years, but I just wanted to play every day."
Save for one season, that's pretty much what Jeter did. With the exception of the 2013 season, when Jeter struggled to come back from an ankle injury he suffered in the 2012 postseason, the shortstop played in at least 119 games in each year from 1996 through 2014. He also played in 150 or more games in 13 campaigns.
"I never wanted to make any excuses," he said. "I just wanted to be productive. I wanted the organization and the fans to count on me being on the field, and it bothered me when I couldn't be out there. If I was capable of playing, I was going to play, and I wasn't going to make excuses about anything that happened out there. My dad used to always tell me, 'Keep building that résumé.' That's what I tried to do from the time I was a kid until my last game. I don't think you can help the team win if you're not on the field, so I tried to be out there no matter what."
Of course, there's all of those "moments" that the 14-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove Award winner authored. Whether it's his leadoff home run in Game 4 of the 2000 Fall Classic against the Mets en route to World Series MVP honors, his game-winning home run in the 2001 World Series against Arizona, his 3,000th hit that landed in the seats, his swan song at Yankee Stadium in 2014 or any of his 200 postseason hits that led Jeter to a .308 postseason average, they all mattered to a fan base that couldn't get enough of The Captain.
But more than anything, memories and anecdotes from Jeter's 2017 ceremony will be handed down for generations to come because of the way he carried himself on and off the field. And whether he's ever willing to admit it, his plaque and number will always be where they belong, in the same space as those of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the May 2017 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.