Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 23, 2020

Some Good News For The Great Game

Captain Clutch came through again. Five years removed from his playing days, this week Derek Jeter showed he had lost none of his impeccable timing, delivering for fans of the Great Game the way he did for the Yankees’ faithful so many times during his two decades in the Bronx. After ten days of relentlessly bad news for baseball, a week and a half filled with non-stop stories of sophisticated cheating schemes, season long suspensions, multiple firings of those in positions of authority, and arrogant attitudes by some of the players most deeply enmeshed in the deceit, Jeter’s near-unanimous election to the Hall of Fame reminded us that the Great Game is about so much more than high tech video and low tech trash can banging. On Wednesday 396 members of the Baseball Writers Association of American honored ability, determination, winning with class, losing with dignity and, of course, having the incredible good fortune to live out one’s childhood dream on the grandest stage in sports.

That Jeter would be elected to the Hall in this, his first year of eligibility, was never in doubt. The only question was his final vote total. The 396 ballots on which his name was marked represented all but one of the total number returned to the Hall by BBWAA members prior to the December 31st deadline. There was the inevitable grumbling by some fans and pundits about the determination of one writer – presumably a diehard Red Sox fan – to deny Jeter a unanimous vote matching that received by his teammate Mariano Rivera last year. Yet by falling short of 100%. albeit by the smallest possible margin, the result symbolizes baseball’s eternal truth and greatest attraction – it is a sport in which, like life, success is almost never defined by perfection. To the contrary, the Great Game is all about minimizing failure and making the most of small opportunities.

Certainly Jeter understood that during his years as New York’s shortstop. In his very first big league game, after being called up from the minors to join the Yankees while the team was on a west coast road trip early in the 1995 campaign, the 20-year-old went hitless in five trips to the plate at Seattle’s old Kingdome, a forgettable start that hardly presaged the career that was to come.

That career was about more than numbers, though Jeter’s stats are impressive enough – a .310 batting average, sixth on the career hits list with 3,465, a record seventeen straight seasons with at least 150 hits and second all-time with thirteen years in which he scored 100 or more runs. The sabermetric mavens love to criticize his defensive ability, but any Yankee fan who ever saw the captain go deep into the hole between short and third to spear a grounder headed for left field and then nab the batter at first with a jump throw across his body was quite content with Jeter’s “D.”

But when the Yankee faithful speak of Jeter, they cite not numbers but moments. Jeter racing across the diamond to foul ground wide of the first base line, arriving just in time to snare an errant throw from right fielder Shane Spencer and flip the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged out Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi and preserved a playoff victory. The Flip. Jeter hurtling headfirst into the stands along the third base line at the old Stadium after snaring a seeing-eye pop fly that appeared to be a sure tie-breaking hit for the Red Sox. The Dive. Jeter stepping to the plate with the bases loaded in June 2005, having more at-bats without a grand slam than any active player. High up in the upper deck, a father explains this to his young son, and the boy replies “I’ll bet he hits one now.” As if hearing the plea by some mystical power of conduction, Jeter answers the child with a drive into the visitor’s bullpen in left center field. The Slam.

There were countless more of course, all leading to the final moment. Jeter’s last game in the Bronx, when the fairy tale career played out as all good fairy tales must. David Robertson, filling in for the injured Mo, has what Yankee fans will always call the best blown save ever. A 5-2 New York lead in the top of the 9th turns into a 5-5 tie with the Orioles. But that gives Jeter one more trip to the plate in the bottom of the frame, with one away and the winning run on second. The captain wastes no time, putting his familiar inside out swing on the first pitch from Baltimore’s Evan Meek. The ball slices past the infielders and into right. Antoan Richardson races home from second, just beating the throw from Nick Markakis, and the Yankees have a walk-off win. On the YES Network, Michael Kay sums up the moment, and the career, “Derek Jeter, where fantasy becomes reality!”

Through all the memorable moments Jeter never forgot the hard lesson taught by his first game in the majors. That a superstar’s batting average still meant failing almost seven out of every ten at-bats. That five rings still meant fifteen years when the Yankees fell short of their annual goal. That the bookend to that final game-winning hit was a second inning error on the first ball hit to shortstop that night. It was a sense of balance that enabled him to lead a team on which there were always players better at specific parts of the game. Jeter was never the top slugger, or the slickest fielder, or the fastest runner, and often not the best pure hitter on the roster. But he was the most complete player, and that, coupled with his understanding that the first lesson baseball teaches is humility, made him a natural leader.

When the Yankees were debating whether to take him with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft, there was concern that Jeter might follow his girlfriend and enroll at the University of Michigan. But Dick Groch, the scout who had been observing the high school phenom for more than two years, knew that while he lived in the upper Midwest, Jeter had been born in New Jersey and grew up dreaming of playing shortstop at the Stadium.

“Anyone could see the skills, but you had to know he could play in New York City,’’ Groch told an interviewer years later. “It’s not all about athleticism. He had another special component. He was humble, but he played aggressively. He played the game composed. He had an ability to relate to everyone on the team. He handled failure well. He assessed what the problem was and played through it.” Asked by the Yankees front office if he was sure that Jeter would sign, Groch replied, “He’s not going to Michigan. The only place Derek Jeter’s going is Cooperstown.” Now he is, a symbol of the Great Game at its best. The current players who have been in the headlines the past ten days would do well to learn from Jeter’s example.

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