I always have trouble writing about baseball. My favorite seat at Yankee Stadium is the very middle of the very top row of the uppermost deck, directly behind home plate. From there, you can see the entire park laid out in front of you: the bursting stands, the immaculate emerald field, the glimpse of the train whirring by through the gap between the bleachers and right field. There’s something about the immensity of that scene contrasted with the specificity of baseball—the act of working the 3-2 count from an 0-2 hole, the bloop single, the centimeters that decide whether or not you beat out the throw to first—that makes the game almost beg for metaphors. Is what you find in that park, in that seat, in that moment between the third out and two outs with one on, is that somehow America in its essence? Does human nature lay in that moment? I’ve never been able to nail down what all of it means to me, or in general.
I remember, though, being in fifth grade, still new to New England and trying to figure out where I fit in. There was a Patriots flag hanging on the wall above my teacher’s desk, and a green monster in the corner near the closet. Ever the contrarian, and perhaps just looking for something to make me stand out, I impulsively stated that I was a Yankees fan when Matt Vanasse broached the baseball subject with me. “I bet you can’t name five Yankees players,” Matt sneered. I remember going home and looking the team up, reading through the roster. Every article I found related to the Yankees seemed to mention Jeter, the green-eyed captain. I vaguely recalled the signs I had seen on my first visit to Yankee Stadium, with “Marry Me Jeter” scrawled in marker. “Who is that?” I asked my mom at the time. Now, as I made myself into a Yankees fan in the heart of Red Sox nation, I had to admit that the guy was pretty worthy of matrimony, based on looks alone. That was before I understood the honor with which he led the team, the sly humor, the predilection for clutch hits. I probably loved Jeter before I loved baseball. When I listed not five but ten players for Matt V. the next day, I said “Derek Jeter” first. And he will always be the first, the best, for me. He represents how I became a fan and why I stayed a fan and what makes the Yankees, and baseball, great.
I remember that on a humid deep summer day in New England, me and my Yankee fan friends and my Red Sox fan friends, all of us thirteen years old or so, piled into my house’s third-floor attic for an afternoon game at Fenway on NESN and stayed there late into the night, when the second bout in the doubleheader finally ended. And then we got back up just a few hours later for yet another afternoon game. I don’t remember anything specific about the series, but I recall the silence when Jeter came up, the lack of heckling from the Sox fans. That silence was fear—of the ubiquitous single slapped the other way, perhaps—and respect. “I don’t hate that guy,” my friend Ryan, a Sox fan to his bones, once admitted. Jeter was a player we, the fans, could be proud of.
I remember being a teenager, hanging out at the old Stadium in my usual seat (I lived just across the bridge from the Stadium and would walk over at any opportunity), pounding the chainlink fence behind me to propel a rally against the Sox forward. A few drunk fans in the upper deck had been jawing at each other all game. Honestly, the Yanks fans were in the wrong; they’d been harassing some Bostonians since the first inning, and the jabs had only gotten worse as the innings progressed, the Sox lead grew, and the alcohol levels increased. As the Yankees fans continued to spit vitriol at the Sox fans, Bob Sheppard interrupted: “Now batting, num-ba 2, Der-ek, Jeet-a.” All eyes reached the plate. One of the Sox fans stood up and screamed, “He’s garbage! He’s trash compared to V-tek.” The entire section of the upper deck erupted in boos. “Throw. Her. Out!” we chanted. “You don’t insult our captain in OUR HOUSE!” one man shouted. Security guards took the bewildered woman by the arm and guided her away, to uproarious applause. I would normally never support the violation of this woman’s freedom of speech, but for the captain, we would do anything. That was Yankee Stadium justice. He’d probably disapprove, but that was Jeter justice.
Someday I’ll take my kids to Monument Park. I will show them the 42, then the 2. How will I be able to communicate how much that number meant to me? How much of my childhood and young adulthood were defined by that number, how it brought me to a place where I, in many ways, found a sense of self, of community, of hope? Will the game mean the same thing to my child? I guess there’s no way to know, but for now all I can say is thank you, my captain. I’ll miss you, and I’ll remember you.