Saturday, September 12, 2009
As shortstop Derek Jeter stepped to the plate for his first at-bat of last night's game between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles his hometown fans were ready. They had braved this windy, rainy Friday night in order to be in the stands at the new Yankee Stadium in order to watch history be made.
This would be no ordinary baseball history, but would mark a truly significant accomplishment. With just one more hit, the Yankee team captain and longtime leader would pass the immortal legend Lou Gehrig and become the all-time hits leader of the New York Yankees.
Let that roll around your mind for just a minute. This is the New York Yankees that we are talking about here. The single most iconic franchise in American professional sports history. Winners of 26 World Series championships. Playing in the spotlight and the crucible that is America's largest sports market.
The players that Jeter had to pass in order to reach this point represent a true Who's Who of baseball history: Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, Reggie Jackson, Bernie Williams. Jeter had passed them all to tie Gehrig at the top of the Yanks' career hits mountain with 2,721 base knocks.
Derek Jeter began his career when he was selected as the 6th overall pick in the 1992 MLB draft by the New York Yankees. The Yanks earned that high pick because they were in the midst of one of the worst stretches in the history of the storied franchise, suffering through their fourth consecutive losing season, intolerable in America's largest market with some of the most demanding (and spoiled) fans, and with a still cantankerous George Steinbrenner pushing the buttons of ownership.
Jeter was a skinny shortstop who batted just .202 in his first minor league season, but in 1993 he became the top prospect in his league, and by 1994 was honored as the Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America, the industries leader in such evaluations. In 1995 he got a cup of coffee with the big league Yankees when he was called up to cover for an injury, but was quickly returned to the minors. It would be the last time he was demoted.
By 1996, Jeter was awarded the starting shortstop job for a Yankees team that was beginning to emerge from those losing seasons. He began that first full season by homering on Opening Day, and ended the regular season being named as the American League Rookie of the Year. To cap it all off, he led the Yanks into the playoffs and to their first World Series title in nearly two decades.
Jeter would go on to become perhaps the single most vital player as the Yankees returned to the World Series in 5 of the next 7 seasons, winning 3 more titles. In the 2000 season he became the first player in Major League history to win both the All-Star Game and the World Series MVP awards as the Yanks beat the cross-town Mets in the game's first 'Subway Series' in 45 years.
All during this stretch of team excellence, and on through the first decade of a new century, Derek Jeter continued to play outstanding shortstop defense, pile up the hits, and lead the Yankees to excellent seasons. He won three Gold Glove awards for fielding excellence at the demanding shorstop position, creating a hallmark 'jump throw' from the shortstop hole that has created an entirely new term for such plays as being "Jeterian" in nature.
Having signed a 10-year, $189 million dollar contract in 2001, Jeter was set financially for the rest of his life. In the 2003 season he was named as the Yankees official team Captain, a ceremonial title but one that carried significant leadership acknowledgement. He is a 10-time all-star, and a 4-time Yankees team Player of the Year.
In his personal life, Derek Jeter has provided the fans and more importantly the tabloid writers of New York with repeated material over the years as the confirmed bachelor has had relationships with and dated a laundry list of celebrities: Mariah Carey, Scarlett Johannson, Gabrielle Union, Jessica Alba, Vanessa Minillo, Jessica Biel, Minka Kelly, and even a former Miss Universe, Lara Dutta.
So as their beloved championship-winning, celeb-dating captain Derek Jeter stepped to the plate for his first at-bat last night, tied with Gehrig, the fans roared and the flashbulbs popped. Jeter would be up against driving rain as the game began, as well as a fireballing rookie phenom pitcher for the Orioles by the name of Chris Tillman. As Tillman delivered and the flashbulbs popped in anticipation, Jeter swung through the kid's fastball and struck out.
The complete anti-climax of the moment was replaced by a question: would these fans even get a chance to see history on this night? As hard as it was raining, there was a chance that Jeter wouldn't even get to bat again if the game did not go on. But the teams continued to slog through the same rain that was canceling and delaying games in other venues, the same rain that the Phillies were playing through a few hundred miles to the south.
In the bottom of the 3rd inning, with the Yankees on top by a 3-1 score and the rain having trailed off somewhat to a light drizzle, here came Derek Jeter strolling to the plate once again for his 2nd at-bat. Quickly, Tillman again tried to bust Jeter inside with his explosive fastball. This time, Jeter was ready. Using his patented "inside out" swing, Jeter sliced the ball on a line drive past the first baseman and into right field for a clean single.
As he rounded first base and stopped there, Derek Jeter was the new all-time hits leader for the most legendary baseball franchise of all. He was quickly surrounded by his teammates in congratulations as the game was stopped just momentarily. The fans roared their approval as flashbulbs continued to pop, and the crowd began what has become a regular chant over the past decade: "Deh-Rek Jee-Ter! Deh-Rek Jee-Ter!" they chanted over and over.
Now in his 15th year of Major League Baseball, all played with that same New York Yankees franchise, Derek Jeter is putting together one of his best seasons ever at age 35. He is 4th among all American League hitters with a .331 batting average. He is playing shortstop as well as he has ever played it. And he has those Yankees back on top of the American League east division standings, appearing poised for another playoff run deep into October with their captain leading the way.