Friday, September 26, 2014

The American Dream: A Shortstop with Standards

            When Derek Jeter made his Major League Baseball debut in the spring and summer of 1995, it was a busy time in America. An act of domestic terrorism had recently struck Oklahoma City, and the Unabomber was on the loose. The United States Congress was at sharp odds with the president. Acts of savage cruelty abroad had led the U.S. to take military action in Bosnia. Extreme heat waves in the Midwest had many wondering what was happening to our climate. A trial in Manhattan was under way for the 1993 terrorist bombing of the World Trade Center. A Brooklyn man had recently been sent to prison for life after shooting and killing several people on a Long Island train. And a certain former NFL running back was on trial for murder in Los Angeles.
            There were a lot of frightening things happening, and it was hard sometimes to find your footing in what felt like an uneven world. But one September evening, a baseball shortstop helped us remember how inspiring humans can be when they’re at their best. Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. had been playing his position every day for nearly 14 years without missing a single game. On September 6, he broke the record that many had thought to be untouchable – Lou Gehrig’s mark for consecutive games played. When the 2,131st game of Ripken’s career became official, his teammates encouraged him to jog around Oriole Park at Camden Yards, shaking hands and slapping high-fives with fans. As millions of people watched Ripken on TV, they shared a moment that was clearly about much more than baseball.
            In the 19 years since that summer, you can argue that a lot has changed in this world and this country, but that an awful lot has also stayed the same. There are still too many people out there engaged in activities that we struggle to understand, from terrorism to domestic shootings to governmental infighting to ignorance of global warming. We read more of our news online these days than we did in 1995, but we often hesitate to scan the headlines, sometimes because we just don’t want to hear about another crisis.
            Derek Jeter has been working at his job in the Bronx during every one of these past 19 years, often excelling at his job during our most frightful collective moments. He led the New York Yankees to 125 wins in 1998, when the Clinton-Lewinski scandal held Americans’ attention. He won the World Series MVP award in 2000, leading the Yanks past the cross-town Mets a few days before the American presidential electoral process entered a state of chaos. He made two of the most extraordinary plays in playoff history during the fall of 2001, just weeks after the attacks of September 11. He led the Yankees to their 27th championship in 2009, one day before the Fort Hood shootings. He led the American League in hits in 2012 at age 38, with the Yankees finishing their postseason run a few days before Hurricane Sandy hit. During these moments, Jeter didn’t ask for the applause, nor did he view himself as larger than life. He just said he was living his dream, playing for his favorite team, and wanted only to win. His modesty, maximum effort and grace under pressure were all we needed to feel that maybe things were not so bad out there as they seemed.
            Human nature being what it is, we can be sure that individuals will continue making decisions that frighten, confuse and worry us in the days and years ahead. Even in the world of sports, we have seen a whole host of poor decisions, from steroid use among baseball players to off-the-field violence among football players to neglect of head injuries in several sports. But in spite of this constant turmoil, there are always individuals out there who inspire us. Some of them are artists, others are teachers, and others are just people we love who serve as our personal role models. And, yes, there are also athletes. Since Cal Ripken’s moment 19 years ago, other sports stars have stepped forward and provided more examples of excellence on and off the field. Athletes such as Tim Duncan, Peyton Manning, Mariano Rivera and Grant Hill have gained such respect within and beyond the world of sports because of the way they’ve carried themselves day in and day out. When young athletes arrive in the pros saying they idolized Manning or Hill while growing up, you know it’s not just because of how great these players were in action. It’s also because of the class they showed while playing the game.
Before I knew the name Derek Jeter, I was covering the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team as a college senior in Chapel Hill. I had just written dozens of stories chronicling the team’s second national championship under Coach Dean Smith in 1993, and I was invited to the program’s year-end dinner. As I sat in the arena named for Smith and listened to him speak, I was struck by the tears this often-stoic coach shed while speaking of his players. He cared just as much for the walk-on bench player as he did the leading scorer, and he spoke more about players’ grades and post-college plans than their basketball accomplishments. That evening, I sat next to the late Doug Marlette, whose editorial cartoons had won him a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize. Marlette, who lived in a nearby town, was a big Tar Heels fan. When I asked why he loved UNC basketball, Marlette began speaking of Smith. “He has such standards,” Marlette said, explaining that when you set such high goals for yourself and those you lead, you tend to win – and win with integrity.
Three years later, I was watching Derek Jeter celebrate his first championship with the Yankees, and I heard him speak reverently of the Yankees’ manager, Joe Torre. I saw him embrace his parents, and refrain from even the slightest boast. This, you could tell, was a man with standards. It’s hard to believe that he’s already 40 now, and that his career will end this weekend in Boston. Last night, in his final game at Yankee Stadium, Jeter heard more than 48,000 people cheer his name for more than three hours straight. He said he nearly cried several times, and felt it was he who should be thanking the fans. Again, the modesty.
The highlight reels can show you all the clutch hits, diving catches and great throws in Jeter’s career. But really, that’s just part of the story. You needed to hear those fans last night, chanting “Thank you, Derek,” just as you needed to see Cal Ripken take his lap around Camden Yards. These were gifted, millionaire athletes, on the receiving end of adulation that seemed at odds with a harsh, cynical world. We’ve taken a lot of hits over the past two decades. But somehow, we keep finding the sparks of light. Sometimes those sparks are standing at shortstop. Only in moments like these can you see just how ready and willing we are to applaud those who hold onto standards in this crazy world of ours.