By Ernie Palladino
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When Derek Jeter gets standing ovations in non-AL stadiums, as he did a couple of days ago at Wrigley Field, that’s the fairy tale.
When Juan Lagares flies off to his native Dominican Republic for his aunt’s funeral, misses just one game and then comes back to play hard, that’s real life.
Playing through one’s emotions is as much a part of sports as putting up the numbers that produce standing O’s. It is situations like Lagares’, not Jeter’s, which places all these players on a human level. We know through Lagares and others like him that hearts beat and often break under the bright-colored, game-day laundry, and that it’s not all because of a failed bunt or botched grounder.
This is nothing new. In fact, we have seen examples of this since early last week, when life invaded what could end as a magical playoff run for the Rangers. Martin St. Louis, who arrived in New York on March 5 from Tampa Bay, had to squeeze his mother’s wake and funeral into his postseason schedule following her sudden and unexpected death.
The Rangers have gone on to compile five playoff wins since her death, and St. Louis himself contributed two big goals in the first two wins of the Montreal series. The first came Saturday, the day after he appeared at his mother’s wake. The second came Monday, a second-period goal that gave his new teammates a 3-1 lead, one day after the entire team attended the funeral.
We saw it a couple of years ago on the MetLife Stadium gridiron, before 80,000 people who had just watched Victor Cruz take it in from 80 yards out against the Tampa Bay secondary. There in the corner of the end zone on Sept. 16, 2012, he swung into his trademark salsa. Only it wasn’t for the roaring crowd’s benefit this time. It was just Cruz and his grandmother, Lucy Molina, the woman who had taught him the dance and who had died that Monday. If only in Cruz’s mind, he danced with the old woman one last time in a combination of thanksgiving and celebration of a life well-lived.
The three players have all gone on to varying levels of success in their sports. By the looks of things, Lagares will continue to improve as the Mets’ center fielder. Last year, he established himself as a fine fielder, setting the franchise record for outfield assists. This year, he’s also doing it with the bat. On Wednesday, he had a career-tying three hits against the Dodgers and had the eventual game-winning hit on Thursday night.
Anyone who follows the Rangers knows what a sparkplug St. Louis has been with his five playoff goals and incredible poise in the face of heart-wrenching obstacles.
Cruz has done his grandmother proud in becoming the leader of the wide-receiver corps over the past two seasons.
Perhaps some day, the three of them will live the fairy tale Jeter is living now — nationwide admiration for class and accomplishment. Until then, each will know that they have gone on to produce despite the burdens of heavy hearts.
When real life invades sports, that’s when the true measure of an athlete is taken.
The rest is a storybook.
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