For those who have paid no attention to sports over the years or to baseball in particular, Derek Jeter plays shortstop for one of the most famed franchises in American sports history, the New York Yankees. For those who have paid attention, his burgeoning status as The Icon of professional baseball has been obvious all along. His unique stature as a player was so rare that the Yankees made sure that the face of their franchise would never play for any other team. Today’s modern-era professional athletes change uniforms several times in their career via trade or free-agency. It is so uncommon for players to remain with the same team for the duration of their career that the number of players whose careers spanned at least 2,000 games in only one uniform is a scant 36.
Although professional baseball is not considered by conventional standards to be a contact sport such as football or hockey, baseball’s 162-game regular season schedule far overshadows football’s 16 games and hockey’s 82 games and requires intensive conditioning and endurance to enable players to physically navigate such an extreme schedule. It has also been argued that the skill and reflexes required to hit a baseball are nothing short of astonishing. Breaking it down, the batter’s challenge is to solidly hit a spherical object traveling at nearly 100 miles per hour from a point only 60 feet six inches away with another spherical object having approximately the same diameter as the approaching missile. Adding to the difficulty are the various intra-flight movements of the ball that pitchers are able to induce and yes, it does take some degree of courage for a batter to stand right there in harm’s way. This task is considered so daunting that if a player fails 70 percent of the time, he is considered wildly successful. Derek Jeter’s lifetime “failure” rate after 19 full seasons is .312 and is just one accomplishment in a parade of accomplishments that will unquestionably chauffeur him into baseball’s Hall of Fame.
To illustrate the difficulties even further, every possible aspect of the sport including situations and a player’s performance in those situations, is translated into a metric that can be counted and compiled as a statistic enabling managers and coaches to construct what they hope will be a winning strategy. Stop watches, hand-held tally counters and radar guns are very much a part of this evolution. In essence, baseball has continually evolved and is much more difficult and complex than it was decades ago. Nonetheless, in his metamorphosis toward the iconic figure he has become, he has been steadfastly committed to a righteous and low-key lifestyle and rigorous work ethic.
Jeter’s leadership was all too evident in the Yankees organization, and in 2003 they named him their 14th team captain. His athletic prowess on the field year after year is captured in endless film clips of acrobatic catches and clutch hitting. One of the most revered pinnacles in baseball is 3,000 hits. On July 10, 2011, Jeter joined only 28 other players in the history of the sport who have reached this plateau. He did so in storied fashion with a home run during a game in which he had five hits against the Tampa Bay Rays in front of his home town fans at Yankee Stadium. The event could not possibly have been more poetic. He has a collection of World Series rings, All Star selections, Gold Gloves and other humanitarian awards. A film containing all of his highlights would be a production of epic proportions. He has crafted a hitting style so much his own that the term Jeterian Swing was coined by New York Yankees commentator John Sterling.
These are not the only factors that have made him the iconic figure that represents all that is good with professional baseball. What puts him in a category all his own is that he is the manifestation of what baseball fans have had a long-standing yearning for. He is the consummate role model. His deep respect for the game is on display every time he steps between the white chalk lines. He is a genuine ambassador for the sport and plays the game the way it was meant to be played. Going on 20 years now, this truly special player has been a refreshing reminder to fans that there are still athletes who are worthy of their praise not only for their exploits on the field, but also for their demeanor and lifestyle off of it. His close relationship with his parents, who attend the vast majority of his home games, demonstrates the importance of family and the core values that are associated with family. His ethics and respect for himself, the fans, and especially the game of baseball, have allowed him to keep his eye on the prize that each of us as human beings should have as our own; to find the person he was meant to be and become him. He shuns the temptations, the distractions, the controversies, and the scandals that have stained other players who may have been as talented, but not nearly as focused or committed to their ideals, assuming they ever had any. Day in and day out, he takes his position at shortstop, then quietly but effectively does his job to the best of his God-given ability.
It would be naive to imagine that the Yankees’ long-time shortstop does not understand his life’s purpose, at least up to this point. After all, as of this writing he is still only 39 years old. He knows what he is all about and what he means to his fans, and to the game of baseball. 2014 will be his twilight season. Baseball is much bigger than any one man and he has served America’s pastime with the respect and dignity it deserves. The consistency with which he approaches every game is an obvious reflection of his deeply rooted love for the game. It is highly doubtful that he intended to arrive at this particular destination–to become The Icon of professional baseball. It is also doubtful that his arrival was accidental. No. The man merely followed his boyhood dream to play Major League Baseball and continued doing so with enviable relentless passion. Nowhere in his career can it be found that Derek Jeter was all about Derek Jeter. The game of baseball and the spirit of teamwork toward the objective of winning have always come before his own interests. He has been selfless in this regard. Even David “Big Papi” Ortiz of the rival Boston Red Sox recognizes the class and the overall contributions he has made to the sport and the impact he has had among baseball fans everywhere, stating “Derek Jeter is the one guy that the baseball game is going to miss.” If there ever was a person who could epitomize what it means to be The Icon of professional baseball, it is Derek Jeter.
Commentary by Mark Politi