During my childhood, I remember adults often sharing stories explaining exactly where they were when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a significant day in American history but also one in our family. My parents married a day after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.
Maybe this is strange, but I always felt cheated that I wasn’t alive for JFK and, therefore, couldn’t participate in conversations about him. I felt the same way when people discussed sports figures. I was born in 1967 and resented not being able to appreciate the careers of athletes who came before me.
Mickey Mantle retired after the ’68 season. Bill Russell finished up his career with the Celtics a year later. Vince Lombardi died in 1970, and Gale Sayers was wrapping up his career. Wilt Chamberlain retired in 1973, about six months before Willie Mays left after 66 forgettable games with the Mets.
This is not to diminish my memories of Hank Aaron hitting No. 715 or Muhammad Ali fighting Joe Frazier or Arthur Ashe winning the U.S. Open or O.J. rushing for 2,003 yards or Bruce Jenner – kids, this is not a joke – winning an Olympic gold medal in 1976.
It just didn’t feel like Mantle and Mays.
Fortunately for my generation, along came Gretzky and Magic and Bird and Michael. For years, my son complained that he didn’t have legends like them during his childhood. Sports in his generation revolved around steroids and were dirtied by marketing campaigns and greed.
Here’s hoping people in their late teens and early 20s someday fully comprehend the greatness of Derek Jeter, who is putting the finishing touches on his 20-year career. For young adults, he should be revered as their Mantle and Mays, a true icon in a sports world woefully short on them.
This isn’t to say Mantle and Mays were perfect people, not by any stretch. Mantle played just as hard during the wee hours in Manhattan as he did on the field. He and Mays were banned from the game for associating with known gamblers or, their case, working for casinos.
In fact, many of the aforementioned legends had their share of demons. Lombardi was known as an overbearing father. Chamberlain bragged about his relationships with women. Ali was an unfaithful husband. Simpson has been in prison for the past six years. Gretzky, Magic and Bird had their shortcomings.
Jeter wasn’t perfect, either, but you never heard about him getting arrested or causing any real trouble. He was never caught up in performance-enhancing drugs that contaminated his era or some other controversy that made you question his character.
Instead, he carried himself with the utmost professionalism and class and became a role model for kids who grew up watching him. And he did so in the largest media market in the United States, at a time new forms of media sprouted seemingly every other day, without speaking out of turn or bragging about himself.
Jeter always seemed like a player from a different era with his old-school, team-first approach in a me-first world. He wasn’t simply the best leader of his team. He was the greatest captain of any team in any professional sport in my lifetime and perhaps ever. He will be remembered as such long for generations that follow.
It’s hard to fathom that he made only $130,000 in his first season with the Yankees. I’m sure money mattered, but it was never an issue with him. There was always a sense that he knew he was stealing, that he loved the game so much that he would have played for nothing.
This season has been one long standing ovation for Jeter, who has about six weeks remaining in his 20-year career. You know about him being the only player to have 3,000 hits with the Yankees, the All-Star games and Gold Gloves and the other individual accomplishments. What mattered to him more than anything were the five World Series he won with the Yankees.
More important than anything was the impact that he had on his generation. For all that’s wrong with sports nowadays, we could always point to him as someone who consistently did things well and consistently did things right. Our grandchildren will hear stories about him someday.
And I’ll be telling them.