By Sweeny Murti
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We know Derek Jeter’s highlight reel by heart, don’t we? After all, he’s different from Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle because every game he’s ever played as a Yankee was televised.
The Flip. The Dive. The 3,000th hit. The World Series celebrations.
I have had the privilege of watching Jeter’s career from a different side. I’ve seen all the same plays you have. But I’ve also seen him from a personal side in hundreds of interviews and informal chats in 14 years on the Yankees beat for WFAN. Sure, I remember the plays. I was just as amazed as you were.
But here are a few more things that made Jeter’s career fun for me to see up close:
I remember being quite entertained on a 2001 West Coast trip as Jeter and Tino Martinez took part in daily games of Connect Four before batting practice. People who compete for a living and hate to lose, playing a kid’s game? Outstanding fun.
I don’t just remember the Flip Play. I also remember the next spring, watching from the dugout as they practiced relays and cutoffs through different situations. Man on ﬁrst, ball hit into the right ﬁeld corner, everybody in motion—and where did Jeter go? Toward the ﬁrst base line, just like they drew it up. Happens every year, and it’s still one of my favorite days of the spring. In 2012, after being called out by nonbeliever Bobby Valentine, the Yankees were practicing this drill the very next day. Jeter ran across the ﬁeld faster than normal yelling, “See, we practice this!”
I remember ﬁnding out how superstitious Jeter is in 2002, when I mentioned to him about nine or 10 games into the season that he hadn’t struck out yet. He struck out twice that night, walked by me afterwards and said, “Don’t think I wasn’t thinking about you either.” After he struck out three times the next night, I actually tried to apologize and he said through half a smile (I think), “I’m not talking to you for a month.”
I remember a division-clinching game in Chicago where the captain’s voice broke through the joyous celebration to remind his teammates, “Everyone enjoy this one for a little while, we’ve got three more (celebrations) to go!” That was the mindset, always more winning to be done.
I remember talking college basketball with Jeter every spring. When his Michigan Wolverines would occasionally pull off a big win, guess who walked in the next day wearing a Michigan T-shirt, making sure to walk past me two or three times before changing into his uniform?
I remember never having much luck talking trash leading up to Penn State-Michigan football games. In October 2005, Michigan gave Penn State their only loss on Chad Henne’s last-second touchdown pass to Mario Manningham, one pass from being undefeated. I didn’t see Jeter until December at a press conference for the World Baseball Classic held during the Winter Meetings. He spotted me about 50 yards away across the hotel ballroom, broke out laughing and mouthed “so close.”
In 2008, when Penn State hammered Michigan 46-17, Jeter was spotted on the sidelines at a University of Texas game the same day. I remember thinking he must have been looking at the scoreboard to see how Michigan was doing, certainly picturing me and shaking his head. When I did ﬁnally run into him months later and mentioned the game, Jeter responded–as he often did–with, “Why you bringing up old stuff?” There’s that famous mindset–yesterday is over, move on.
Jeter never offered up much about his personal life, but one time he asked me about my ethnic background. When I told him I was Indian, he opened the door just a crack and replied casually, “I dated an Indian girl once.” It took a second for that to register before I realized he was talking about a former Miss Universe. I chuckled and moved on, understanding more than ever the different worlds we were living in.
I remember walking down the hall at MLB headquarters with Jeter in 2007, a walk that took about 60 seconds. In those 60 seconds, Jeter stopped to sign three autographs and pose for two pictures, even as security people were telling fans he wasn’t there to sign. I thought about what it must be like to be this guy 24 hours a day, and how he handles it, especially in the social media age. It’s why Robin Ventura told me in 2012 that Jeter is the greatest Yankee ever. As in … ever.
I remember running into Dr. Charles Jeter the night in 2009 that his son tied Lou Gehrig’s all-time Yankees hits record. It was long after the game, and the Jeter family was walking the concourse after leaving their suite. When I shook his hand and said congratulations–the look in Dr. Jeter’s eyes. I will never forget it. He described to me seeing his son wanting to be a Yankee from the time he was knee-high, and now he was on the verge of Yankee history. A proud-father moment that will stick with me forever.
I remember Jeter reading WFAN promotional liners every spring and always doing them in one take.
I remember seeing Jeter sift through a crowd of autograph seekers in Detroit to ﬁnd the young girl holding a sign that read, “Derek, I’m from Kalamazoo too, will you please sign my picture?” Yes, he did.
I remember watching Jeter have more fun taking ground balls during batting practice than a man is supposed to have when doing something for the 10,000th time.
I remember watching Jeter in a rehab game at Triple-A and going through batting practice like he was just one of the guys, when everyone there knew he clearly was not.
I remember the look in Jeter’s eyes during every postseason loss for nearly a decade, and I remember the smile that wouldn’t go away after winning again in 2009.
And I will always remember August of 2010, when Jeter made sure to ﬁnd me on the last day I worked before I took a week-long break to get married. He shook my hand, looked me in the eye and wished me luck. That’s a pretty cool thing to tell my kids one day. And yes, he shook my hand and congratulated me when they were born, too.
The highlight reel of Derek Jeter’s career is pretty obvious. And it will take you about 30 seconds to ﬁnd it on your phone. My memories are the ones that aren’t on YouTube. That’s why I was particularly struck by something Roger Angell said earlier this summer. Angell was elected by the Baseball Writers as this year’s winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, and honored at Hall of Fame weekend in Cooperstown.
Angell told Sports Illustrated, “I can still see in the mind’s eye plays that happened generations ago.”
He then went on to describe how constant replays on TV have taken away some of the awe factor associated with those things we saw up close.
“We have access to great moments and players every night over and over. Replay is fabulous, but it takes away the feeling … if you’re going to see something once, you are going to put it away. If you see it time and time again, it doesn’t mean as much.”
I was there for The Flip and The Dive and hundreds of other Jeter moments. I’ve seen the jump throws and the ﬁst pumps, and so have you, more times than you can remember. And yes, they do still mean something.
But Angell is right. What remains in the mind’s eye in 10, 20, or 50 years–that’s what I will remember about Derek Jeter.
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