Derek Jeter's 'inner arrogance' carried him all the way to Cooperstown
The long-time Captain was officially elected to the Hall of Fame on Tuesday
I first met Derek Jeter when the Yankees drafted him and he was a thin-as-a-foul pole 18-year old. I've asked him hundreds of questions across the last 27 years and, most of the time, Jeter used verbal gymnastics to avoid talking about himself. That was one of the rules Jeter's parents instilled in him, and he abided by it. Religiously.
But there were a few times where Jeter would reveal something about himself and would give a glimpse into what helped transform him from a boy who had a Yankees uniform hanging on his bedroom wall in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to a man who had Yankee Stadium as his office for two decades. During one of those moments, Jeter, forever humble, spoke about arrogance, an inner arrogance.
As I interviewed Jeter for a book we collaborated on called "The Life You Imagine," he praised his parents for counseling him and even making him sign contracts about academics, athletics and behavior when he was in high school. He spoke about what he experienced while growing up as a bi-racial kid. He detailed the dedication he had to become a Major Leaguer, and then he elaborated on what helped make him who he is as a player. A player who is now a Hall of Famer after being elected with 99.7 percent of the vote Tuesday night.
Whenever someone would tell Dr. Charles Jeter, Derek's father, they appreciated how humble Derek was, Dr. Jeter would offer a sheepish smile and, once in a while, he would tell them a secret. Yes, Derek is humble, but Derek also had an inner arrogance, a powerful belief and an overwhelming confidence that he would succeed and, if he didn't, he would maintain that same inner arrogance, belief and confidence.
"That attitude and that arrogance come from the inside," Jeter said, in the book. "I think you have to have that to make it this far. You have to feel like you're the best player on the field, the player that thousands of people will stare at all game." Jeter added, "I believe I'm going to get a hit every time up and I'll let that arrogance drip through in my performance, not in what I say."
In the days before Jeter's election, I reflected on what he said about possessing an inner arrogance and I think that attitude was instrumental in helping guide him to such amazing heights. Obviously, Jeter was incredibly talented and finished his career with 3,465 hits, a slash line of .310/.377/.440 and five World Series titles. He started and ended his baseball journey as the shortstop of the Yankees, a 20-season run that was filled with endless moments of glory and no hints of scandal.
"He was just so steady," said Andy Pettitte, his Yankees teammate. "He was steady out there for us and he was focused."
On Jeter's first day as a Minor Leaguer, he went 0-for-7 with five strikeouts for Class A Tampa and didn't look like an $800,000 bonus baby. In his first full Minor League season, he made a whopping 56 errors in 128 games. Still, after all the teary phone calls and requests to quit playing and return home, Jeter steadied himself, excelled and made it to the Majors as a 20-year old in 1995. By 1996, he was the starting shortstop, a position he held for 2,905 regular and postseason games.
"At the start of the 1996 season, he was a 21-year-old kid playing shortstop for us so we were all curious about him," said David Cone, another Yankee teammate. "By the end of that season, we weren't looking at him anymore. We were following him. He was our leader."
There are so many memorable moments scattered throughout Jeter's career, from the Flip Play to the dive-into-the-seats-and-get-a-black-eye catch to the Mr. November homer to homering for his 3,000th hit to climaxing his Yankee Stadium career with a dramatic walk-off single. On and on, Jeter continually proved he was a prime-time player.
As memorable as those moments were, one of the under-the-radar images that I have of Jeter is when he stood beside the batting cage and long-tossed with a teammate before a postseason game. He never looked flustered. He could have been playing catch before a game in April, not before a game in October. I've spoken to Jeter in the minutes before postseason games and he always said it was just one game, nothing more. And he didn't just say that. He believed that and he played in that way, with his postseason slash line (.308/.377/.440) almost duplicating his regular season numbers.
"Jeter is the most relaxed player I've seen in the postseason," said Reggie Jackson, a man who did enough in the postseason to be nicknamed Mr. October.
In the final chapter of our book, Jeter described himself as a normal kid who dreamed big and who was "a shining example of making dreams happen." Those big dreams became huge dreams and those huge dreams became extraordinary dreams, dreams that culminated with Jeter earning a plaque in Cooperstown.
Jeter can now say he will forever be in the same neighborhood with the best players of all time. There's nothing arrogant about that.