Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 27, 2011

Book Review: O Captain! My Captain!

“Clap hands for Derek Jeter. Clap hands, the way he does when he pulls into second base in the bottom of the ninth, staring into the dugout with that grin of his.”

So begins George Vecsey’s elegant and lyrical tribute to Jeter’s claiming the Yankees’ franchise record for base hits. Vecsey’s column originally appeared in the New York Times on September 12, 2009, the day after Jeter passed Lou Gehrig with a trademark single to the opposite field, the 2,722nd hit of his remarkable career in pinstripes. Now it is one of more than 150 columns, news stories, features, excerpts, quotes, and blog posts culled from more than a decade and a half of the Times’ coverage of the Yankee captain in “Derek Jeter: From the Pages of the New York Times,” published by Abrams just in time for Opening Day.

In addition to Vecsey, the more than two dozen contributors to the book are the many outstanding journalists whose bylines have appeared in the sports pages of the paper of record since the Yankees made Jeter the sixth overall pick in the 1992 amateur draft. Alongside the highest quality writing are more than 100 color photographs that together comprise a stunning visual account of the many highs, and occasional lows, of Jeter’s career.

That last point is important. While “Derek Jeter” is without question a tribute to the Yankee captain, it is not some blind hagiography. The Times’ journalists are first and foremost just that. In their reporting they meet their obligation to be fair and balanced, in the old and honored journalistic sense of that phrase before it acquired a more recent ideological subtext. So along with the accounts of game winning hits, fielding acrobatics and post-season triumphs are necessary references to batting slumps, to the perennial insistence of the sabermetricians that no self-respecting team would want Jeter playing shortstop, and, in the introduction, to the recent contentious contract negotiations between Jeter and the team’s management.

Since every story has to start at the beginning, the first chapter is entitled “The Rookie” and begins with what was likely the very first mention of Jeter in the paper’s pages, a tiny note that the Kalamazoo teenager was one of three players the Yankees were considering taking with their pick in the first round of the 1992 draft. Surely that toothpick of a fresh-faced kid on page 21 can’t be the captain? Ah, but it is, for even Derek Jeter was once a rookie. The Times’ reporters of the day, mostly Jack Curry and Claire Smith, chronicle Jeter’s rise through the team’s farm system and the glorious 1996 season. That was the year that began with management deciding at the very start of spring training that the 21-year old rookie would be the team’s starting shortstop. It ended with the Yankees beating the Atlanta Braves in six games to capture their first World Series since 1978, and Jeter winning the AL Rookie of the Year Award.

After this initial chapter, one of the strengths of the book is that the remaining ones are thematic rather than chronological. This structure allows the reader, for example, to see together a series of pieces written over several years that discuss Jeter’s emerging role as a leader in the clubhouse, up through and beyond his formal appointment as the 11th captain in Yankee history early in the 2003 season. In similar fashion, in single cohesive chapters one can find all of the accounts that focus on Jeter’s and the Yankees’ post-season exploits, or on his relationships with Yankee teammates, Yankee legends, and the late owner George Steinbrenner, or on his life off the field. That chapter is the book’s shortest, for Derek Jeter has always made his private life off-limits to the media. That he has succeeded in keeping it so while playing on the biggest stage under the brightest spotlight is a testament to both his determination and his character.

The task of bringing together all of this coverage from so many different writers fell to the Times’ Tyler Kepner, who wrote the book’s introduction. If Derek Jeter is a natural-born ballplayer, Kepner may be a natural-born sportswriter. At the very least he is someone who stayed true to a young dream and has seen it come true. Growing up in Philadelphia, Kepner was a Phillies fan and was publishing his own baseball magazine by age 14. Shortly thereafter he managed to get himself credentialed by the Phillies, which allowed him to interview players at Veterans Stadium (that had to be a different time; imagine an earnest blogger getting credentialed today!). After graduating from Vanderbilt, Kepner covered the Angels for the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before joining the Times. He covered the Mets beat for two years and is now in his second year as the paper’s national reporter on the Great Game. Between those two assignments, from 2002 to 2009 he was the Times’ Yankees beat reporter. In that role he probably saw more of and wrote more about Derek Jeter than any of the book’s other contributors. In a piece from 2007 Kepner captured in a single sentence the essence of Jeter’s performance over the years. Describing a winning home run against the Red Sox he wrote, “It was a Jeter special, extraordinary and routine all at once.”

In an email exchange I asked Kepner about his own personal favorite Jeter highlight. In reply he wrote, “The moments that seem most popular in the public’s mind are the flip play against Oakland in the 2001 playoffs and the dive into the stands at Yankee Stadium against Boston in 2004. The moment I think of, though, is the home run Jeter hit on the very first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series at Shea Stadium. The Mets had won Game 3, and if they ever had momentum in that series, it evaporated as soon as Jeter connected. To do that – on that stage, against the other New York team – symbolized so much and cemented Jeter’s place at the top of the hierarchy in New York sports.”

My own Jeter moment was also a home run, made special not just because I was in the tier at the old Stadium to see it, but because of who was nearby. It was June 18, 2005, when Jeter came to the plate with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 6th of an interleague game against the visiting Chicago Cubs. In the row behind me sat a father and his young son, the boy wearing a #2 jersey as do so many fans, young and old alike. As Jeter stepped into the batter’s box, the father explained to his son that one thing the boy’s hero had never done was hit a grand slam. In fact, Jeter then had the longest streak among active players of at-bats (5,770), at-bats with the bases loaded (135) and home runs (156) without connecting for a slam. The boy’s response, like Jeter’s approach to hitting, was simple. “Maybe today he will,” he said. Moments later, on a 2-1 pitch from Cubs reliever Joe Borowski, he did. In the ecstatic pandemonium as the ball sailed over the left centerfield fence, no fan screamed louder than the boy in the row behind me. It was the sound of pure joy, of a child’s wish coming true, of a boy’s hero coming through.

I also asked Kepner about the origins of the book. He responded, “We came up with the idea after the 2009 season, when Jeter won his fifth championship and passed Lou Gehrig on the Yankees’ career hits list. That accomplishment made a lot of people think about Jeter’s place in baseball history. With 2010 to work on the book, we were able to target it for this spring, coinciding with the start of his final push to 3,000 hits – 74 away as we start the 2011 season.”

The question seemed apt, since in 2010 the Yankees were soundly beaten by the Rangers in the ALCS and Jeter posted the worst offensive numbers of his career. The answer speaks to the amount of work involved in turning an idea into a published work. But the timing of this worthy volume also reminds Yankee fans of the question that only the new season can answer: was 2010 an aberration, or the beginning of an inevitable decline by their long-time hero?

“Derek Jeter: From the Pages of the New York Times” is a worthwhile addition to the library of any fan of the Game; the Bronx faithful in particular should add it to their collections. Meanwhile this Thursday Derek Jeter will be the first one out of the dugout, leading his team into a new season. All of us at the Stadium will clap hands, even as we hope that the captain still has a few more chapters left to write.

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