Derek Jeter remembered taking a road trip to Wrigley Field after his last day of classes at Kalamazoo Central High School. He rode about three hours from Michigan to watch Ryne Sandberg and the Cubs. At that point, the New York Yankees hadn’t yet made a franchise-altering decision in the 1992 draft.
“I was just sitting there looking out,” Jeter said, “hoping to get an opportunity to play in the major leagues.”
The Houston Astros (Phil Nevin), Cleveland Indians (Paul Shuey), Montreal Expos (B.J. Wallace), Baltimore Orioles (Jeffrey Hammonds) and Cincinnati Reds (Chad Mottola) would let the teenage shortstop slide to the No. 6 pick, changing the course of baseball history forever.
That young kid sitting in the stands couldn’t have imagined all this, because Jeter’s had such a charmed career and Tuesday night’s scene would have been unthinkable for a visiting player nearing his 40th birthday.
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As part of the farewell tour, Jeter did a pregame sit-down with Mr. Cub Ernie Banks. The Miller Lite rooftop billboard overlooking right field read: “CHEERS TO RETIREMENT.”
During batting practice, the video board tucked into the right-field corner showed highlights of his career, next to his mug shot, the interlocking NY and “The Captain DEREK JETER.”
Before first pitch, Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro presented Jeter with a No. 2 scoreboard panel. Jeter tipped his cap to the crowd and Frank Sinatra’s voice rang out from the sound system playing “New York, New York.”
The crowd of 38,753 briefly chanted “Der-ek, Je-ter” at the beginning of a game that ended when the Yankee legend grounded out to Castro with the bases loaded in the ninth inning. The guy known for being clutch went 2-for-4 with a sacrifice bunt and a stolen base in a 6-1 loss.
“It’s unexpected,” Jeter said. “I never expected anyone to do anything. It’s much appreciated. For the most part, the fans have always treated me good. I think even if they don’t like me, they like the Yankees, or at least they have some sort of respect (for us). It feels good when people appreciate, I guess, how you (play).”
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Trying to get close to Jeter, reporters from New York and Chicago packed into the visiting dugout before Tuesday’s game at Clark and Addison. Jeter doesn’t do drama or court controversy, but he understands sound bites and tries to give you something, a memory or a detail or a one-liner.
“A lot of the shortstops that have come up and worn No. 2, when I’ve met them, they said they have been fans – or their mom or dad have been fans,” Jeter said. “You appreciate it. If someone looks up to how you carry yourself and how you play the game, it makes you feel good.
“I haven’t seen Castro play a lot, (but) he’s got a lot of talent. He’s got a bright future. He’s played well already up to this point. I think he’s only going to get better. I wish him all the luck, just not in these two games here.”
Long before Mariano Duncan began working with the “Core Four” as the hitting coach at advanced Class-A Daytona, the Cubs instructor heard it from Joe Torre and Reggie Jackson, who relayed the message from George Steinbrenner in 1996: Take care of Jeter.
The New York second baseman looked after Jeter, who became the unanimous choice as the American League’s Rookie of the Year, beginning a run of four World Series titles in five seasons.
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“Since Day 1, he showed that leadership,” Duncan said. “I never, ever, ever saw any player like Derek Jeter. Every time he spoke to the media, he always said the right thing.”
Jeter dates models and actresses, but he has the perfect temperament to handle New York’s tabloids and the pressure to win the World Series every year. So whenever Alex Rodriguez created another distraction…
“What about A-Rod?” Duncan said. “Jeter (always said): ‘We. We. We. The Yankees aren’t only about one player. It’s about we. It’s about everybody here.’
“He doesn’t only think about going out there and putting up some numbers. He just played for the love of the game. He just played for the love of the New York Yankees. His reputation is so high that nobody can say negative stuff about that guy.
“He never forgot where he came from. Every player that played with him had nothing bad to say about him. Baseball is going to miss him.”
“The ultimate, consummate professional,” Cubs manager Rick Renteria said. “Solid preparation, a solid mindset. He’s stuck around for a long time. He’s a Hall of Famer. That hasn’t happened by accident. He’s been gifted with a great mind and a great sense of the game and a great work ethic. That’s what we see from the outside.”
Winning is part of the Jeter brand, and the Cubs are looking for minority investors, but, ah, forget it. The kid out of Kalamazoo Central wants to enjoy retirement before getting back into the action.
“I don’t want to make plans,” Jeter said. “I’d like to do what I want to do, and I’d like to do it on any particular day that I wake up, at least for a little while. But I want to stay involved in the game. I’ve said it before: I’d love to be part of a group that owns a team and would like to call the shots. But that’s something in the future.”