Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Token of Appreciation

I am in my early 40's, which means that while I have enjoyed the recent spate of success that the Yankees have had (does 4 World Series Championships and 6 AL Pennants in the past fourteen years qualify as a "spate"?), this latest incarnation of the Yankees - including Torre's Terrors who captured back-to-back-to-back titles from '98 to '00 to accompany the Cinderella crown they won in '96 is not the incarnation of the team with which I grew up.

I came into my ascendancy as a young baseball fan just as the mid-to-late '70's Yankee juggernaut was breaking down. While I followed baseball as a small boy, it is hard to adopt a team as your own when its first signature moment - the walk-off home run Chris Chambliss hit to win the AL Pennant over the Kansas City Royals in 1976 - occurs after your bedtime. I was only twelve years old when Thurman Munson died in August of 1979. By the time I was developing my chops as a baseball fan, the gutty, gritty Yankees of the '70's had ceded the field at Yankee Stadium to the beefy, beer-gutted Yankees of the mid-to-late '80's, whose lineup featured hitters who could score 12 runs a game and a pitching staff that could surrender 13. As I made my way through high school and college I learned what it meant to root for a "second division" ball club. From 1982 until 1995 there was not a single post-season game played in professional baseball that featured the Yankees among its combatants.

In the not-so-great days of the mid-80's through the mid-90's, the face of the franchise for the Yankees was Don Mattingly. "Donnie Baseball" retired in 1995, after losing an epic first-round playoff series to the Seattle Mariners. Sadly, 1995 not only represented Mattingly's final post-season appearance - it marked his only one. Mattingly's fourteen year Major League career - spent entirely in pinstripes - coincided with the franchise's down cycle. He arrived in 1982, a year after the Yankees lost to the Dodgers 4-2 in the World Series, and retired in 1995 - a year before Joe Torre arrived. For better or for worse though Donnie Baseball was the centerpiece of "my" Yankee teams as a kid growing up. He was, likewise, for those fans of my age and ilk (early to mid '40's).

1996 heralded not only the arrival of Joe Torre but of the player who has been the franchise's standard bearer ever since. Regardless of how much money is shelled out to buy the affections of CC Sabathia, Alex Rodriguez and AJ ("Is it bad when the thing I throw the best is a shaving cream pie?") Burnett, it is Derek Jeter who stands alone occupying the space once occupied by Mattingly. He is not simply the Captain of the team, he is the face of the Yankees.

In case you had not heard, Jeter has had a pretty big last few days on the field. On Friday night he became the all-time leading hitter for the Yankees, passing the career record that had been held for more than seventy years by Lou Gehrig. Sunday both the New York Post and the New York Daily News had special commemorative sections honoring Jeter's accomplishment and his career to date. And yesterday, being a dork down to the core of my soul, I did a very dorky thing. Having purchased both newspapers on Sunday, I mailed the two commemorative sections to Rob. I justified the decision in large part to the fact that he is 2000 miles away from home and one cannot rely upon the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle for comprehensive coverage of all things Yankee-related.

The real reason for doing it though had less to do with where Rob is now than where he was way back when in 1996. Rob's first trip to Yankee Stadium was in September of that year. We took the ferry from Port Imperial Terminal in Weehawkin with a few of my friends - including Dave and Diego - to watch the Yankees play the Red Sox on Fan Appreciation Day. It was a gorgeous late summer Saturday afternoon and we sat upstairs along the first-base line about 3/4 of the way down the line towards the right field corner and spent twelve or thirteen innings appreciating one hell of a baseball game. Finally, in the bottom of whatever inning it was (I think it was the 12th) Jeter drove in the winning run. In a scene that has been repeated in Yankee Stadium a number of times in the years since, Jeter was engulfed by his teammates in an immediate on-the-field celebration.

Sunday, reading the Post and the Daily News I was reminded just how far Jeter has come in the years since. He has come - at least 2700 hits or so from where he was that afternoon. And that in turn made me think of Rob. I thought of where I was and who I was with when I saw Jeter do something great for the first time. And I thought of where he was now and how much he has done since he was just a boy of ten taking in his first game at the Stadium. And I thought of the incredibly lame keepsake I made for him to commemorate his first game by. I clipped a photo of Jeter, part of the game story and the box score out of the Sunday Star-Ledger the following day and put all of it, along with his ticket stub, under the glass of a 8" x 10" picture frame I purchased at Drug Fair or some such place for (I am sure) not more than $10.00. It hung on the wall of his room for years - even as he outgrew it - as he left it there I think as much (if not more) out of respect and affection for me than out of any genuine interest in it.

So, having purchased the papers on Sunday that contained the commemorative sections, on Monday morning I folded the sections neatly and tucked them inside of a manila folder, which I then placed inside of an over sized envelope and mailed to Rob in Cheyenne. Jeter's photo is on the cover of both papers' special sections and he no longer looks like the boy of twenty-two he was all those Septembers ago. There is evidence of age, care and life experience etched into his face. And he wears it well.

Rob is no longer a little boy of ten, holding his father's hand and watching in amazement as a homeless man sitting outside of Yankee Stadium - begging for money for food - turned down the free, fresh bagels offered to him by members of our group as he walked to the Stadium from the Ferry. He has come a long way since then - both metaphorically and geographically. And he too wears it well.

Nevertheless - or maybe simply because - of that fact, I felt a need to get those silly tribute sections to him and to do so as soon as possible. Not because the old man fears that his son remembers not from whence he has come but because the old man enjoys the memory of that place and is happy that he not only had the chance to experience it with his son but that he has it to come back to and to visit time and again.


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