Thursday, September 18, 2014

Say Hey, Derek Jeter

I read in yesterday’s Daily News that soon to be ex-ballplayer—and future Hall of Famer—Derek Jeter has gotten his very own publishing imprint with Simon & Schuster. It’s very imaginatively called “Jeter Publishing” and the first book wearing said brand is a children’s novel, “The Contract,” by none other than Derek Jeter and, of course, his ghostwriter, Paul Mantell. The novel’s chief protagonist is a boy named Derek Jeter, who gives it his all on the baseball field, always plays fair, and respects his family, friends, and teammates. The book will no doubt further cement the angelic aura of Derek Jeter. After all, he’s an athlete who played his entire baseball career with the same team—the New York Yankees—and has never been embroiled in any scandal or suspected of cheating like so many of his peers.

Full disclosure: I grew up a rabid Met fan in a Bronx neighborhood of mostly Yankee fans, including my father, who lived and died with his team. Through his power of example, he taught me from an early age that being a New York City baseball fan absolutely precluded double dipping. That is, a bona fide fan could not possibly root for both the Mets and the Yankees. It was inorganic. In fact, diehard fans—as both he and I were—loathed with heartfelt passion our cross-town rivals. And so, even all these years later—with my father no longer among the living and my baseball ardor gone with the passage of time—I haven’t fully divested myself of that strong distaste for the Yankees. I never, therefore, partook in Derek Jeter worship.

Nevertheless, I was curious to see what he would say on Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium. With his retirement at the end of this season, I imagined it would be an emotional farewell—saying goodbye to the fans after twenty years in the same uniform and in the same town. I vividly recalled Willie Mays Night at Shea Stadium on September 25, 1973. After floundering for much of the year, the Mets were in an improbable and excitingly competitive pennant chase, and Willie had announced his retirement at the end of the season. Willie Mays—who had been brought back to New York to finish his career where it all began—spoke from the heart that night with tears in his eyes. The poignancy of the moment was overwhelming for young and old alike. I wasn’t yet eleven and had tears in my eyes, too. Willie—the “Say Hey, Kid”—was an icon. And while it was sad to see him go, it was all too evident that age had caught up to him and eroded beyond repair his formerly incredible skills. He was forty-two but fittingly exiting the baseball scene on a team that would make it all the way to the seventh game of the World Series.
Yes, I expected at least a little poignancy in Derek Jeter’s parting salvo, but found his speech to the fans cliché-laden and devoid of any deep emotion. It got me wondering if it was just Derek Jeter’s way, or maybe that the absence of any Mays-like poignancy transcended him and was a reflection of the times. Mays played in his first major league baseball game in 1951, just four years after Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier. It wasn’t a cakewalk for him in those early days, nor was Willie raking in millions of dollars. Willie Mays played stickball on the streets of New York with neighborhood kids. And when the Mets honored him that September night, a pedestrian banquet table was set up on the field with gifts aplenty on top of it for the retiring legend. Today’s game is so awash in money and glitz that it cannot help but negatively impact even the retirement of a baseball great like Derek Jeter, whose last contract was for $60 million over four years (a pay cut, too). Willie Mays's journey through baseball was a storied one, and when he remarked on his night, “There always comes a time for somebody to get out,” it was not only true but palpably sad as well. So sad because somehow we knew we would never see his likes again—and we haven’t. The times just won’t allow it.

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