Derek Jeter had a gigantic dream, the I’m-going-to-be-the-Yankee-shortstop kind of dream. That’s a big and bold goal to pursue, but Jeter, so determined and so focused, made it happen. He played 20 seasons as a Yankee shortstop, won five World Series titles, was named the Yankee captain and was their most revered player across the last quarter century. Mission accomplished. Well, dream accomplished.
But what happens when an already lofty dream escalates into an otherworldly dream? What happens when the dream has an an extra scene and an amazing finale that the dreamer never envisioned? When that happens, the baseball fanatic with the Yankee uniform on his bedroom wall sees the dream end with him being enshrined as one of the best baseball players of all-time. That’s some dream.
“When you start off with the dream, the dream never takes into consideration the Hall of Fame,” Jeter said. “You’re focused on one step at a time. You talk about starting in Kalamazoo and I was just trying to be one of the best on my Little League team. And then you go to high school and you try to be one of the best on your high school team. And then you go to summer ball and you try to be one of the best on your summer ball team. And I think the progression just goes from there. But I never thought about Cooperstown when I was in Kalamazoo.”
Even Jeter, the ultimate Yankee dreamer, wouldn’t have dared to dream about a place in the Hall of Fame. Who does? Would any player ever be so brazen? There have been more than 22,000 major league players and about one percent have become Hall of Famers. Jeter will join that most elite of groups Wednesday, a day in which Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller will also be welcomed into Cooperstown.
During a recent 30-minute interview, it was easy to sense how proud, excited and joyous Jeter was about receiving baseball’s ultimate honor. As someone who covered Jeter’s entire career and who also co-authored the book “The Life You Imagine” with Jeter in 2000, I was always struck by Jeter’s confidence. He never stopped believing in himself, never felt overmatched and never wanted a day off. If Jeter was 0 for his last 20 and Pedro Martinez was on the mound, Jeter was eager to get into the batter’s box for that 21st at bat. And, if he struck out, he would be just as eager for that 22nd at bat.
When some players reminisce about their careers, they lament about what they failed to accomplish. They could have worked harder, been more prepared or played smarter and had better careers. Jeter never had to say that. I truly believe that Jeter squeezed everything out of himself in his career. Basically, he was meant to collect 3,465 hits, 260 homers, 358 stolen bases, a .310 average and an .817 OPS and make 14 All-Star teams and win five Gold Gloves because there was nothing more he could have done along the way and nothing he would have changed. Actually, the 47-year-old Jeter might have told the 21-year-old Jeter to consider making one change.
“Man, you know what I would tell him: enjoy the journey,” Jeter said. “I don’t think I necessarily did as much as I could have, maybe. But it’s also part of the reason I am where I am. I was always focused on ‘What’s next? What’s next? What’s next? What’s next?’ Look, I had a long and successful career and, don’t get me wrong, I had some fun along the way. But I don’t think I ever appreciated some of the things we were able to accomplish because it was always ‘What’s next?’”
There is no more “What’s next?’ for Jeter as a player. His legacy is sealed. He will forever be remembered as one of the greatest Yankees and as one of the faces of baseball during his career. Jeter called himself “extremely lucky” to be drafted by the Yankees and credited the endless support he received from his family, something that will surely be a theme in his Hall of Fame speech.
A generation of Yankee fans adored Jeter, with his number two on their backs and their high-pitched screams filling Yankee Stadium whenever he batted. So I used a hypothetical to ask Jeter about those fans who grew up with him. Fifty years from now, a grandfather will be walking through the Hall of Fame with his grandson. They stop at Jeter’s plaque. When the boy asks his grandfather who Jeter was, what would Jeter hope that the man says?
“I think it starts with just saying I was a Yankee,” Jeter said. “That was the thing that was most important to me throughout my career and growing up. I only wanted to be a Yankee. I was lucky and fortunate to be able to have the opportunity to play my entire career there. So I think it starts with being a Yankee. And, also, the only thing I cared about was winning. That was it. Bottom line. It wasn’t personal statistics. It was winning. And that’s the mindset I’ve had and the mindset I still have today.”
That mindset is why Jeter said he and George Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ owner, shared a strong relationship. Steinbrenner called Jeter “the best shortstop in the game” in 1996, a time when Jeter had one full season on his resume and future Hall of Fame-worthy shortstops Cal Ripken Jr, Barry Larkin and Alex Rodriguez were also patrolling the position.
“He made that statement because we won,” Jeter said. “We had the same mindset when it came to winning. If we would have lost that World Series, I’m not sure he would have made that statement.” Then Jeter smiled and added, “I think it started with the shared mindset that, if we didn’t win, it was a failed season.”
As the interview with Jeter was ending, I told him I needed to ask him one important question. Playfully, Jeter interrupted me and said, “You don’t need to ask anything.” But, of course, I did. Since we had collaborated on “The Life You Imagine,” a book title that Jeter chose before I had ever written a word, I asked him if this had really been the life he had imagined.
“Oh, man, I think it’s more than I imagined,” Jeter explained. “When you’re young, you have this dream where you want to play shortstop, you want to play in the Major Leagues, you want to play for the Yankees. You dream of playing in the World Series and hitting a home run. But I think it’s impossible to put all the details together. I would have to say it’s above and beyond any life I imagined.”