By Bob Gaydos
Confession: As coach of my son’s Little League team, I used my responsibility as uniform distributor to make sure that Zack got the number he wanted. Number 2.
Yeah, it’s the number probably 90 percent of the kids wanted, but I never felt guilty about it because: (a) the smaller kids got the lower numbers and Zack had a delayed growth spurt and (b) c’mon, what dad wouldn’t do what he could to help his son got Derek Jeter’s uniform number?
For those who may have been on another planet, Jeter is retiring after 20 years as a New York Yankee. This is his last week as a major league baseball player. The season has been a continuous homage to his career and, more significantly, to the professional, dignified manner in which he has lived it. Number 2 has been Number 1 when it comes to athletes as role models.
Some people (not Yankee fans) have complained that the Jeter Love Train has been a bit much this year, with tributes paid to him in every ballpark the Yankees visited. I can understand that, but when the commissioner of the league says he’s proud that Jeter has been the face of baseball for a decade or more, I think it’s important. There has been no hint of scandal attached to Jeter for his 20 years with the Yankees. No steroids. No arrests. No trash-talking or posturing.
And, by the way, only five players (Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker) have compiled more hits (3,460 and counting) than Jeter. He happens to have been a hell of a ballplayer. Clutch hits. Clutch plays in the field. Mr. November. The Captain. Five World Series rings. Mr. Consistency. More games at shortstop than anyone else. Never played another position. He is a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer and any baseball writer who doesn’t vote for him should have his voting privileges rescinded.
Jeter managed all this in the toughest market and media center in baseball — New York City. Funny thing though, while he qualifies as an all-time great and conceding that playing with the Yankees has helped burnish his image, Jeter doesn’t even make the list of top five Yankees of all time in my opinion. That would be Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra. Still, being number six to that group is no small thing and it’s hard to imagine anyone breaking in to that Top Six club.
Mostly, when I look at Jeter’s career, I’m impressed with how quietly he went about his job, how almost routine he made the anything-but-routine appear. I don’t know how humble one can be when millions of fans shower you with praise every day for a year, when TV commercials extol your nice-guyness. Of course, Jeter has made hundreds of millions of dollars from baseball and those product endorsements. But that’s the world we live in and he has managed to carry it off with a sense of grace and dignity. You don’t hear those words used much around athletes these days.
Not to belabor what is really only repetitive, I felt an obligation to publicly thank Derek Jeter for showing youngsters how to go about whatever they do in life with a sense of purpose, responsibility, dedication, modesty, focus and respect for others. For showing them how to be grateful for the gifts they may have. That he also played baseball much better than most others was icing on the cake.
So here’s to Number 2. That number will be retired by the Yankees this year, which means a new generation of young ballplayers will have to find another number to demand. And a new group of dads will try to make it happen.