Warm Thoughts on a Chilly December Day

Some of you may have noticed the snow slowly falling across the screen at The Heartland.  When I went to the blog’s dashboard, I saw that WordPress had a feature to let that appear.  Since flurries have been falling here over the last day, and temperatures hovering in the mid-20s, I thought it was a good idea and indicative of the season.  For the next month, expect to see snow at The Heartland.  Personally, I like winter, its calm cold grace on a lightly snowing day, the serene scene of snow-covered yards and trees, a crisp but sunny morning, the reminder that one must be patient and resolute to endure it.  It’s a good season for reflection, especially over a warm cup of black coffee with sugar which I am enjoying as I write.

Thanks to regular reader Mike for sending along this fine article by Tom Verducci on Derek Jeter, SI’s Sportsman of the Year.  It’s a strong piece, full of familiar details of Jeter’s desire to win and his family background.  Yet at the same time, Verducci did well to supplement it with new insights, such as Jeter’s ripping former Yankees reliever Jay Witasick a new one after he and other Yankees were removed from the Game 6 blowout loss in the 2001 World Series. It’s worth quoting at some length:

The first time Jeter found himself one win away from his fifth world championship was on Nov. 3, 2001, in Game 6 of the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The night went horribly wrong for the Yankees, to the point that manager Joe Torre, with his team losing 15–0, pulled Jeter, catcher Jorge Posada and first baseman Tino Martinez from the game in the fifth inning as an act of surrender. Jeter walked into the clubhouse to change out of his spikes and into a pair of more comfortable turf shoes. In the training room he saw Jay Witasick, a journeyman reliever for the Yankees who in 1 1/3 innings had given up nine runs, eight of them earned, a Series record for a reliever. As Jeter walked by, he heard Witasick say, “Well, at least I had fun.”

“Derek just jumped all over him,” Posada says. “Derek couldn’t believe what he was saying. He was really, really hot. That was the angriest I’ve ever seen him.”

Last week, sitting in an airport hangar in Long Beach, Calif., surrounded by a small army of people to shoot a commercial for Gillette, Jeter nodded when he was asked about the episode with Witasick. “I remember,” Jeter said. Slowly, he began to get agitated again. “Fun? I can’t relate to it. I really can’t relate to it. I’ll never forget that. At least you had fun? I’ll never understand it. I don’t want to understand it.”

Anger is an emotion Jeter rarely displays. “Oh, yeah,” he continued. “Everybody gets angry. What makes me angry is when people don’t care—not when they fail; everybody fails—or when people act like they don’t care. You have one opportunity to do something, and you never know if you’re going to get that opportunity again.”

To me, this is an ideal example of Jeter’s comportment and its importance as a driving force for him and the team.  Even when winning, Jeter was well aware of the prescience of the moment, that winning is important in its own right but also and especially because the opportunities to do so are so rare.  Jeter was not about to simply accept one’s being there, regardless of the (in Witasick’s case, abhorrent) circumstances in which they occurred.  The point is to win.  That’s it.  Also worth noting is something else with which I strongly agree–that indifference is intolerable and antithetical to everything that is Jeter.  Give me someone who cares, even if I disagree with them, over some indifferent lump any day.

Another anecdote Verducci shares (which seems familiar to me, but I cannot remember where I read it) reflects that Jeter acts as an object lesson of hustle not just for the Yankees but for other franchises.  Billy Beane, the A’s GM, relayed this to Verducci:

Eight years ago, to his recollection, Beane watched Jeter run out a routine ground ball to shortstop in the late innings of a routine game in which the Athletics were beating the Yankees. Jeter ran down the first base line in 4.1 seconds, a time only possible with an all-out effort. Beane was so impressed by the sprint that he ordered his staff to show the video of that play to all of the organization’s players in spring training the following year.

“Here you have one of the best players in the game,” Beane says, “who already had made his money and had his four championships by then, and he’s down three runs in the seventh inning running like that. It was a way of showing our guys, ‘You think you’re running hard, until you see a champion and a Hall of Famer run.’ It wasn’t that our guys were dogging it, but this is different. If Derek Jeter can run all out all the time, everybody else better personally ask themselves why they can’t.”

I’ve said that numerous times with family and friends watching Yankees games:  Look at Jeter running out that ball. The guy always plays all out.  Why?  Look no further than Game 6 of the 2009 ALCS, when Kazmir and Kendrick committed crucial errors in the eighth inning, providing the Yankees two crucial insurance runs.  Look no further than Teixeira running hard and scoring the winning run from first base on Castillo’s drop of A-Rod’s pop-up June 12, sliding home, popping up, hugging Jeter at home and asking, “What just happened?” Never assume.  Always play it out.  Don’t quit.

It’s those qualities and others–his unbounded optimism, unselfishness, and team-first attitude–that make Jeter so great a player and also a great Yankee.  The great Yankees–the recently passed Henrich, DiMaggio, Munson, Mantle, on down the line–never accepted players’ not trying.  That Jeter has never made excuses–about injuries or, as Posada rightly reminds, anything–makes him all the more a leader now and provides him his place ensconced among the pantheon of Yankee legends.

There just aren’t Jeter’s ilk around in abundant quantity.  That the Yankees have had him, Mariano, Pettite, and Posada–all at once no less–is a rare and thoroughgoing privilege.  As Frank the Sage often says, “That’s our dynasty.” Don’t take them or it for granted.  They just don’t come along very often.

Lastly, I’m thinking of Fred Hampton who, with Mark Clark, was needlessly assassinated 40 years ago today in Chicago.

Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 12:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

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