Baseball careers can be long. The luckiest players, like Derek Jeter, can play for 15-20 years. They play 162 games a year, so you get used to them playing. The good ones, like Jeter, are as reliable as family. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re on TV, in the batter’s box seemingly every day. Oh, Jeter’s up? You can go back to the conversation with your wife or reread the birthday card from your aunt. It’s Jeter. He’ll always be there doing his thing. He’s standing in the batter’s box, coolly holding his hand back, showing the ump he isn’t quite ready as he digs his feet in. A little cocky, that Jeter. But he’s good. Everyone knows it. You won’t be reading birthday cards when Jeter’s up to bat in the playoffs.
Similar to when loved ones die, you pretty much drop any negative feelings toward a respected player, like Jeter’s aforementioned batter’s box thing after they retire. Just as you’d pay good money to hear another “Torture Talk” from your deceased Grandfather (This one’s for you Pop.) Anyway, as I was saying, just as you’d love to witness one of the attributes that drove you crazy, you’d love to see Jeter in the batter’s box after he retires- if you’re a San Diego Padres fan, or even a Red Sox fan. I mean, if you really love baseball.
The hated Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series the night I was born, and as a consolation, God sent a chubby, 5’10” brilliant athlete to the Padres for the 1982 season. Tony Gwynn would be there for me, slapping base hits and throwing balls in from right field with laser accuracy until after I left for my LDS mission. Tony was there my entire childhood. When I was about 11, I was present at a game when he went 5 for 5. For some crazy reason I was also lucky enough to be in the dugout before “Mormon Night At The Padres.” I even heard Tony mention to a teammate that the stands were atypically full in fair-weather San Diego that night because of all the “Brigham-Youngers.” I wore his #19 in little league and I cried when he died this year because that’s what you do when your favorite baseball players die, even if you’re a grown-up.
As I’ve “grown up” my team loyalty has waned a bit, and my love has transitioned more toward just “the game.” Sometimes baseball is boring, I know, but as there is opposition in all things, it also has the most tense moments.
And I think baseball is the best of all sports for its metaphors. The ups and downs, the contentious marriage of luck and skill. Bucky Dent is shorter than your Dad and probably has less power than him as well, but he’s the hero to hit the Yankees series-winning homer in 1977, not the beastly Reggie Jackson, who looks more like a linebacker than a baseball player. (Reggie actually homered in that game as well, he just didn’t hit the game winner. I looked it up.)
Boston is my city. I know that now more than ever. I can articulate why I felt compelled to “randomly” move there from San Diego much better than I could when I made the journey at age 26.
“No, not for college…”
I love the Red Sox team that won the World Series last year. It’s the best group of guys I’ve seen on a diamond in my whole life- Dustin Pedroia, the salty veteran Cody Ross, and my former Padre Jake Peavy. One year after they lost me and the rest of the city because they drank beer and ate fried chicken in the clubhouse during games, they put together the best redemption story in all of sports. The really bad guys were sent away (to Los Angeles of course) and the others were severely warned by the first non-sellout crowds since Manny Ramirez was a youngster in Cleveland.
John Lackey came back lean and mean, absent the fried chicken fat, and the team gave the city what the city was owed. I knew it was a special team when Pedroia and Shane Victorino advanced from 1st & 2nd to 2nd & 3rd during an ALCS game against the Detroit Tigers. A lot of guys would have been more cautious as a pitch bounced only a few feet away from the catcher, but those two averaged-speed opportunists took off. I saw a slow-motion shot of Pedroia pointing to Victorino after they both safely advanced. Pety yelled “THAAATTA BAAABY!” The Sox were gonna win one for the city, there was just no question. Miguel Cabrerra and the rest of the better-on-paper Tigers or Cardinals couldn’t do anything about it.
But if I was a REAL Sox fan, I wouldn’t be writing this. Don’t tell anyone, but my favorite players are Yankees. Joe Dimaggio, Thurmon Munson, Babe Ruth, and my favorite player of all time- Lou Gehrig. He gave my favorite speech. Not my favorite athlete speech, but my favorite speech. The well-fed New York native, born of hard-working German immigrants, in a moment of self-awareness that stands as a reminder to anyone who gets paid handily to play a boys game, told the world that despite his dying condition, he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth. You think about it for a minute and you realize that he was. He knew it, and that’s awesome.
Joe D. thanked God for making him a Yankee. Derek Jeter slapped a little sign displaying that prayer every day before he played. Yankees are rich like all the other athletes. But true Yankees understand their fortune. And as anyone will tell you -including any Red Sox fan- Jeter knows this. Jeter played the game like he knew he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth and that’s why we’re all gonna miss him.