Just minutes ago, I witnessed history. With David Price on the mound, John Jaso putting down the signals, and Michael Kay calling it on the YES network, Derek Jeter took a 3-2 slider and planted it in the left field seats. Just his 3rd home run of the year, it was the 3,000th hit of his career, a feat only matched by 28 other men. As his teammates surrounded him at home plate, I thought back to my first encounter with Derek Jeter, because it was then that I realized how special an individual #2 truly is.
The year was 1997 and I was a 12 year old with a mushroom haircut. On a family trip to Florida, I was informed that we would journey to Tampa to see my beloved Yankees at spring training. This was particularly special because after 12 years of struggle, the Yankees had finally delivered a world championship.
As images of Charlie Hayes clutching the last out and Wade Boggs riding the horses conjured in my mind, we approached Legends Field (since renamed George M. Steinbrenner field). After being kicked out of the players lot by George himself (that's a true story, refer back to my article on Steinbrenner for it!), we made our way inside, with my hopes on getting to meet my favorite Yankee of all..............Paul O'Neill. Hey, this story is good, but I won't lie and tell you that Jeter was my favorite just to make it work!!
We get inside and I immediately run down towards the dugout. I've never been a rich kid, so this was my chance to get as close to the action as possible. I immediately realized that I had made the right decision, as the on deck circle was mere feet away from where I stood. Of course. you can't obtain such a view without sharing the wealth, so rather than get angry, I befriended the nudging child trying to take my spot. We quickly realized that teaming up might benefit us in the long run, and boy were we right!
Two voices can be quite powerful, as I believe we set the standard for the future bleacher creatures by getting most players to wave to us. Of course, a wave is momentarily bliss, followed by lengths of underachievement. It seemed fleeting that a player would remotely make time for us, so my new friend and I began to plan out our autograph strategy for later. Just as we had given up hope, into the on deck circle stepped a lanky kid who had just won rookie of the year, Derek Jeter.
"Derek! Derek!" we yelled, hoping to get the wave we had received from the rest of the players.
We did not get a wave.
Instead, the future Yankee captain stepped towards us, continuing his practice swings while saying "hey guys, how are you doing?"
Never one to be shy, I blurt out "Great! Much better than being in New York this time of year!"
Derek laughed and we shared our mutual displeasure for cold weather. My friend started to get in on the conversation as it started becoming friendly, almost as if this future superstar was just an old friend. At no point did it dawn on me what was truly going on here, I was just enjoying a conversation with a ballplayer.
About five minutes go by with literally no break in the conversation when Derek says to us "listen guys, I gotta go hit, but when we sign autographs later, make sure you are still here."
"Ok Derek" we say in unison, not really knowing what that meant. Did he want to see us again? Was he merely trying to get us to draw him a crowd for autographs? It seemed this ominous statement would determine my opinion of Derek Jeter forever, but would it be a good thing?
Truth be told, I don't remember much of what happened between that conversation and the end of practice. It didn't really seem to matter. All that we could think about was autograph time and what fate it would bring. I was hoping Jeter would follow through, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn't hoping that Paul O'Neill would make his way towards us as well.
The end of practice came and players scattered the field, finding different groups of fans to sign for. Sadly, Paul O'Neill stayed in right field and signed for the fans out there, leaving me hundreds of feet away from my curly haired hero. Still, we were in an opportune spot as Joe Torre was the first tome come our way, followed shortly thereafter by coach Willie Randolph. I also got a chance to meet Lee Mazilli, a special moment due to the fact that he wasn't just a coach, he was a high school friend of my mother's. Knowing little about baseball, it was the one moment that meant anything to her that day as she caught his attention by bringing up his first car that she had driven in many years before.
While the current manager and two future MLB managers were a great thrill to meet for a combine 20 seconds, we held out hope that a current player would come to our section. Sure enough, as if on cue, Derek Jeter made his way to our section, the first place he would go to sign. As it happened, I felt a pain in my back.
That pain was another child pushing me out of the way, holding out his baseball like Oliver Twist asking for more grool. I fell to my knees, quickly popping back up out of pure adrenaline and fear that I would be overlooked by the man who spent so much time talking to me earlier.
As Derek came to a stop along the wall, he perused the front line of kids. Before signing a single autograph, his eyes met mine 4 rows deep (the fall cost me my spot dearly) and he called out to me.
"Guys, I promised that kid from New York that I'd be back. Let him through"
The sea of shocked children parted as if I were Moses with the Israelites and I made my way towards Derek Jeter. Separated only by the two foot wall, I looked up at the seemingly gigantic athlete, unsure of what to say to this gesture.
"Thanks" is all I could get out, as I was surely grateful that he remembered me, but I didn't think that single word truly expressed my feelings on the situation.
"Hey, you kept me company earlier. You deserve this" he replied, seemingly more thankful that I was nice to him than I was for him taking time to talk to me.
I received my ball back with Jeter's now infamous signature written in gold (don't ask why my pen was a weird color). I looked up at Jeter and smiled. He smiled back, then turned his attention to the rest of his adoring fans. It was the last moment we'd have that connection, but I walked away smiling, forever vowing to root for this wonderful guy who made my day.
That ball sits on a shelf beside my bed today as a reminder. I am not an autograph collector so that ball is an anomaly in my room, appearing there purely as a reminder of that great day in 1997. I have kept my vow and so too has Derek. He has since become an icon, a legend in the game of baseball, and more importantly, he has done so without incident. He was been the model citizen and model ballplayer I believed he could be back when he was a kid younger than me today. In an era of scandal, controversy, and bad behavior, Jeter stands alone as a true hero, a man who has never deviated from his classiness and kindness.
When milestones occur, it is always special, but it is moreso because of who it happened to today. I couldn't think of a better man to have this honor than Derek Jeter, the man who no matter what, will always hold a special place in my heart for that February day in 1997.