I've never been big on captains in baseball, but all it took was a brief stint in an exhibition season with Derek Jeter, and I changed my mind. Before you accuse me of having a man crush, don't bother, I know I have one. It has absolutely nothing to do with his rumored and famed life off the field. (in fact, as a Christian dad, when teaching my sons and daughter! about some of the greatest players of all time, I will not even mention his dating exploits :) It had everything to do with the way he commanded the respect, without trying, of every alpha male, in that locker room.
The very first day of camp, there was a rookie being really loud, and let's just say overly confident. It was such that my face must have let on that I was really annoyed by it, and the strength coach walked over to me and said, "he'll quiet down as soon as #2 gets here." Not ten minutes later Derek walks in and the room, and the rookie, came to a respectful noise level and tone. I don't want to come across that the captain being there made things too serious. Not at all! He was a kid at heart. He has as much fun as anyone playing the game, and helps his teammates do the same. I think this last story will capture what I'm trying to say:
The first game in spring in a new locker room you're never quite sure what the rules are. Do all 70 in camp have to stay for the game if they aren't scheduled to play? If not what level of service time lets you leave early? If you do stay, and there's no room on the bench is it ok to watch the game on the T.V.s in the clubhouse? You can understand my questions now. So who better to ask but the guy who's been there 20 years. His locker was only two from mine so it was easy. Our brief conversation went something like this:
Me: "He Jete, what are the rules about leaving?"
Jeter: "Oh man, you can leave, it's no big deal around here, and besides, with 70 people in
camp who will even notice."
Ten minutes later I was in my street clothes and heading for the door when I hear a voice. Not just any voice, the voice I spoke about earlier that brings a locker rooms volume down and commands respect. So I turned around, and sitting at his locker with the wryest smile I've ever seen is Derek Jeter saying, "Hey DYE-az (I think he got a kick out of me saying my last name incorrectly) you just going to leave without watching a single pitch?" With 140 eyes staring at me, it dawns on me that his whole "who will even notice," speech was a set up for this moment. I go blank! I have no answer! I just walk into the video room and wait a minute and then leave. (I had seen a player or two already leave so I talked myself into it)
By the time I get to my car Jeter is being pulled into his car next to mine on the golf cart (he had a bad ankle so they carted him places). He hadn't watched a single pitch either, and he was so proud of setting me he could hardly contain it. I was proud that I was worthy in his mind to be set up. I no longer felt like just another minor league invite. I felt like part of the team. Like I said I didn't last. I don't think I hit a ball out of the infield all camp, but on the first day of games Jeter didn't know that. All he knew was that maybe I could help the Yankees at some point that year. He, without trying, without forcing anything, in a fun way brought me in, by calling me out. (that only makes sense if you've lived with or been around a bunch of guys but it works!)
It's no mystery that Derek Jeter will be remembered as one of the greatest players ever. One of the best on the biggest stages. But if you ask players one word to describe him, I'm sure the word they would use the word, WINNER. There's a reason for that. I would venture to say that talent and leadership have never collided in one person like it did with Derek Jeter in our sports history.