Derek Jeter – Character
“Obviously, you’re known for what you do. But you still want to be known as a good person.”
At the tender age of eight years old, Derek Jeter walked into his parent’s room and emphatically announced, “I’m going to play shortstop for the New York Yankees.” Charles and Dorothy did not laugh or discourage young Jeter. Instead, they told him, “If you work hard, all your dreams will come true.” So, if he was asked to do a book report in school, he always wrote about the Yankees. In 8th grade, his English teacher asked each student to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. After Jeter wrote about his dream occupation, the teacher secretly told his parents, “You shouldn’t put those ideas in your son’s head.” Jeter, who lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, followed the advice of his parents. He constantly recruited neighbor kids to play baseball on a grassy field not too far from his apartment complex. He didn’t care about the age, gender, or race of the participants – Jeter just wanted to play baseball. And, that is what he did until the sun set each summer day.
When Jeter entered Kalamazoo Central High School, his parents made him sign a contract. To participate in sports, he had to maintain good grades, refrain from using alcohol and drugs, and demonstrate good character. Jeter kept his part of the bargain. He was a three-sport athlete: He ran cross country in the fall, played basketball in the winter, and played baseball in the spring.
Jeter excelled in baseball. He actually made varsity his freshmen year. As a sophomore, he began to attract college and professional scouts by batting .557, followed by .508 his junior year and another .508 his senior year. During his senior year, Jeter struck out only one time. Both Gatorade and USA Today named him the 1992 High School Player of the Year.
Many projected Jeter to be drafted by a professional Major League Baseball team right out of high school. Jeter talked with just about every team, but did not hear from the Yankees until the night before the draft. A Yankees scout called to let Jeter know that he had been watching him for two years and that the Yankees were considering him for the draft. The Yankees selected 6th. The Houston Astros had the first pick in the draft, and they selected a college senior. The Astros scout who strongly recommended Jeter quit his job to protest their selection. The next four teams also passed on Jeter. Then, the phone rang. It was Yankee general manager, Gene Michael. He told Jeter that the Yankees were selecting a high school senior out of Kalamazoo. When Jeter hung up the phone, he knew his life-long dream was coming true.
It’s important to note that Jeter, the man who would become a Yankee legend, spent three years in the minor leagues. During his first year in the rookie league, he hit .202 and had 12 errors in the field. He racked up $400 phone bills each month by calling home almost every night. He was struggling for the first time in his life and he was home-sick. His parents had to constantly reassure him that his struggles were just part of the learning process.
Instead of wallowing in his tears, Jeter worked tirelessly to improve. He was the first to arrive at practice and he would stay as long as someone would pitch to him. He steadily improved over the next several years. “I need work on everything – defense, offense, base running,” Jeter admitted. “I don’t feel like I have mastered anything.” He went from the Instructional League to A ball, to double A ball, to the triple A affiliate. He was even called up to the Yankees for a brief stint in 1995 when the starting shortstop went down with an injury.
At the beginning of the 1996 season, Joe Torre, the Yankees manager, decided to give Jeter a real shot in the majors. The Yankee organization bestowed a tremendous honor on this 20-year-old rookie by providing him jersey number 2. It was one of two single-digit jersey numbers that had not been retired. Many of the Yankee greats like Babe Ruth (3), Lou Gehrig (4), Joe DiMaggio (5) and Mickie Mantle (7) wore single-digit numbers. Before Jeter even took a swing as the starting shortstop, Yankee owner, George Steinbrenner said, “I’m telling you, he could be one of the special ones.”
Special turned out to be an understatement. The Yankees hadn’t won a World Series Championship in 19 years. Derek led the Yankees to four championships in his first five years (1996, 1998, 1999, & 2000) and added another one in 2009. “What a winner. What a classy guy,” said Yankee announcer Jim Kaat. “The moment that he put on the uniform and got into the starting lineup, the Yankee dynasty started.” Jeter made routine plays and spectacular plays. He got important hits in clutch moments. He dove into the stands to catch foul balls. He fielded balls deep into the hole and gunned down baserunners. Jeter did whatever was necessary to help his team win.
In the most-storied organization in baseball, Jeter became the all-time career leader in hits (3,465), doubles (544), stolen bases (358), and times on base (4,716). He received five Gold Glove Awards for his consistent play in the field. He was appointed team captain in 2003 and he retained that title until he retired in 2014. He performed admirably in the post-season, earning the nicknames of “Captain Clutch” and “Mr. November.” He became the 28th player in MLB to reach 3,000 hits, and the second player to do so by hitting a home run for his 3,000th hit. In other words, Jeter was the consummate player, teammate and leader throughout his career. He made the Yankees The Yankees again.
If this chapter were just about on-the-field accomplishments, this chapter would be complete. However, Derek Jeter was selected to exemplify character because of how he played the game and how he conducted himself off the field. He played 20 years in the biggest city in the world with the most media scrutiny. However, he never had a scandal nor did he receive much negative publicity for the way he lived his life. “He knows right from wrong,” commented Yankee teammate Chili Davis. “Not too many young players come into this game and have that kind of success that early realize that.”
When he struggled, Jeter worked hard to improve. When he had success, he worked even harder. He kept his priorities straight. Success didn’t go to his head. He didn’t get caught up in the publicity or believe the hype. As a veteran, he hustled like a rookie. He talked with kids during batting practice and he stayed late to sign autographs. He referred to his manager as Mr. Torre and he never publicly criticized a teammate. Partying was not part of Jeter’s scene. His idea of a good time was watching ESPN or a good movie at home. Hall of fame baseball player, Cal Ripken Jr. put it this way, “He is well-respected. On the field, he handles himself beautifully and off the field he is a true professional.”
Jeter himself spoke about character often. “People always say to me, ‘Your image is this, you image is that.’” But he quickly corrected those people. “Your image isn’t your character. Character is what you are as a person. That’s what I worry about.” True to his word, he created the Turn 2 Foundation during his rookie year. This charitable organization helps teenagers avoid drug and alcohol addiction, and rewards those who show high academic achievement.
Two inevitable events will happen in the next decade to round out his career. The first will occur in 2020 when Jeter is enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Everyone agrees that he is a “first-ballot” hall of famer, meaning he will receive 75% of the required votes in his first year of eligibility. The debate is whether he becomes the first player ever voted in unanimously. The second inevitable event will occur when the Yankees decide to retire his number 2.
Jeter is a consummate professional. As former New York City Mayor Rudi Giuliani said, “He did it the right way. He transcends baseball.” He is one of the most positive role models you will ever find in the world of sports. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner leaves us with the following quote, “For those who say today’s game can’t produce legendary players, I have two words – Derek Jeter.”
Check out the Student Athlete Program
Dereck Jeter is one of the 144 “Wednesday Role Models” featured in the Student Athlete Program. This program is designed to improve the character, leadership and sportsmanship of high school athletes. To learn more about this program and how you can implement it in your school: