A Requiem for My Captain

From the time I was little, I studied my hero’s every move (2001).

From the time I was little, I studied my hero’s every move (2001).

I can still remember it like it was yesterday. Dave Winfield Day at Yankee Stadium, August 19, 2001. My Dad Tony and I arrived early on that scorching Sunday in the Bronx, as we did each time we ventured to The House That Ruth Built, to greet our boys of summer as they entered the Stadium. In the pre-9/11 world, Yankee fandom was quite different, as it simply took an earlier trek across the George Washington Bridge to have direct access to New York’s favorite sons; a truly personalized Yankee Stadium experience.

We watched as Paul O’Neil, Tino Martinez, and Derek Jeter approached the gates of Yankee Stadium like soldiers going off to war. While positioned along the barricade that separated me from my Yankee-favorites in suits, my Dad encouraged me to hop the fence and give Jeter a hug. I was still at an age when the bright-eyed Yankee shortstop would have been obligated to concede my embrace, thus, fulfilling my youthful aspiration to meet him.

I got one foot over the barricade before a police officer made his way over and said that since he heard my Dad encouraging the illegal act, handcuffs would be waiting for him if the deed was actually done. Needless to say, I did not meet my hero in that moment, and never was able to give him a hug. There was still batting practice to look forward to, my Dad promised.

I was eight; a budding Little League softball player and the daughter of a Yankee-loving single father. Without my mom in the picture, those days were often hard, as my Dad and I didn’t have much but each other and the small apartment we shared in Pequannock Township, New Jersey. No matter how daunting and dysfunctional our situation got at that time, the constant we both had to fall back on was that for 162 games a year, we had the New York Yankees. And most important to me, we had Derek Jeter.

I cannot pinpoint the exact moment in time when I became a Derek Jeter fan, but my love for him was always deeper than that of the other little girls my age, who either thought he was dreamy or liked him because he was born in our small, suburban hometown. I didn’t want to grow up and marry Derek Jeter; I wanted to grow up and play like Derek Jeter.

As a result, I soaked up every ounce of information about Jeter that I could and became a walking fact machine for him in that summer of 2001, after reading his and Jack Curry’s book, The Life You Imagine: Life Lessons for Achieving Your Dreams; not exactly similar to the Beverly Cleary and Andrew Clements books that adorned my eight-year-old bedroom bookshelf. I can remember reading about Jeter’s work ethic, and how he would come home during his lunch break every day in high school and take 100 swings. That really resonated with me, even as a little girl, and I never forgot it.

My first encounter with Derek Jeter (2001).

My first encounter with Derek Jeter (2001).

So, when Jeter approached me during batting practice before the Dave Winfield Day ceremony on August 19, 2001, it was naturally the best moment of my young life to date. After my failed attempt to meet Derek earlier in the day, I had been tirelessly calling out to him while standing beyond the wall of the third base line with my Dad, amongst a small group of ten or so other hopeful fans. The group of fans around us even dubbed me “Little Jeter,” as a result of the number two on my back and my fervent calls out to my hero. Derek had been fielding ground balls at shortstop in his Yankees wind-breaker, seemingly remiss to my hankering calls. But to my great surprise and eventual elation, he began back-peddling towards me and the rest of the small group of fans, and it quickly became apparent that he was making his way over to sign for us. Almost immediately, the section was blocked off, and for about five minutes, it was as though I had been chosen by him to join some exclusive clique. I had never been so happy. In those minutes, on the same day that Derek’s childhood hero Dave Winfield was being honored by the Yankees, my own personal Dave Winfield signed the brim of my over-sized hat, answered my trivial questions, and stole my heart forever.

For the next five years, my adoration for Jeter and the Yankees simultaneously grew with my love for playing softball. I was a catcher and shortstop, donning the number two on my back like my hero. I watched as Captain Clutch continuously came through for his team when they needed him most, while doing so with a certain grace and competitiveness about him that was both dignified and intimidating to opponents. I studied his mannerisms, from his calm and steady demeanor on the field, to his child-like and passionate ways of celebrating. I learned how to win from watching Derek Jeter, and thus, an insatiable desire for victory was also ingrained within me.

When my team made it to the Little League Softball World Series championship game in 2006, Jeter sent his well-wishes and told us to enjoy every minute of the experience. Ironically, my team from Pequannock, NJ (Derek’s birthplace) played and lost to Mattawan, Michigan, a town 15 minutes outside of Kalamazoo, where he grew up.

My second encounter with Jeter had me staring at him, completely starstruck (2006).

My second encounter with Jeter had me staring at him, completely starstruck (2006).

Our second place finish in the Little League Softball World Series led me to Derek Jeter, yet again, as we were invited by the Yankees to attend batting practice from the first row behind home plate. Derek once again came over to sign for me, but this time, my thirteen-year-old self could hardly form intelligible words to speak to my hero. Rather than letting him know that he had been personally responsible for providing so much happiness to my Dad and me during some of the hardest times of our lives, and was also indirectly responsible for my own softball success up to that point, I instead spent most of the fleeting moments with my Captain smiling senselessly at him. Words of that weight were nearly impossible for my teenage self to comprehend, never mind express.

It was at the Little League Softball World Series where I was forced to make a number change. When we were given new uniforms to represent the Eastern Region of the United States, our numbers were granted based on our sizes. I fought for my number two, acting as though a part of my identity was being given to a smaller-statured teammate. My requests were in vain, however, and thus, my relationship with the number eleven began. In my young mind, I was still paying homage to Derek with the double-digit number. If one looked at my back and saw Roman numerals or added one plus one to equal my cherished number two, it was still symbolic of my hero.

I continued to wear number eleven, even through high school, and later, in college. It represented my personal and unique tie to Derek Jeter, while granting me an identity away from the “Little Jeter” perception I had wanted to embody as a younger player.

When it came time to make a decision about where to attend college and play Division I softball, it seemed fitting, especially considering my Yankee and Jeter-history, that Fordham University came knocking. Just six stops on the subway from Yankee Stadium, Fordham was the closest I could get to playing for the Yankees, and once given the opportunity to play for the (other) Bronx Bombers, I couldn’t pass it up.

My decision to attend Fordham to play softball not only afforded me numerous chances to see my Captain play at the end of his career, but also use the competitiveness I learned from watching him to help lead my own team to two-consecutive Atlantic 10 Conference championships during my sophomore and junior seasons.

You could say I’ve picked up a few things from watching Jeter for so many years. (Left-Courtesy of Lodico.org; Right-Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko).

You could say I’ve picked up a few things from watching Jeter for so many years. (Left-Courtesy of Lodico.org; Right-Courtesy of Tom Wasiczko)

Now, in the midst of the final season of my playing career, I, too, am the captain of a championship-winning team in the Bronx, having just said goodbye to the Yankee who has shaped me, while also preparing to bid farewell to the game that has made me.

While the constant reminders of Jeter’s greatness on television, in the papers, and on social media make parting with my hero like losing a loved one, what gives me solace is knowing that his impact is not ephemeral in my life or the lives of millions of other Yankee fans.

He will live on forever in my mind and heart not as much for what he did in-between the white lines, but for what he unknowingly and unintentionally did for my soul; he invigorated my young spirit at a time when circumstances were bleak and ignited a competitive fire that has taken me to incredible heights and places in my life on the softball diamond and off of it.

The days of contemplating hopping over a barricade and giving Derek Jeter a hug are long gone, as the world has since been forever changed and that little girl is now a woman. What remains, however, are the memories of a back-peddling superstar, who heard the shouts of an adoring eight-year-old girl, stepped into her world, if only for five minutes, and became indirectly responsible for shaping so much of her life some 13 years later. For that, and a lifetime’s worth of clutch moments and championship celebrations, she’ll be forever grateful.


Airport Serendipity, Jeter Sadness & Why Not Us?

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 – College of Charleston / Charleston, SC

As the sun sets on Charleston, I am reflecting on the day that was (and still is), and am having a hard time wrapping my mind around all that has occurred today. It’s 5pm and I’ve been awake for 14 hours. My day started at 3am, as I got out of bed and prepared to make the five minute trek from my apartment to the Coach bus waiting outside the Rose Hill Gym. It was time to start our second journey of the 2014 season.

Because of a looming storm (one of many to derail plans this winter), our coaches decided to travel to South Carolina a day early to avoid delays and cancellations. These last minute changes meant a very early morning for me and my fellow Rams. Because we could not book a last minute flight that would fit our whole team on it, we had to split up into three groups on three separate flights from three separate airports. My flight was the last to depart at 8:05am from JFK Airport. I watched the sun rise with my teammates and coach at JetBlue Gate 10, while reminiscing about travel ball and getting recruited. My teammates and I talked about the serendipitous nature of college softball, and how strange it is to think that just a few years ago we were all at the same tournaments, on different teams, with absolutely no idea how our paths would intersect and softball would bring us together.

Once boarding the flight to Charleston, I found myself sitting next to a lovely woman named Kelly Quinn, a marketer from Hilton Head, South Carolina who was a former college softball player at the University of Toledo. We got to talking about softball, my career aspirations as a sports journalist, her job as a marketer, and our shared love of sports. One thing that really made an impression on me was when Kelly said that she and her husband share a goal of seeing all of the Major League Baseball ballparks together. This immediately struck a chord with me, as I told her that I too have the same desire, but to do so with my Dad. Kelly and I really hit it off, as she was someone with whom I could empathize, and have a lot in common with. We talked for all of the nearly three hours that we spent on the plane together, straight through the turbulence and bumpy landing. I’ve always heard about people meeting perfect strangers on planes and having profound interactions with them. I’m surprised at myself, but happy to say that today I met a stranger on a plane and revealed much more to that stranger about myself than I have to some of the people I’ve known for years. There is something both thrilling and cathartic about exposing yourself to someone you’ll never see again.

View of the Ashley River from our hotel in Charleston, South Carolina

View of the Ashley River from our hotel in Charleston, South Carolina.

After arriving safely in Charleston, we made our way to the hotel, where I learned that Derek Jeter, my hero since I was six years old and the person who I have modeled my game after, will be retiring after the 2014 season. My initial emotion was intense sadness, as I called my Dad and had a good cry for five minutes about how life as a Yankee fan will never be the same. This reaction may sound slightly dramatic, but my admiration for Derek Jeter goes way deeper than fan girl love of his good looks and superstar status. Other than my father, Derek Jeter is the person most responsible for my passion for baseball and softball. From his stance, to his fist pump, to his postgame interviews and demeanor, as well as his leadership and work ethic, I have both consciously and subconsciously copied nearly all aspects of Jeter’s game and have tried to incorporate them into my own since I was young. After taking some time to let the news of Jeter’s retirement sink in, I realized that despite my adoration for him, I wasn’t as upset about losing Derek Jeter the shortstop as I was about losing Derek Jeter the exemplar, and all that he has represented in my life over the last 16 years. Since Derek and the Yankees had such a profound impact on my childhood, and have inadvertently molded me into the athlete and competitor I am today, I feel that with Jeter’s retirement comes the end of an era in my life. Taking things one step further, Jeter’s retirement in October will occur during a time when I will have to start thinking about my life after softball. At the start of my senior year, as my favorite player of all-time says goodbye to the game he helped inspire me to love, I will also prepare to bid farewell to softball, thus bringing things full circle for me in my life as an athlete. This is a fact I am not yet ready to face, hence my emotional reaction. Luckily, I won’t have to deal with those tears for many days to come.

Getting back to the diamond, we Rams are preparing for a challenging weekend ahead at the College of Charleston. After finishing two and one last weekend at UCF, we are pretty happy with our showing, but know that we can play even better than we did. With the bitter taste of defeat in our mouths after a 2-1 loss to UCF on Sunday, I believe we will be playing with a chip on our shoulders this weekend to avenge that loss and get to where we need to be as a team.

Greg Shelley, our motivational speaker, came to Rose Hill to speak with us on Monday after we returned home from Florida. He gave us all the opportunity to talk about our weekend, and reflect on both the positive takeaways and improvements that need to be made. I was impressed with the feedback my teammates gave, as everyone seemed to be equally as upset about the loss and determined to get back on the diamond to play to our potential. With this shared mentality, I don’t see our team accepting losing this year.

My biggest takeaway from Greg’s talk was when he told us a story about Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks. Greg said that Russell grew up as the ultimate underdog; a quarterback who was criticized for being too small and too ordinary to ever be great. Wilson’s father, who passed away in 2010, encouraged his son to ignore the critics and envision himself achieving his dreams and playing in the Super Bowl someday. As a result of his father’s encouragement, Russell Wilson adopted a “Why not me?” mentality, which he posted on signs and hung up on his wall to use as his mantra during his journey to the NFL, and then to the Super Bowl. Greg encouraged us to possess a similar mentality. Why not us? Why can’t we beat top flight teams? Why can’t we repeat as Atlantic 10 champions? Why can’t we win Regionals? This reminded me of something that our head coach Bridget told us during our very first meeting as a team in August. She said that the difference between us and the top softball teams in the country is not our talent, but rather the belief that we can finish our season in Oklahoma City. She and the rest of our coaching staff believe that this team is special. Once we start believing it, look out.