This past week I made my first trip to Cooperstown, New York to attend the National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction for one of my boyhood heroes, former New York Yankees shortstop, Derek Jeter.
I had begun planning this trip over seven years ago, when Jeter announced that the 2014 season would be his last. In most sports Halls of Fame, there’s a five year wait from your last game before you can be eligible. Jeter is a part of the 2020 Hall of Fame class, but because of the pandemic, the celebration was postponed a few times.
The celebration was wonderful and Jeter’s speech is one that will stick with me for quite some time. But rather than talking about the trip, this morning I want to talk about how a baseball player I’ve never met (though I did get close a few times) had a monumental impact on my life.
Putting it bluntly, me being a Yankee fan is solely because of Derek Jeter. When we moved to Danville, Illinois in the summer of 1999, the Witzel family had no professional baseball allegiances. We hailed from Las Vegas, Nevada, a city who had no professional sports teams of any kind, and there hadn’t been any influencers in my life that swayed me toward a particular ball team.
When we got to Danville, we found out very quickly that it’s a very diverse town in terms of sports allegiances, primarily divided into Chicago Cubs fans and St Louis Cardinals fans, with the occasional Chicago White Sox fans sprinkled in. I floated between fanships for my first school year in Danville. Not wanting to lose any friends because of my declared team, I didn’t pick one for many months. I remember sitting in my first Neuhoff Media Sports Announcers Camp. We had a sports debate going on (recorded on real-life microphones and I think it was eventually put on air), a bunch of 5th-8th graders debating on if the Cardinals or Cubs were better. Despite sitting in front of a microphone, I remained quiet, again, not wanting to pick a side, until I was asked by our instructor, Mike Hulvey, “Rob, are you a Cardinals fan or a Cubs fan”. I panicked, and said the worst possible thing any Cub or Cardinal fan could hear…I replied “I like both”. I don’t remember exactly what followed but a fun ribbing of “How can you like both?” followed from my classmates. In hindsight, the jokes were absolutely deserved as the rivalry is one of baseball’s best. I remember going home thinking “I need to figure out what team I like”
I didn’t figure it out that night, in fact it would take some time. It wouldn’t be until October 2001 before I found my team. I didn’t see the play live when it happened, and instead saw it the next day on Sportscenter. The Yankees were playing the Oakland A’s in the first round of the playoffs. Late in the game THIS happened!
It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. I wanted to see more, so I started tuning in for Yankee games. I eventually became a Yankees fan because I was first a Derek Jeter fan.
I learned a lot of lessons about life from Jeter too, both from watching him in games and learning about him in biographies and documentaries.
Jeter was never the best. The “haters” would argue that based on statistics alone, he was barely above average for most of his career. That case would be a strong one too as his statistics aren’t all that spectacular. He was never a league MVP, he didn’t hit a lot of home runs, or break a bunch of records, but Jeter isn’t in the Hall of Fame because of those stats. Jeter is a Hall of Famer for several other reasons: the clutch moments, the championships, being the captain of one of the most dominant teams of an era. He’s also in the Hall of Fame because of his commitment to being a great teammate. I read in his 2009 autobiography, The Life You Imagine, that Jeter made it a point that any time a teammate hit a home run, he wanted to be the first guy in the dugout to greet him with a high-five. I’d look for this for the rest of his career, and I never once saw anyone beat Jeter to that high-five. Seeing this made me want to be a great teammate, I never told anybody about it but I tried to emulate Jeter’s high-five tradition with my friends in our city kickball league any time they scored a run. I tried to be a better teammate at work, at home and in my friendships too
But the BIGGEST impact Derek Jeter had on my life, was by showing me how to dream big and live out that dream. Derek Jeter has gone on record several times saying that growing up, all he wanted to do was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. Then he did it. At his induction, he laid out a blue print for how he pulled that off. He had a dream, he worked really hard for that dream, he surrounded himself with people who encouraged him, and when he got there he worked really hard to keep it. If it weren’t for watching him do what he loved (playing baseball) I don’t know that I’d be doing what I love (writing stories about super heroes).
Congratulations Mr. Jeter on your induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and thank you for dreaming big, playing hard, and being an inspiration to so many dreamers like me.