The Game Of Life

The atmosphere is thick with tension as the New York Yankees trail the Baltimore Orioles 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning. It is game one of the 1996 ALCS.

Lanky rookie shortstop Derek Jeter marches up to the plate. The Rookie of the Year just began his Yankee career, and yet he finds himself on one of the biggest stages in the world: Yankee Stadium in October. Jeter confidently steps into the box.

Strike one whizzed past. If the Yankees lose, they will be in a 1-0 hole in the five game series. Jeter takes a deep breath and steps into the box again. The second pitch flies in and Jeter’s bat makes solid contact.

High into the chilly October night goes the ball, back towards the right field short porch.

Orioles’ right fielder Tony Tarasco positions himself under it, his back against the right field wall. As the ball begins its descent, it looks to be an out. I guess the fans will have to wait for magic in the bottom of the 9th inning.

Suddenly, a flash of leather reaches out over the barrier of the wall and snags the ball before slowly hauling it into the stands. It is a home run. It is a tie game. It is a controversial call, one which would affect the entire series and mark the start of a miraculous playoff career for the young shortstop.

 

Derek Jeter has been a part of my life since the very beginning. At this moment, I was four years old, barely able to understand the sport or how to comprehend the complexity of this moment that my parents replayed several times throughout the next morning.

Most importantly, I had no idea who this man was I was supposed to idolize.

I prepared for my first game for weeks prior. My father led me out to the backyard to play catch in preparation for this moment. At just six years of age, I found myself in the dugout, listening to my coach, my father, give the team instructions of where we would go on the field.

The lecture my father was giving us about “doing our best” and “it doesn’t matter if we win or lose” didn’t even register in my mind. I was ready for this. Eyes wandering, I peered into the stands to discover parents lining the bleachers with excited and nervous smiles. My stomach twisted into knots, knowing that the entire world was watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake on the field.

“Allison,” my spell was broken as I jerked my head back to where my father’s voice came from. Surrounded by my teammates, he simply said, “You’re playing at shortstop today.”

This was it. My big chance. At six years old, I got to play the ultimate position and take after Derek Jeter.

As we did a generic team cheer, sporting red caps and shirts displaying the Pontiac logo, we jogged out into the infield to applause. My mother watched me take my stance at shortstop and began to yell my name. I turned in her direction and watched her give a thumbs-up, a wink and yell out, “Let’s go Jeter!”

I couldn’t help but smile, thinking of Jeter’s tireless effort I’ve seen displayed on TV. I would have my own Derek Jeter moment today.

Despite being slow-pitch, it was still the first game I ever played. Nervous butterflies hopped around my stomach as I awaited the first pitch of the game. I knew I couldn’t avoid the ball forever; the ball would come to me and I would make the play, just like Jeter would.

As my father lobbed the first pitch towards the plate, the world slowed. Everything intensified in that split second as a tiny, 6-year-old blonde girl took her fielding stance. The sun beat down on my fire engine-red baseball cap. The dirt crunched beneath my feet, feeling as comfortable as sand beneath my toes. The leather glove’s strong scent filled my nostrils, as my right hand hovered over it, ready for a sharp grounder. My heart thumped uncontrollably as the batter began her swing and adrenaline and nerves coursed through my blood, preparing for whatever came my way. In that split second it took for the ball to reach the plate, I knew that this is what I was born to do.

The batter missed the ball and I was free to rest until the next pitch, but there was something about that moment. The uncertainty and suspense I felt as each pitch was being delivered excelled above any other feeling I had at that moment. I didn’t have time to be nervous or over-think what would happen if the ball was hit to me. All I could think about was the pure excitement of the game of baseball.

After each game my sisters and I played, we always got a call that evening from Grandpa, my father’s father. He was interested in how we did, what had happened and listened to us ramble on and on about our efforts without once interrupting.

 

It is game three of the 2003 ALDS. Yankees at the Oakland A’s. In a 2-0 deficit in the series, the seventh inning rolls around with the Yankees holding a shaky 1-0 lead.

Oakland’s Jeremy Giambi inches off first base after a line-drive single. Terrence Long steps into the box. With two outs in the inning and a lengthy at-bat, Long finally drives a 1-2 fastball down the right field line and past a diving Tino Martinez at first. Giambi motors around the bases and makes the final turn towards home plate as Yankee outfielder Shane Spencer launches the ball in from right field.

This throw must be perfect to keep the Yankees in the series. The Oakland crowd roars. The Yankee fans hold their breath. Spencer’s throw misses both of the cut-off men. This is it; the A’s will tie the game.      

Not so fast. A blur races across the diamond and meets up with the ball as it trickles towards catcher Jorge Posada at home. Derek Jeter, appearing from nowhere, handles the ball and calmly chucks a desperation backhand toss to Posada. Just as Giambi is about to score to seal the tie game, Jeter’s accurate throw reaches Posada’s glove and Giambi’s leg is tagged right before it reaches the plate.

The umpire signals the runner out. Stunned silence fills the stadium. Jeter has performed what is arguably one of the most impressive and amazing plays ever.

 

As we grew up, we would ride our bikes to Grandpa before he had the chance to call. With my grandparents living in a condo right up the street, it was convenient. Some days, the second the car lurched into our driveway, I would take out the bike and pedal up to their house.

Grandpa would always open the door, sporting a ratty Orioles hat, and give me his signature tobacco-scented hug. His stout and stocky figure, his tinted glasses that took over his face and his cane with tennis balls on the bottom lead me over to his signature blue plaid couch, where the hors d’oeuvres of crackers and Cheez-Whiz were always located.

The first question was always, “where did you play?” Shortstop was naturally my favorite answer, as that garnered the largest smile from him. Cal Ripken Jr., his favorite player, played there.

Raising my father in an Oriole household, Grandpa encouraged him to follow in his footsteps, but my mother was a Yankee fan. My father eventually gave in to love. Of course, he was never fully transformed into the ultimate Yankee fan, but he knew enough about the team to appease my mother.

Grandpa never had a problem with that because his second favorite player was actually a New York Yankee: Derek Jeter.

We had always inquired why he liked Derek Jeter if he liked the Orioles, but he always had an answer for us. “Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Junior are very much alike. They have the same playing style, the same attitude and the same dedication to their teams. But do you want to know a secret?”

My sisters and I would nod ferociously, leaning closer to see what he had to tell us.

He would lean back on his couch and take a sip of his tonic. He would then smile and deliver his words of wisdom.

“He plays harder than any guy I’ve seen. And that is what defines baseball: hustle and heart.”

Not only was the man an avid Orioles fan, but he loved watching Derek Jeter play. He had respect for him. He talked about Jeter’s famous flip play endlessly, always emphasizing the sheer wonder of it all.

“Did you make a play like that?” he would ask after our games, showing us the replays as if we didn’t remember. “I don’t even think Cal Ripken can do that, and I rarely say that.”

Every Sunday afternoon we would head up to the condo and have a family dinner with my grandparents and my aunts. We would order Tom Wahl’s, a Case family classic, and watch all the baseball games from that day on television.

Splitting the screen between all MLB games, any time Derek Jeter was up to bat, he would instantly make it a big screen phenomenon.

After an afternoon of baseball, we gathered around the dining room table. My mom would give us milk to drink with our greasy burgers. Immediately, my sisters and I would push it aside, putting the tumblers as far away as possible.

“It doesn’t taste good,” my younger sister would whine, folding her arms across her chest. My older sister and I both nodded in agreement.

Grandpa leaned over and put the tumbler back in front of me. “This isn’t milk,” he declared, smelling the liquid before handing it to me. “This is full-blown Jeter Juice. How do you think Jeter gets so strong? He drinks his milk.”

Immediately, my sisters and I gulped down the liquid, bragging about how one of these days, we would be as strong and talented as Jeter because of the milk. Grandpa would watch us with a goofy smile on his face. This tradition went on each Sunday at family dinner. Whoever finished their Jeter Juice first got a prize from Grandpa, which was one of his “special” Milano cookies for dessert. I often won.

Jeter would be the main feature on our Case family Sunday afternoons, even in the die-hard Oriole household.

 

The stadium is packed once again for another epic match-up between the Yankees and rival Red Sox on July 1, 2004. Yankees fans chant in unison as Sox player Trot Nixon steps up to the plate in the top of the 12th inning.

With the game tied and Red Sox runners lurking on second and third base with two outs,

Trot Nixon hits a pop-up in shallow left field, drifting towards the foul line. Typically, this ball would drop in, bringing home one, and possibly two, runners. But not with Derek Jeter on the field.

The second the ball leaves the bat, Jeter is off and running at full speed, chasing down the ball to save the game. Nixon’s pop-up is in no-man’s land, so who is supposed to get it?

Jeter flies towards the spot and gloves it in the nick of time. With momentum still carrying him forward, Jeter finds himself right next to the stands. As his legs collide with the lower wall, Jeter horizontally crashes a crowd of overzealous Yankee fans. The inning is over.

The stadium bursts into applause and cheers, only to turn into nervous silence a few seconds later when they realize Jeter has not yet emerged from the stands. Slowly, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Jeter climbs up and back onto the field, causing the crowd to explode once again.

Bruised and battered, with a bloody chin to boot, Jeter slowly walks across the field to the dugout. He does not stop and acknowledge the crowd or the game-saving play he just made. He simply walks in the dugout and leaves the rest of the game to the Yankees to win.

 

Jeter is an athlete that some people love to hate. He is considered “overrated” by many for the media attention he receives on a daily basis. People also say that he isn’t as great as people make him out to be. He doesn’t hit home runs, he doesn’t even get hits every day, so what makes him so special? He is filthy rich and he doesn’t even need the money. People even make cracks about his family dynamic, being of mixed race. He wasn’t even the “best shortstop in the league,” people would declare.

It’s not about being the best shortstop. Everybody makes mistakes, which my Grandpa taught me. Sometimes errors happen. Sometimes players strike out. When you’re under as large a scope as Jeter, everything you do is magnified. And even though he has made mistakes on the field, never once was a bad word uttered about him in the media because he is simply a great guy, which makes him an even better player, which is the same reason Grandpa respected him.

Grandpa tried to make every single game we played when we were kids, which got more and more difficult as his mobility slowed. My father used to drive him around just so he could watch each one of us perform at shortstop. He was our number one fan, but also the most knowledgeable man when it came to the sport of baseball.

When I was 11 years old, we would sit and watch the Yankees play in the hazy summer afternoons at the cottage. One particular afternoon, he was relaxed in his cozy recliner, his prime place to sit at the cottage, reading through the paper and simultaneously watching the game from the corner of his eye.

Derek Jeter came up to bat and he immediately turned the volume on the television up.

“Girls, watch this,” he urged as he put the paper down and shifted complete focus to the game. My younger sister and I kept our eyes glued to the television as Jeter stepped into the box.

“The first pitch will be a strike,” he declared, resting back in his chair. Amazingly, he was correct, as the pitch whizzed past Jeter. My sister and I sat, mouths agape, staring at the wonder that was our grandfather.

He just laughed and kept staring at the screen. “This next pitch, he’s going to hit a single to right field,” he said.

What did Jeter do? He hit it there. Sure, that is a common spot for him to hit the ball, but it was impossible to determine that. My sister and I just laughed, amazed at the psychic abilities of our grandfather.

Only after we got older and a bit wiser, we realized his trick. The radio he constantly carried around with him to check the baseball scores was seconds ahead of the television. He would listen to it quietly and hear what the next play would be then report to us as though he knew all along.

“How did you know?” we asked, staring wide-eyed at Grandpa.

He simply laughed and said, “He is a true ball player. He can do anything.”

 

July 9, 2011. Derek Jeter steps up to the plate. Cameras are flashing and video recorders are going off.

In the first inning, Jeter got a hit, putting him at 2,999 in his career. In the third inning, he has the opportunity to make history. He can get his 3,000th hit.

Down 1-0, the Yankees are all on the top step of the dugout as Jeter works the count to 3-2. The bases are empty and there is one out in the inning. Jeter steps back in the box and awaits the payoff pitch from Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price.

A 78-mph breaking ball drifts in and Jeter’s bat instantly connects. Price immediately throws his head down in disgust.

The ball carries out to left field. All the Yankees start parading out of the dugout in excitement, watching the ball land snuggly in the left field bleachers. He has done it. Derek

Jeter has reached 3,000 career hits.

The stadium explodes and the team embraces Jeter as he touches home plate. Rays players tip their hats in the direction of the Captain. Jeter’s parents are sobbing and hugging each other from their box. Jeter’s face lights up with one of the biggest smiles in sports, giving hugs to each one of his teammates.

After the celebration, the crowd chants for Jeter to come back out again. As Jeter ascends up the dugout steps and onto the field, he points to the New York fans and smiles. This is his calling. This is his moment.

 

My Grandpa passed away on March 23, 2006, the same day that Derek Jeter was injured and put on the disabled list. He never got to witness the most exciting hit of Jeter’s career: his 3000th. He may not have been there, but watching the ball drift into the stands, I could imagine him saying, “now THAT is a true ball player.”

Although Grandpa was never a Yankee fan, he exemplified the same qualities as he described of Derek Jeter. He was a dedicated family man, an avid fan of the game and a hard worker. Grandpa’s respect for Derek Jeter made me realize just how much of an impact this player has made on not only Yankees fans, but fans of the sport in general, especially in my own life.

Maybe Grandpa was not a star baseball player, but he knew more about the game itself than the majority of the announcers. Chances are he could list off the most obscure facts before Michael Kay could even look them up. He was a wealth of knowledge on how to play the game the right way. Even though Jeter was the ultimate athlete, Grandpa made sure that we knew that it was not about being the best, but trying your hardest. After all, he constantly reminded us, when you try your best, you are at your best. No questions asked.

I love baseball. A major reason for that was Grandpa Case. Derek Jeter is my favorite player for several reasons. He taught me how to play the game, but my Grandpa taught me baseball. Jeter showed me the proper moves and on-field techniques to the game. Grandpa taught me that the game wasn’t everything. Being the best wasn’t everything. Baseball was about putting in hustle and heart to achieve the best results for me. The combination of these two great men is the best coaching staff I could ask for, in both baseball and in life.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s