Around Cooperstown, N.Y., population 1,769, they still talk about the 82,000 folks who poured into the tiny village at the southern end of Otsego Lake in 2007, clogging the two-lane roads for miles. They came to thank as much as honor Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn upon their induction to the Hall of Fame. Both players in a free-agent era never played for anything but their hometown team and represented in their industry and comportment the aspirational version of a baseball player. Not before or since have so many descended upon the Hall of Fame ceremony, and it’s not close.
Such a record crowd might be challenged this July 26. The Baseball Writers Association of America on Tuesday elected Derek Jeter and Larry Walker to the Hall. As Walker, elected on his 10th and final try, put it, he is the B-side to this Hall of Fame 45. Jeter, elected on his first ballot, is the A-side. Cute, but anybody in this generation of ballplayers would be the B-side to Jeter.
Jeter is one of the game’s great and important historical figures. Maybe baseball doesn’t have the romance it once did, but it has an unprecedented reach that swelled during the era in which Jeter, a five-time champion New York Yankee, served as the game’s greatest ambassador.
Joe DiMaggio was iconic, but he played only 176 night games, only 242 games out of the Eastern time zone and only one World Series televised coast-to-coast. Mystery, and the space between what we know, served him well.
Jeter grew up on our television screens nearly every October, not to mention in a newly connected world. His jersey has been purchased by more people than any other player. A generation of kids, some of them now playing shortstop in the big leagues, grew up with Jeter as the template.
The B-side, Walker, should not be ignored when it comes to his importance to the game beyond his performance. Walker grew up like most Canadians dreaming of playing hockey, but as he said, “Baseball chose me.”
As Walker became a five-time All-Star and the 1997 Most Valuable Player, he cut a template of his own. Ryan Dempster, the former pitcher, explained that as a kid growing up in a small town in British Columbia, he took a 40-minute ferry ride just to play baseball. Why? He said Walker made possible the idea of playing big league baseball for kids all across Canada.
Baseball is a difficult game that requires an apprenticeship, unlike most sports. Jeter hit .210 in his first pro season and made 56 errors in his second. Walker hit .223 in his first pro season. Now each is among the top 1% who figured out this game, at least as much as is allowable.
Baseball occupies a very different space in American culture than when DiMaggio became an icon, or even legends such as Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Tom Seaver. Its strength is more regional than national. By craving celebrity and the newness of big events amid an expanding buffet of choices, we give less attention to industry and comportment. Baseball no longer easily creates the platform for one player to transcend the game.
Somehow in this era, Jeter became an aspirational celebrity. He became the most important player in two decades of unprecedented growth in the game. He was utterly prepared for it by the guidance of his parents, Dot and Charles.
A scout who watched Jeter at Kalamazoo High School wrote in his report, “This guy is special. You get excited just watching him warm up.” Dick Groch, the Yankees scout who signed him, wrote, “He’s going to be a star.”
If you want to know what made Jeter tick, watch Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series. David Cone, having just lost the last of a Yankees lead with a bases-loaded walk, trudged off the mound after throwing 147 excruciating pitches, a workload so severe he would not be able to lift his arm to comb his hair for days. The first one off the bench to comfort him, to reach for his hand, is a 21-year-old rookie who wasn’t even on the active roster: Derek Jeter. And from there what drove Jeter never changed: winning.
In spring training 1997, Yankees manager Joe Torre called Jeter into his office. Jeter was a world champion, the rookie of the year, and a young single man in New York with the city at his feet.
“I just want to make sure,” Torre told him, “you take nothing for granted.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. T,” Jeter said. “Baseball will always be my priority.”
Torre never did have to worry about Jeter compromising his desire to win and to be better.
Every year there is a Hall of Fame election. Mostly every year there are players who carry the required 75 percent of the vote to be elected. And sometimes, in rare cases, like with Ripken and Gwynn in 2007, there comes a player who transcends the game, who can fill the rolling hills and meadows of Cooperstown as far as the eye can see. Jeter is one of those rare generational players.