Basketball superstar Charles Barkley famously declared he wasn’t a role model, and he was right. Just because an athlete could dunk a basketball or slug a grand slam doesn’t fathers should point to those ESPN highlights as teachable moments.
Derek Jeter never claimed role model status. Now, as the Yankees great prepares to play his final season in pinstripes, it’s more clear than ever that some sports stars are role models all the same. Jeter isn’t a father yet, although in his retirement announcement on Facebook he said he is eager to start a family. Still, dads everywhere can give thanks to the humble Bronx Bomber for showing young fans what it means to be great on and off the field.
Jeter always seemed comfortable in the spotlight but not eager for it. He didn’t kiss any mirrors for a magazine article like his notorious teammate Alex Rodriguez. His love life drew tabloid attention but he never complained about the reaction.
Many athletes give boring media interviews. In a way, Jeter wasn’t much different. What made him stand out, though, was the respect he paid to his teammates, opponents and the Yankees brass. He used to call George Steinbrenner, the blustery Boss famous for those contentious Bronz Zoo years, “Mr. Steinbrenner.” The late Yankees owner made plenty of mistakes during his colorful tenure, but to Jeter he was the boss, lower case “b,” and therefore deserved respect.
No Trash Talk, No Problem
Too many superstars put one or both feet in their mouth. Witness the recent blowback to Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman’s trash talking tirade. Fathers everywhere must have cringed, hoping their sons and daughters don’t think his actions were part of the great sports tradition.
No team could ever pin up a Jeter quote to inspire them against the Yankees. Jeter played in the biggest media center in the country. The Big Apple lives for lively quotes, its sports scribes eager to pounce on any misstatements to produce clickable headlines.
Jeter simply wouldn’t take the bait.
On the field, the steady shortstop made all the routine plays …. and then some. His range was never legendary, and in later years it decreased significantly. Yankees fans still can picture his seemingly impossible plays all the same, moves that typified how Jeter saved the Yankees bacon when they needed it most. He never boasted after those gravity-defying leaps. He was just doing his job.
Baseball fans will never know how Jeter used his status as team Captain with his teammates. We weren‘t in the locker room to hear what he said, or left unspoken, after a tough loss. What we have seen for nearly two decades was an athlete who led by example.
The Next Role Model?
I grew up marveling at Yankee greats like Don Mattingly, Ron Guidry and Thurman Munson. As an adult, I enjoyed every moment of Jeter in the Bronx. My sons, ages 2 and 5, are simply too young to appreciate baseball. I’ll have to tell them all about a shortstop from Kalamazoo, Mich. who played the game the way it was meant to be played. I’ll also scan the current Yankees roster to find a rookie who carries himself in a Jeter-esque fashion. That player won’t match his legacy, but for my kids’ sake I hope he makes both me and my sons proud to be New York sports fans.