Jeter at Fenway

Now that the Derek Jeter parade has reached its terminus—not a moment too soon for anyone, especially Jeter (who must have wanted nothing more than to begin that Tuscany vacation his team gave him), I wondered, would such adulation ever be heaped upon another player from another sport as he made a farewell tour?

We’ve had famous athletes announce their retirements in basketball, football, even hockey. Remember Ray Bourque, the superb Bruins defenseman who spent his final year with Colorado and whose planned retirement became a rallying cry for that team in their quest for, and achievement of, the Stanley Cup? But even Bourque, for all the encomium of those final months, never achieved the fame of Mariano Rivera or Jeter. Bourque was a good guy, John Elway was a good guy, Kareem was a good guy, but you know what? We like baseball players better, and I think it’s because they embody the American dream more than their counterparts in hockey, football, or basketball—the other  lucrative professional sports.

After all, baseball players seldom come out of college or high school having achieved great national fame. There are no LeBron Jameses or Johnny Manziels dominating the amateur baseball headlines, and these two stars’ sudden fame and equally sudden wealth in no reflect the America we live in—the America where people work their up, step by step, and finally achieve some sort of stability and comfort. In baseball it still works. Baseball players, as good as they may be, generally start in the minor leagues where their everyday life is far from romantic:

—They often share a room with three or four others;

—Most require second jobs in their home team city;

—Their post-game spreads may comprise little more than peanut butter and jelly and a few pieces of fruit.

—Many of them live below the poverty level and earn less than the famously underpaid fast-food workers whom they see often enough from the other side of the counter.

It’s a humbling experience, one which they accept because they love the game. But that experience humanizes them too, so that when they get to the majors—to the show—they are more appreciative than those who go from nothing to millionaire overnight.

—Derek Jeter, for instance, in the early nineties played for the Gulf Coast Yankees where he was mercifully benched late in the season so that his average would not fall below .200;

—He later played for the Greensboro Hornets where he made nine errors in his first forty-eight chances;

—In his second year at Greensboro he was voted “Most Outstanding Major League Prospect.” That year he made fifty-six errors, still a record in that league.

—He also played in Tampa, Albany, and Columbus—not exactly Podunk towns, but not exactly New York City. He was never an overnight sensation, and when he did arrive it was due primarily to injuries to a starter and back-up. The rest may be history, but it’s legitimate history. Earned history.

Yes he kept his nose clean and never embarrassed his team or his family or himself. And he never strutted about as if he were bigger than the game. And he played for a team and never forgot that fact. Dustin Pedroia, Andrew McCutcheon, Adam Wainwright, Torii Hunter—baseball is filled with similar team players who shrink from the spotlight and refocus glory on those around them, who don’t show up the oppositions and don’t strut around the bases following a home run. Contrast that with the NFL receiver who must choreograph a football celebration or jump into the stands to prove how special he is while the team celebrates somewhere else.

Many claim that football has supplanted baseball as the American sport of choice. I won’t deny that, but until football (and basketball too) become once again team sports instead of showcases for individual achievement, it’s unlikely that a game between two losing teams going nowhere will fill the stands just because one of the players is retiring. That’s what happened at Fenway all weekend, and it’s a tribute not just to Jeter or to Boston, but also to the fact that we haven’t quite lost that appreciation for the struggle that precedes the success.

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