COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- During a longer-than-expected wait to formally enter the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Derek Jeter was frequently asked how his speech was coming. An illustrious 20-year career seemed impossible to encapsulate within 15 minutes of prepared remarks. There was too much to say, too many people to thank.
Yet in a way, his preparations for Wednesday afternoon’s festivities started decades earlier -- in a basement classroom of St. Augustine Cathedral School in Kalamazoo, Mich., where a 9-year-old Jeter pressed his back to a chalkboard and told his classmates that he intended to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. Did he ever.
“This is as high as you can go in terms of your playing career,” Jeter said. “There’s no other awards or accolades you can receive. From a career playing standpoint -- man, I guess it does close the chapter.”
Nearly seven years after Jeter walked off a winner in his final Yankee Stadium at-bat, concluding a storybook run with the franchise, "The Captain" delivered again. Finally able to cradle the plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame, Jeter joined Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller as the belated Class of 2020 reached "forever" status.
On a beautiful autumnal afternoon, thousands of fans wearing some version of Jeter’s uniform No. 2 strolled along idyllic avenues to reach the Clark Sports Center, where storm clouds held off until Jeter’s remarks were complete. Jeter owned the last word, as he did in the closing ceremonies of the original Yankee Stadium in 2008, when he’d urged fans to pass their memories on to future generations.
Preserving history is what the Hall does best. Jeter touched upon that on Wednesday, adding a personal touch by promising his young daughters, Bella and Story, that he would one day offer details about the playing career they missed. He’ll have plenty to tell: The highlights can enter the mind’s eye with just a quick-hit phrase. "The Flip," "The Dive," and "Mr. November."
The first words on Jeter’s plaque, appropriately installed alongside Mariano Rivera’s, described him as “the heartbeat of a Yankees dynasty.” For an entire generation, No. 2 was No. 1. They, like him, still scratch their heads about the mystery of the still-unknown member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who left the box next to Jeter’s name unchecked.
“Thank you to the baseball writers; all but one of you who voted for me,” Jeter quipped.
For the other 396 voters (99.7%) and most of the baseball-watching world, Jeter’s induction was a lock. Statistics helped Jeter reach that pinnacle, of course -- 14 All-Star selections, five Gold Glove Awards at shortstop and 3,465 regular-season hits, sixth all-time in AL/NL history. As his plaque notes, Jeter “defined a two-decade run of Bronx dominance.”
From the moment the beaming rookie touched first base at the long-gone Seattle Kingdome for his first hit, winning was first and foremost on his to-do list. Ultimately unable to answer Yogi Berra’s taunting challenge of 10 rings, Jeter did just fine with five World Series championships and seven American League pennants.
“I had one goal during my career, and that was to win more than everyone else,” Jeter said. “And we did.”
So back to the speech, its due date twice delayed by a global pandemic that initially prompted Jeter to believe he’d speak in an empty auditorium this past summer, without even friends or family present.
Back in the fourth grade, Jeter hoped to earn a good grade by telling Shirley Garzelloni’s class that they’d see him in pinstripes -- a dream formed by summer trips to his grandmother’s home in West Milford, N.J. -- but he hadn’t yet considered public speaking as part of the job description alongside running, hitting and throwing.
By the time he accepted the microphone on that final night at the old Stadium, Jeter understood. He spoke with heart and eloquence then, hitting all the right notes. As Jeter sketched the framework of what he wanted to say on Wednesday, he battled some form of writer’s block before ultimately deciding to just say what he felt.
“I wasn’t nervous coming here today,” Jeter said later. “You start listening to the other speeches before you and they’re starting to show some tears. I tried not to establish long eye contact with my family when I was speaking, because I didn’t want to lose it.”
There were too many people to thank -- some would have to be saved for private conversations. Many did hear their names: managers, coaches, teammates, trainers, the late George M. Steinbrenner, his wife Hannah and the girls. As he had in 2008, Jeter noted the passionate loyalty of the fans; the audience repeatedly chanted “DE-REK JE-TER” in appreciation. For a moment, the 47-year-old Jeter halved in age.
“They’ve seen me grow up,” Jeter said. “I’ve been a part of their childhood up to their adulthood, and Yankee fans appreciate their history. That’s what makes it so special. That’s what makes the organization so special. To have that number of people come out here, all things considered, I’m glad I had a chance to share that experience with the fans. They’re a big reason why I’m here today.”
Indeed. And what came through with clarity was this: No matter what transpires over this second career as the Marlins’ chief operating officer, history will chronicle Jeter as a Yankee -- it says so right there on the plaque: “NEW YORK, A.L., 1995-2014.” It was all he ever wanted, and he did it all.
“Thank you all once again,” Jeter said. “It’s been a hell of a ride.”