Derek, Lou, and Me
On Friday night, Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig as the all-time New York Yankee hits leader. Josh Deitch was there.
I like to think of myself as a pretty magnanimous and generous person. I try to put others before myself. I’ve been told I give very nice and thoughtful gifts. I hold doors and elevators for people of all genders, ages, and creeds. And it’s not like I started writing for Seamheads or became involved in education for the exorbitant paychecks.
Despite all that, as a sports fan, I’m selfish.
When it comes to sports, everything my mom taught me about manners and golden rules flies out the window. When it comes to my team–be it the Yankees, Giants, or Knicks–I want to watch them win. All the time. To hell with reality.
Unfortunately, this selfishness expands to include those around me. If I’m driving somewhere, it doesn’t matter who’s riding shotgun next to me, if the Yankees are playing, so is the WCBS radio broadcast.
Regardless of the time of year, Yankees games get the big screen TV in the living room. My fiancee, Karen, has to watch Bridezillas on the smaller screen in the bedroom.
On August 7th, Karen and I went to the fifteen-inning marathon between the Yankees and Red Sox that Alex Rodriguez ended with a walk-off homer. When the extra innings rolled around, Karen wanted to leave. I didn’t. We stayed. Between innings nine and fifteen, Karen carefully took mental notes that I have no doubt will become exhibits F though J in the divorce hearings I hope we never have to face.
We constantly eat out at a ridiculously overpriced local bar and grill not because we enjoy paying $15 for a burger and fries, but because it’s the closest place where I can both watch a Yankee game and eat that’s not my living room coffee table.
Like I said: I’m selfish.
That’ why on Tuesday, in the bottom of the eighth, with Derek Jeter one hit away from passing Lou Gehrig as the all-time Yankee hits leader, I quietly rooted against the New York shortstop. It’s not that I didn’t want to see Jeter break Lou Gehrig’s hits record, because I possess some unseen value judgment of which player was or is a better Yankee (see New Yorkers and Maris, Roger 1961).It’s that I had tickets to Friday’s game.
Counting the fifteen games he played in 1995, Jeter’s played fifteen seasons in the Major Leagues, 14 as the Yankees’ everyday starting shortstop. That’s more than half my life. Like most fans, I’ve been forced to admire Jeter’s exploits mostly from afar.
When a skinny 21-year-old kid grounded a single through the left side of the infield in Seattle’s Kingdome, I was’t watching. I have no idea what I was doing, but I was 12, so I’m sure it was something incredibly pressing. Like reading comic books.Â Or playing Duck Hunt.
That same year, on October 9th, Jeter inside-outed an Armando Benitez fastball into the outstretched arms of Jeffrey Maier just over the head and glove of Tony Tarasco and a smidge below the top of the wall. He gave the Yankees a lead in the first game of the ALDS, starting them on their run to four World Series titles in five years.
I didn’t see it. I was doing Algebra homework in my bedroom, listening to the radio broadcast of John Sterling and Michael Kay. I did catch replays.
When he won the Rookie of the Year award, I read about it.
When he acted as a third cut-off man on a Shane Spencer throw from right field, dove into the crowd to haul in pop-ups down the left field line, and drilled a Byung-Hyun Kim offering in the right field seats to become “Mr. November” and cap off one of the greatest moments in baseball history, I watched on TV.
As he slowly and quietly built an historic career, I admired his quiet consistency, his unwillingness to complain, and his embodiment of what a modern professional athlete should be.
Derek Jeter’s been in my life for fifteen years. That’s longer than I’ve known many of my best friends. It’s longer than I’ve known my fiancee and significantly more time than I’ve known I wanted to teach.
Yet, I never had a chance to experience a defining Derek Jeter moment. Until Friday night.
Thus, as Grant Balfour stared Jeter down in the eighth inning on Wednesday night, I couldn’t abide a Jeter hit.
Please, I prayed to the baseball gods, let him walk, strike out. Anything but that 2,722nd hit. Oh masters of dirt, cowhide, ash, and Bermuda-Bluegrass hybrid, if you could just delay this one hit 72 hours, I will keep you anointed in the unction of pine tar and the blister cream of Kevin Brown forever.
For some reason, the gods, who can be so fickle and frustrating, relented. Balfour seemed either unwilling or unable to play the role of Branca, Stallard, or Downing to Jeter’s Thompson, Maris, or Aaron. And, on a 3-2 count, he spiked a curveball, sending Jeter to first base without that fateful hit and me to a rain-soaked Yankee Stadium on Friday, September 11, 2009, hoping to witness history.
An entire column or book could be written on the fact that Jeter, Gehrig, and history met on such a symbolic day in the history of New York and of America. People could make something of the point that Gehrig’s two great records fell to Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter, two classy shortstops admired not only by their teammates but also by their opponents, in the same calendar week 14 years apart. But that’s for writers far more talented and invested than I; writers who don’t have a day job or attend graduate studies at night.
At 7:15 on Friday night, as the tarp still covered the infield at Yankee Stadium and rain swept the warning track, it looked like those frustratingly fickle baseball gods had a final laugh at my expense. They had delayed history, forced me to take a train to the Bronx, only to rain the game out.
Eventually, though, the clouds parted for a little while. Baseball began. And, in the third inning, the man of the hour shot a ground ball past the out-stretched glove of Orioles first baseman Luke Scott and into right field.
As Jeter rounded first, he clapped his hands together in triumph. In the crowd, we stood and cheered. We had been standing for a 90-minute delay and three innings. Derek Jeter had passed the Iron Horse for the most hits in Yankee history.
As the crowd applauded and chants of DE-REK JE-TER CLAP CLAP CLAPCLAPCLAP rang out from every corner of the stadium, it was a perfect moment. It belonged to Jeter. It was his family’s. It was the Yankees’. It was Major League Baseball’s. It belonged to the almost 47,000 people there and the millions watching around the world.
But forget about them.
It was mine.
I’m selfish, remember?