Baseball is fortunate these days to have Derek Jeter around. As such former luminaries as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are battling in criminal courts to stay out of jail, Mr. Jeter is trying to get hit number 3000 in his career. It will happen any day now. No other Yankee has ever achieved that goal and in itself that is a major accomplishment.
The Yankees have had many Hall of Fame players including the greatest player in history, Babe Ruth, his teammate Lou Gehrig, the elegant Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and on and on. None of them accumulated 3000 hits. Jeter deserves the acclaim he is about to receive.
I am already applauding.
But as is often the case in baseball there are many layers to the Jeter story.
Most importantly the Yankees and MLB are fortunate Derek Jeter is such a fine person. He has worn the Yankee jersey with particular dignity. Not once has he been involved in any form of public disgrace or brought opprobrium upon himself or his team or the baseball institution. He stands tall as the captain of the Yankees in such company as Gehrig, Thurman Munson and others of similar style. He comes to the ball park every day to play with dedication and effort. He is the essential professional.
I once asked Cal Ripken how he wanted to be remembered by fans of the future -- his answer applies to Jeter. Ripken said, “I want to be remembered as a ‘gamer…someone who came out every day, did his best, and was a professional player.”
To me Ripken well summarized what is so joyful and special about Jeter. The operative word is “professional.”
Leadership is now becoming the subject of considerable academic study. There is great interest in how leaders do what they do.
As the Yankee captain, Jeter leads his team with seeming insouciance. Watching him from a distance one gets the sense he is not prone to speeches but rather leads and inspires by example.
He is following in a long line of Yankees in so doing. The eminent Joe DiMaggio told me the leader of the Yankees when he joined the team in 1936 was the legendary first baseman Lou Gehrig and when I asked how Gehrig demonstrated leadership, Joe responded simply, “By how he played. Everything he did he did full out. The little pop up got his full effort.”
When Joe’s turn came he did the same thing. He simply played the game with total intensity. In a season of 162 games it is no small thing to play every day with the highest level of commitment. Jeter leads as those other Yankees did and he has been justly praised for his effectiveness.
The essence of the game of baseball is the ability of a player to hit and over his career Jeter has not only been able to get 3000 hits but to get a large number of crucial hits. His ability to drive the ball to right field with an inside out swing had led to any number of Yankees successes and even to some lucky breaks.
It was his drive toward the stands that a fan reached out over the field to touch in a playoff game and when the umpire wrongly ruled the ball was a home run, baseball fans realized again the baseball gods still love the Yankees. Jeter has had his share of such luck but his iconic play is likely to be his hustle play to redirect a throw from the outfield and flip the ball backhanded to the catcher who tagged out Jason Giambi at home to preserve another Yankee win in a playoff game against the Oakland A’s. That play involved Jeter being in the right place along the first base line to redirect an errant relay throw with a back hand flip that remains a remarkable example of a player who has extended his effort to be in just the right place at precisely the right time. When praised for the play, Jeter typically responded he was simply doing what he had been taught to do. He was, in sum, being a professional.
There is some sadness around Jeter these days and even his 3000th hit will not dissipate it. He is showing signs of his age.
He has had what, for him, has been a weak first half of the season and while he expresses hope and belief he will do better there is the increasing awareness he is human.
But as we regret seeing our heroes reflect the fact they are like us and not deities immune from aging, we also regret there are not more players like Jeter.
A few days ago a Yankee outfielder got a hit and simply jogged toward first base. As the Yankee announcer properly bemoaned that kind of poor performance, I was reminded how much fun it is to watch the truly professional like Jeter. Not all professional players act like professionals. For his example, we all should stand to respect this great Yankee.
Fay Vincent is a former CEO of Columbia Pictures Industries and from 1989-92 served as the Commissioner of Baseball.