Derek Jeter announced Wednesday that he will retire at the end of the upcoming baseball season. Having spent my '90s childhood as a crazy Baltimore Orioles fan, my feelings on the subject are... complex.
Look, I hated the Yankees as a kid (still do) -- and I don't mean just the Damn Yankees! idea of what the team stood for (that they always won; or that they brought seven expensive bazookas to a knife fight; or that somehow, along with God, the umpires, and everything else you could purchase by the hand of capitalism, somehow they seemed to have dumb luck on their side too). No, no. I literally mean the organization and the players themselves. I hated the fat, washed up veterans who'd show up to ride the money train to a ring before hanging their spikes up. I hated their megalomaniac owner. I hated the crazy New York fans who would drive down from the Bronx and get so drunk and wildly celebratory at Camden Yards that my dad would fear for my tiny, innocent life. Hell hath no wrath like a child with broken dreams, I guess, because I just despised the New York Yankees.
...But not all of them. It was impossible to hate Derek Jeter. He was too cool. Too elegant when speaking to the press; too clutch when slapping a game-winning hit. The fury just didn't burn inside my 8-year-old gut the way it did with other Yankee players. Usually when pin stripes flashed across our television set, my eyes saw prison bars cloaking criminals. On Jeter, the black and white looked somehow classy. Contrary to everything I had experienced in my short history on earth up to that point, and all warped logic in my bitter heart, I... liked him.
One play involving "The Captain" did scar my childhood and, very likely, my psychological development more than any other baseball experience. And yet, almost inevitably, it also said something about Jeter's virtue, real and perceived. In the late innings of a pivotal, 1996 playoff divisional game between the O's and New York, when we were up a crucial run, Jeter lifted a fly ball to right field. Anywhere else but Yankee Stadium, it would be an easy out. Hell, EVEN THERE, it should have been an easy out. But as Tony Tarasco backed against the right-field wall padding and his glove settled under the ball, some kid in the front row -- a kid no older than me! (later identified as Jeffrey Maier... curse him) -- reached over the fence and onto the field of play, and snatched it into the bleachers. My father, my mother, MY DOG -- everyone in our living room pointed instantly at the television in protest. [For those of you unfamiliar with the rules of baseball, this is what's called "fan interference." In other words, illegal. Not allowed.]
The Worst Moment of My Childhood... Wasn't Derek's Fault.
Although the umpire put himself in perfect position to see the play, somehow, some way, it was called a home run. It was the Yankees. They won the game. They won the series. They won the championship.
The Jeffrey Maier... thing (I won't even call it a "play;" this was That Which Must Not Be Named) was, in every way imaginable, my first true experience with injustice. For the first time in my young life that I can recall, the real world revealed itself to me as a universe that was not always objectively fair. And despite all that, despite my confusion at what had happened in the moment, despite the tears I cried into my pillow when the game ended that night, I was never angry at Derek Jeter. It wasn't his fault. Jeter existed in my unsophisticated mind as the incidental instrument of my misery, an unwilling accomplice who knew the truth. I can specifically recall -- and this is the God's honest truth -- watching the television screen as he circled the bases, and thinking to myself that, deep down, Derek probably felt bad for what he had done to me. He knew the truth. He seemed like too good a guy to endorse such an outrageous outcome.
Of course, I was a little kid. I was heartbroken, stupid, and projecting as only a tiny person can. As far as I was concerned, my identity had just endured a monstrous crime against humanity, and at that moment my soul needed to latch onto something -- anything -- that seemed decent in the world. And yet, it's really quite interesting. Turns out that even a child knows what class looks like, no matter what jersey it's wearing.
Derek Jeter played for my worst enemy. But not as a shadowy mercenary intent on evil and wickedness; that was for the rest of the players. He was good... in every sense of the word, the guy was good.