Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Derek Jeter’s Giant Heart: How He Helped a Young Boy Rise from the Ashes

On June 3, 2003, Derek Jeter was crowned the 11th captain of the Yankees long and illustrious history.

Long before the day that may rank at the top of his life’s proudest moments, Jeter was able to help lift a tiny Yankees fan back onto his feet.

Expecting to celebrate his 11th birthday on November 26, 1996, a young boy sprinted out of his elementary school’s doors.

The excitement of the day nearly overtook him as he looked around for his mother’s car, knowing he was mere minutes away from cake, candles, and a pile of toys.

The boy heard a familiar voice call out to him from a familiar car. Neither the voice nor the car, however, belonged to his mother.

A friend of the family explained that the boy needed to get into the car with them, and that there wasn’t time to stop at home.

The boy’s house was no further than the distance traveled during the home run trot of his hero Don Mattingly, and he knew something had crushed his birthday dreams.

The boy’s house and most of his Yankees treasures had been left in ashes after an aggressive electrical fire.

That boy was me.

Though flames were not exactly the perfect gift for the occasion, material possessions could be replaced. The important thing was that no one was injured, and even the family cat somehow survived with no more than a cough.

As with all fires, some things could never be replaced. Accompanying antiques and family pictures on that list were a bevy of Yankees collectibles which were accumulated over the years.

At the youthful age of 11, children do not fully understand the impact of life’s misfortunes. So long as everyone is ok, the next essential on the list involves a favorite card, game, poster, or autograph.

The New York Yankees had just won the first World Series of my lifetime, and nothing else in the world mattered.

The retirement of Mattingly after the 1995 season left me in search of a new active player to look up to.

As the starting shortstop of a little league team, it seemed only natural to be drawn to a baby-faced Yankee wearing No. 2.

After all, Jeter had just won the AL Rookie of the Year award. At just 22 years old, he was already fitting himself for the first of his four World Series rings.

Months before the fire, I bought a pack of 1996 Score baseball cards. Inside of its shiny wrapping was the most thrilling sight these eyes had seen in years.

Scattered amongst Heathcliff Slocumb, Geronimo Berroa, and Marty Cordova rested a mint condition Derek Jeter rookie card.

After jumping as if I was on a trampoline in the back yard, I settled my heartbeat and immediately placed it into a protective casing.

It meant so much to me that it was placed in a special box underneath my bed; a spot reserved for the true “untouchables.”

As a result, the newest priceless member of my collection was tucked safely out of harm’s way. The baseball gods would not allow the flames to destroy the next Yankee Messiah.

While sitting in a hotel room, my mind raced as we awaited relocation into a temporary rental house. A brilliant idea then struck my brain.

Why not send my prized rookie card directly to Jeter at Yankee Stadium?

If I could only acquire his autograph across the card’s facing, imagine how “totally rad” that would be! (The Ninja Turtles were still controlling my vocabulary at the time)

Weeks later, I sat down in front of a computer screen and began typing to my newest hero. I told the future captain my story, and confessed my desire to one day be as talented as he is.

I folded the letter in three sections like they had shown us in school, though it took me many tries to perfect the craft. The card was dropped into the envelope behind it, and its next destination was the back of a mail truck.

Each week seemed to last a year, and I wondered if Jeter had received my plea.

Then one day, I returned home from a long day at school to find a letter in the middle of my mattress. “It is postmarked from…YANKEE STADIUM!”

After entering into a horizontal dive onto my bed, I cautiously tore open the top of the envelope.

There might as well have been a 50-percent stake in Bill Gates’ estate inside, because its contents meant equally as much at the time.

The card had been returned with Jeter’s smooth signature written across his pinstriped jersey…just as I had always dreamed.

It no longer mattered that I was going to live in a foreign home for seven months. It no longer mattered that most of my toys were gone forever.

Jeter instead gave a young boy all the reason he needed in the world to smile. He gave a young boy a role model and a source of inspiration.

That same smile is just a recollection away.

The young boy still inside me will never forget how the Yankee captain lifted his spirits when he needed it most.

All it took was a pen and a stamp, but my outlook was forever changed.

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