It had been a while since Derek Jeter played in front of a packed house. There was the sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 25, 2014, for his final game in pinstripes, when he unforgettably slapped a single to right field to score the winning run from second in the bottom of the ninth. And there was a full house in the Bronx on May 14, 2017, when the Yankees retired his No. 2.
But in the five-plus years since he retired, Jeter has mostly kept a low public profile. He has enjoyed well-deserved quiet time at home with his young family, and he has been hard at work as CEO of the Miami Marlins, trying to lure fans to the ballpark. Jeter knows as well as anyone that winning sells, but it’s still a work in progress at Marlins Park.
This past January, though, he was back how we remember him, at the center of attention. In the heart of the city he owned for two decades, in the top-floor ballroom of a majestic Midtown hotel where some suites cost four grand a night, Jeter held court for a jam-packed room of reporters.
Many of the men and women in attendance had covered a sizable chunk of Jeter’s 20 seasons in New York for a variety of newspapers, magazines and television stations. Some had covered all of it. They had come to do their jobs, but this was no ordinary day at the office.
An hour before the 3 p.m. press conference began, one by one, members of the media began filing into the room, filling up the rows of seats. Seeing the empty table at the front of the room, many couldn’t resist the urge to walk up to the dais, take out their camera and snap a picture of the nameplate at the center of the table. It was official -- the first tangible proof that Jeter had become Hall of Famer Derek Jeter. Everyone knew this day would come, and yet it stirred something in people. It conjured memories of a career that, by any statistical measure, was spectacular, yet still impossible to quantify.
Jeter, over the course of his two decades in pinstripes, became an icon. And for one day in 2020, he reminded everyone why.
It’s funny how an old ballplayer becomes young again once he retires. For the last half of Jeter’s career, all he heard was that he was too old to play shortstop, that baseball is a young man’s game.
As far as Hall of Famers go, the 45-year-old Jeter is essentially a baby. When he walked into the St. Regis ballroom, he looked much the same as how New Yorkers remember him -- smiling widely, his head and face clean shaven to the skin. He was even wearing what looked to be the same onyx necklace that he wore under his jersey. Loose and relaxed, in a dark suit and white dress shirt with the top button undone, he scanned the assembled mass of reporters with his green eyes and saw a lot of familiar faces.
“Why’s everyone so quiet?” Jeter asked, breaking the ice on a chilly but sunny Wednesday afternoon.
It had been less than 24 hours since Jeter received the phone call while sitting at home in Florida surrounded by his wife, Hannah; their two daughters, Bella and Story; as well as his parents, Dr. Charles and Dorothy Jeter. The whirlwind aftermath provided little time for planning -- the front row, reserved for the inductees’ guests, was mostly vacant besides for Hannah and Casey Close, Jeter’s longtime agent and friend. Never much for nostalgia to begin with, Jeter had not yet had time to fully process what the honor meant to him.
“I always had a tough time appreciating the journey along the way,” Jeter said. “My parents always used to tell me, ‘Look, you have to sit back and enjoy the moment.’ I was just never able to do it. I don’t know if that’s a character flaw, or if it’s part of the reason I’m here. It was just always, ‘What’s next? What’s next?’ If we won, I forgot about it and prepared to try to win the next season. If we lost, I forgot about it and tried to prepare for the next season. I never really got a chance to sit back and reflect. Even when my career was over, I really haven’t had an opportunity to sit back.
“I think maybe that starts now.”
Throughout the 45-minute press conference, Jeter did his best to try and articulate his feelings. It wasn’t always easy, but it was evident that he was ecstatic to be a Hall of Famer. He just showed it in a way that invoked memories of Jeter the clubhouse leader rather than the fired-up, fist-in-the-air-after-a-home run Jeter. Mr. November might be gone for good, but the humble captain who felt he had to fight for his roster spot every spring, who never had anything but praise for his opponents? That guy was on display from the first question, when Jeter explained that it was hard to put his election into words because up until the previous evening, he hadn’t given it much thought.
“I just didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to jinx any opportunity that I might have,” Jeter said. “I never took this for granted. … So, to have the opportunity now to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, I guess the best way to answer it is, I just don’t know what to say. I’m looking forward to this summer. It’s an emotional time. It’s a time of reflection, and it’s a lot of hard work and a lot of years that have gone into this, and this is the highest honor.”
For a while, it looked as if Jeter might be the only player of his generation to go into the Hall as a member of the Class of 2020. The veterans committee elected the late Marvin Miller and Ted Simmons, whose final game was in 1988. Larry Walker seemed to be getting close in his final year on the ballot, but a few hours before the announcement, he tweeted, “Although I believe I’m going to come up a little short today I still wanna thank all you that have been pulling for me and showing your support. I’m grateful for all of you!”
Walker was surprised, then, to get a phone call informing him he had received votes on 76.6% of the 397 ballots received -- a jump from 54.6% in 2019 and enough to get him over the required 75% necessary for induction. Having spent his entire 17-year career in the National League, and having played in only one World Series with the Cardinals in 2004, Walker barely crossed paths with Jeter during their playing days. But it was evident from the moment he was shown on TV wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants shirt from Walmart while receiving that phone call that Walker would be the perfect complement to Jeter in this year’s induction class.
Like some Canadian cousin of David Wells, the gray-goateed Walker had Jeter -- and the room -- in stitches with some of the stories he shared. Born “with a hockey stick and skates on,” Walker didn’t play baseball until he was 16 and was so unfamiliar with the rules initially that he cut across the infield on his way back to first from third.
“See, that’s a true Hall of Famer -- he didn’t even have to play the game [growing up] to make it to the Hall of Fame!” Jeter said.
While Walker’s election might have been less preordained, there was no doubt about Jeter’s first-ballot credentials. He is sixth on baseball’s all-time hits list with 3,465, trailing only Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker. Jeter’s 1,923 runs scored places him 11th all time, between Musial and Lou Gehrig. He won five world championships during a career spent entirely as shortstop of the New York Yankees. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in everything from seasons (20) to steals (358), and his superb postseason body of work includes more iconic moments than just about any athlete on the planet.
As such, Jeter dominated the conversation on New York sports talk radio in the days leading up to and following the Hall of Fame’s announcement. But one aspect of it, for better or worse, stood out. Last year, Mariano Rivera made history when he became the first player ever elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame, and many thought Jeter deserved to be the second. Sure enough, Jeter’s plaque will hang in the gallery at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, right next to that of his former teammate, but of the 397 writers who voted for the Class of 2020, one decided not to check the box next to Jeter’s name. Fans, media members and even other professional athletes were incredulous. “How is Derek Jeter not unanimous????” Kansas City Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes tweeted.
Everyone was eager to know whether Jeter was bothered by it, so Willie Weinbaum, a producer at ESPN since 1995, asked him, “What would you like to ask or say to the one writer who didn’t vote for you?”
After the laughter quickly subsided, Jeter said, “See, that’s where our minds are a little bit different. I focus on the ones that did. It takes a lot of people to all agree to get you to this point, so I’m not thinking about that. I’m happy that I’m sitting up here on this stage right now, and that’s something that just doesn’t cross my mind.”
“The Hall of Fame changes people,” Jack O’Connell has observed on occasion. Since taking over as secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America in 1995, O’Connell has called 49 players with a life-altering invitation to Cooperstown. He has seen surly, standoffish ballplayers who had no use for reporters turn into media darlings after getting elected. He has heard the toughest SOB’s to step foot on a diamond break down and weep upon ascending to immortality.
That shouldn’t be a concern for Jeter. During that afternoon press conference at the St. Regis, it was evident that Jeter is still very much the same guy Yankees fans fell in love with as 1996 AL Rookie of the Year, the ultimate winner who represented the organization with class for all those years. The humility, the grace and the respect that he showed on and off the field as a player were still there for all to see.
And yet, the January announcement was just a precursor. The formal induction on July 26 will be the culmination of an extraordinary weekend. By then, Jeter will have had ample time for it to soak in, to reflect on what it means to be part of baseball’s most heralded fraternity. He’ll have an opportunity to thank all the people along the way who helped him become who he is. He’ll stand on that stage and look out across the grounds at the Clark Sports Center and see something that used to be a lot more common than it is now, something that he will perhaps appreciate now more than ever: An enormous crowd, there to shower him with love.
While he may not have been prepared to fully dissect and discuss everything he was feeling in the hours immediately following his election, there was one topic that came up that Jeter was able to put into perspective. The final question of the day came from Peter Haskell, a reporter for WCBS Newsradio 880 since 1994, who asked, “When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?”
Jeter thought for a second and replied, “I’m most proud that I was a Yankee. The only thing I ever wanted to do since as long as I can remember was play shortstop for the New York Yankees, and I had an opportunity to do that. I had an opportunity to do it for a long time. And when it’s all said and done, that’s what I’m most proud of.”