Derek Jeter comes to the plate for the final time at Yankee Stadium tonight. His adoring crowd jumps to their feet applauding the man for all that he brought to baseball.
Thank you, Derek, for the 20 seasons of stellar performances on and off the field. You are truly a role model for all of us. You were never lured by enhancement drugs, you never abused anyone or anything, and you never let your fame go to your head. You remained humble right to the end. You are an exemplary force that played America’s game with class and style.
But you may not be aware of all the people whose lives you touched; people who you never met. That is surely a powerful position to play.
I want to tell you about someone who was one of your biggest fans—actually she was one of the Yankees’ biggest fans. I grew up loving the Yankees and I sat next to my mother, even as a little girl, cheering for the boys in pin stripes. This tradition started long before I was born. My mom’s cousin Sunny was a die-hard Yankees fan. Mom would visit her cousin every Sunday and together they rooted on their beloved team.
Picture this, the 1948 Yankees consisting of stars like Joe DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, Yogi Berra and all the rest. The Yankees lit up Sunny who was a very sick young man dying of multiple sclerosis, but his beloved Yankees gave him the chance to escape in the game where he found infinite enjoyment. After Sunny passed, mom remained loyal to the team.
By the time you showed up in pin stripes, Derek, it was 1994 and mom was an old pro at being a Yankees fan. She loved the “core four” from the start. Every year, she was certain the Yankees would bring home the championship trophy, and they did five times with you as shortstop.
A typical Yankees game in our house was met with an enthusiastic play-by-play from Mom. She would say of Jorge Posada, “Keep an eye on Jorge. He never lets the ball get away from him.”
Of Andy Petit, she would say, “Andy knows how to pitch. Just look at his finesse.”
Of Mariano Rivera, she would say, “Oh, it’s time, the Sandman is coming out. He’s going to put the game away now, just you see.” And of you Derek, each time you came to the plate, she said, “I love Derek Jeter. He goes all out every time he’s at the plate.”
Derek, I think Mom loved you most of all.
One time, Mom said something that sort of amused me. “Look at the back of their jerseys,” she noted. “See, they don’t have their names like the other teams do. Maybe I should call George (meaning Steinbrenner) and offer to sew them on for the team.”
She was genuinely concerned that the Yankees were missing out. I tried to assuage her by responding, “Oh, Mom, I think the Yankees want it that way. They play as a united team, so no need for individual names. They all have their numbers. I guess they feel that’s enough.” After some consideration, she decided to forgo that call to George.
In 2007, Mom suffered a terribly debilitating stroke. She had developed macular degeneration before the stroke, and that unforgiving disease took what remained of her eyesight after the stroke. She could just see shadows then, but that never deterred her from sitting close up to the TV watching her Yankees.
Her grandson, Richard, had taken on the family tradition and joined Mom in spurring on the Yankees. Richard would announce, “Grandma, the Yankees are on.”
“Oh, good, let’s watch. I can’t wait to see what Derek does today,” was always her enthusiastic reply.
Together they celebrated the wins and never got totally disappointed over the losses. Mom would say, “Don’t worry, they’ll come back tomorrow.” And in 2009, they did come back for yet another win.
Unfortunately, mom never made it to the World Series that year. She passed away on September 27, 2009. And though she wasn’t there in her ringside seat to see you collect your fifth ring, somehow I feel she was looking down from Heaven smiling.
So you see, Derek, while you were at the plate with laser focus on the ball, millions of fans, like my mom, focused on your successes as a Yankee. You gave Mom much happiness right up to the very end of her life. When Mom was in her final days at the hospital, then in Hospice care, I drove to her each day listening to John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman on Yankees Radio 880 AM.
The Yankees gave me some solace, some escape during those tough times. I watched the parade that our fine city gave the Yankees for winning the World Series. And as the 2009 Yankees gave their speeches and Jay-Z sang “Empire State of Mind,” I cheered from Mom’s living room chair and I know Mom cheered from her new ringside seat in Heaven.