Derek Jeter: Saying Goodbye to the Captain

A look back at his amazing career

Derek Jeter used to say that playing under the lights at the old Yankee Stadium — with the field so vividly illuminated, and the crowd a bit shrouded in darkness — made him feel as if he were performing on Broadway. For two decades, his show has been a hit in the Bronx. But now he is leaving the stage.

As Jeter prepares for his final curtain call, he bows out with more than 3,400 hits, a top-10 ranking on the career list for hits and runs scored, five World Series championships and endless goodwill in New York and beyond.

“If you were sitting two decades ago and you said, ‘Boy, this is a guy that I want to be the face of baseball and be what this generation will remember,’ you couldn’t have written a script like this,” said Commissioner Bud Selig, on the day of Jeter’s final All-Star Game this July. “How lucky can this sport be to have the icon of this generation turn out to be Derek Jeter?”

Part of Jeter’s brilliance has been his savvy approach to his public persona. Players admire him not only for his grace on the field, but also for how smooth he is off it. He keeps his personal life private, despite playing in New York.

“He was the guy I looked up to all the time,” said Carlos Correa, one of baseball’s top prospects and the No. 1 overall pick of the Houston Astros in 2012. “He was great on the field and he was even better outside the field. That’s the guy I want to be compared to.”

Jeter’s guarded, sometimes bland image often makes him seem like simply a collection of superlatives. We know he has been by all accounts, a pleasant and charitable man. But where, beyond the words, is the evidence?

Everywhere, actually. It was there before his rookie season, in 1996, when the Yankees’ new manager, Joe Torre, declared Jeter as his starting shortstop. Jeter responded by saying he was grateful for the opportunity to win the job.

“In his mind, he had to earn the right to be the shortstop,” Torre said. “In my mind, I was giving him the right to be the shortstop. It’s different. That impressed me.”

When Jeter would make an error or mental mistake, he would sit next to Torre in the dugout, ready for whatever his manager had to say. He would continue that trait for years.

“You didn’t have to tell Derek, because he owned up to it if he made a mistake,” said Larry Bowa, the Yankees’ infield coach in 2006-07. “He never made excuses. I’d see a ball take a bad hop on him, and he comes up and says, ‘I’ve gotta catch that ball.’”

Jeter, the Yankees’ captain, would laugh at the assumption that he was merely a leader by example. He showed that he would stand up for his values when he confronted veteran pitcher David Wells in a 1998 game. A lazy pop fly had dropped into the shallow part of the outfield, and Wells spread his hands on the mound, seeming to question his teammates’ effort. Jeter immediately admonished Wells, screaming at him that this was not the Yankee way.

Late in that season, the Yankees welcomed the Toms River, N.J., Little League team onto the field for the national anthem. Toms River had just won the Little League World Series, and one of their stars, Todd Frazier, lined up with Jeter.

Frazier grew up to be an All-Star third baseman for the Cincinnati Reds and worked out with Jeter in Florida one winter. That year, the Yankees played the Reds.

“He kind of winked at me, gave me a fake bunt because he was the first batter of the game,” Frazier said. “So he remembered. It was pretty cool, how he doesn’t forget his roots or other people he gets to know. That’s pretty awesome to say, ‘I know Derek Jeter,’ especially from where I grew up. Everybody’s a little jealous.”

Xander Bogaerts, the Boston Red Sox infielder, wears No. 2 to honor Jeter, his favorite player growing up in Aruba. When Bogaerts doubled for his first hit at Yankee Stadium, Jeter greeted him with a word of congratulations and a joke: Don’t listen to anything Brian Butterfield, the Red Sox infield coach, tells you.

Butterfield was the Yankees’ infield instructor when Jeter was in the minors and worked tirelessly with him on defense. He offered a word of advice to the Jeter generation.

“I have heard some players around the league say they’ve tried to pattern their game after him, and the biggest thing they need to watch, if they do want to idolize him, is how hard he has played the game,” Butterfield said. “I’ve never seen a time where he has let up on a routine ground ball running from home to first. The way a guy runs the bases, for me, speaks a lot about his character.” 

That combination of talent and makeup — the flair to make stylish plays on the field, and the maturity to carry himself with a kind of smooth grace off it — has made Jeter enormously popular. He sees this not just from fans, but also from teammates’ children. Jeter has no children of his own, but he has a knack for interacting with them seamlessly, treating them almost as peers.

“My son loves him because of how good he was to him and how well he treated him and how funny he was,” said former Yankee Raul Ibanez, 42. “He used to rag me all the time about my age. My son would actually use some of the stuff, and I said, ‘Hey, watch it!’” 

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons remembers looking up from his pre-game media scrum one day at Yankee Stadium to see Jeter casually chatting with Gibbons’ six-year-old son, Kyle. The next day, Gibbons bought a Jeter shirt for his son, and a Toronto fan snapped a photo and sent it to Gibbons’ boss. “So I got in trouble, man,” Gibbons said. “I thought, ‘You gotta be kidding me! Everybody loves Jeter.’ But we still sell Jeter stuff up in Toronto, too. What a coincidence.”

Jeter’s father, Charles, was a drug and alcohol abuse counselor, and when Jeter was a rookie, in 1996, he told his father over pizza in a hotel room that he wanted to start his own foundation. It became the “Turn 2” foundation, funding programs that discourage drug and alcohol use among young people and promote healthy lifestyles. The foundation has raised more than $19 million.

“People in our position, they should take advantage of it,” Jeter said, when he received the Roberto Clemente Award for community service during the 2009 World Series. “They should try to give back as much as possible.”

Jeter’s legacy of clutch on-field performances is well known: the World Series MVP award against the Mets in 2000, the ‘flip play’ against Oakland in the playoffs the next fall, the famous dive into the stands against Boston in July 2004. He delivered his 3,000th hit in style, with a home run as part of a five-hit day in 2011.

“You knew he was going to do something special, and then just to hit a home run, it’s like it was written to be,” reliever David Robertson said. “I know he went 5-for-5 because I blew the game and he had to come in and bail me out. I was nervous because I wanted to win that game for him and didn’t have my best stuff. That was an incredible day.”

Jeter has been celebrated with gifts at road ballparks all season, but he is not a memorabilia guy. He says he owns only one player’s signature: from Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame shortstop, whose broadcasts Jeter would listen to as a boy with his grandmother.

When the old Yankee Stadium closed, Jeter asked for one thing. He took the sign that hung in the dugout runway, the one he would tap with his hand on the way to his stage. It was emblazoned with the words of Joe DiMaggio: “I want to thank the Good Lord for making me a Yankee.”

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