Derek Jeter made Yankee Stadium his home
Captain made the Bronx his home and the fans his family during iconic career
The cozy yellow house sat on Cumberland Street in Kalamazoo, Michigan, complete with a small front yard and a one-car garage. But it was the back of the house that made this location so distinctive. About 60 feet from the back door was the baseball field at Kalamazoo Central High School. Both of these places were Derek Jeter's homes.
As Jeter's number two was retired and he was honored with a plaque in Monument Park on Sunday, he surely thought about the days when he marched through his backyard, climbed over a five-foot fence and landed on the grass in his high school's outfield. Before Jeter made it to Yankee Stadium, that was a younger Jeter's Yankee Stadium.
Sometimes, Jeter's mother, father and sister would join him and the baseball prodigy's batting practice would transform into a family affair. Jeter's father would pitch and his mother and sister would play the outfield and, all the while, Jeter was focused on making one dream, one seemingly impossible dream, happen. He wanted to play for the Yankees.
So, when I asked Jeter what his greatest life lesson was, he gave a natural answer.
"Man, dream big," he said. "That's the bottom line. If anyone ever tells you that your dreams are unreachable, just surround yourself with people who are going to be supportive. Because I think I'm a perfect example of someone who had huge dreams and aspirations and they were focused. My dreams were focused to major league baseball, Yankees and shortstop. That's all I ever wanted to do. And I think you should dream big. And if you have the right people around you, anything is possible."
Anything was possible and then probable for Jeter, the big dreamer. But, in addition to dreaming big, Jeter was extremely talented and extremely dedicated in pursuing his lofty goal. He took hundreds of swings in his garage during those frigid Michigan winters, he relocated to Tampa, Florida to be closer to the coaches at the Yankees' minor league facilities and, even after he became an All-Star and a World Series champion, he still worked out for 50 weeks a year. Yes, Jeter's dreams were focused.
In more than 20 seasons of covering baseball, I've never seen a player who was as relaxed as Jeter. I've had conversations with Jeter before spring training games and before postseason games and he always displayed the same serene personality. Jeter was calm, confident and ready to perform, the pressures of the moment as inconsequential to him as a butterfly that was fluttering a thousand yards away.
As much as Jeter was considered a humble player, his father told me that Jeter had as much "inner arrogance" as anyone he had ever met. Internally, Jeter exhibited the ferocity of an angry boxer who knew he was one punch away from ending the bout. Jeter expected to outwork you and outplay you, even as he was smiling at you.
"No one had more fun than I did," Jeter said. "You're playing a game. I understand it's your job, it's your profession and you have a lot of responsibilities. But, at the same time, you're playing a game and you have to have fun. And, if you don't have fun playing it, I think it's impossible to do good at it. I had fun. Every moment on the field was fun for me."
That included the moments on the field on Sunday, a day when Jeter received one more embrace from the fans who had adored him for 20 seasons. Jeter was the greatest shortstop in Yankee history and one of the best shortstops of all-time. Jeter has led the life he imagined so I wasn't shocked when he said "there isn't a person or a player that I would trade places with that is playing now or ever."
For the baseball-obsessed kid who told his parents he would play for the Yankees when he was only eight years old and then made the script unfold, Jeter fittingly ended his speech by talking about family. This time, it wasn't his biological family from the cozy yellow house. This time, it was his baseball family from the house he helped infuse with greatness in the Bronx.
"You play here in New York for 20 years," Jeter said. "I learned that time flies, memories fade, but family is forever. And I'll be eternally grateful to be a part of the Yankee family."