Respecting The Enemy

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Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees.

I remember the day perfectly, when everything changed for me as it came to my hatred for one man.

It was July 1, 2004, and the New York Yankees were hosting our beloved Boston Red Sox in a game at Yankee Stadium.

This, of course, was back when the Red Sox were still lovable losers, and all those who cared about them knew they’d find a way to screw up and break our hearts once again. It’s the way it had been my whole life, so why would anything change?

Yes, that year would change everything, all right.  Come October, all would be perfect, Hell would have frozen over, and the city of Boston would be partying all night long, pulling so many people aboard the bandwagon that — in its own way — being a Red Sox fan wouldn’t be as much fun anymore, at least not in the long run.

But this was July.

This was night the Nomar sat on the bench, Jeter dove into the stands and something inside me changed.

Believe you me, I hated the Yankees back then. Hated them. The word “unadulterated hatred” was built for the way I felt about them. I despised them.

I had grown up that way.

In 1976, the year after the heartbreak of the 1975 World Series — the greatest World Series of all time, mind you — the Red Sox and Yankees were involved in a brawl at Yankee Stadium. Red Sox pitcher Bill Lee, one of my favorite players back then, would be injured by a Mickey Rivers sucker punch, thrown from behind, and sadly lost in the madness of everything that transpired that night.

I also still hold the Pinstripers personally responsible for 1978, the second time the Red Sox broke my heart. That was the year an everyman named Russell Earl Dent would become forever known as Bucky “Fucking” Dent, making millions of grown men and little boys cry because of a simple fly ball to left field that wound up being a home run.

Derek Jeter — living on the other side of the Hudson River in New Jersey — hadn’t even celebrated his second birthday when Dent hit that home run.

But, of course, this is all about 2004. Summer, baseball and the Red Sox playing the Yankees. What could be better, right?

Well, I suppose, having your best player wanting to play in the game would have been nice.

You see, Nomar Garciaparra was the Red Sox shortstop back then and he, Jeter and Alex Rodriguez were considered baseball’s Holy Trinity — perhaps the three best players in the game.

The Yankees had Jeter, at best an average defensive player (or so we said). A-Rod wasn’t quite yet the hated steroid-using embarrassment that he became to baseball, but boy could he hit.

And Nomar? Well ,we thought he gave the Red Sox fans hope. He could hit. He could play defense. If only he had some heart on that July day when his team — and his fans — really needed him.

Nomar, you see, decided he didn’t want to play that day. Yes, he was coming back from an Achille’s Heal injury, but he had played the two nights before and this was the Yankees. The next day, Boston would fly to Atlanta to play the Braves. Nomar could have rested then. (He didn’t and went 3-for-5, though the Red Sox lost that one, too).

The Red Sox were 7.5 games behind the Yankees going into the game and 13 innings later they’d be down another game as the Yankees won 5-4.

The Associated Press summed up what transpired best that night in the lead of their game story:

“Bloodied and bruised, Derek Jeter showed just why the New York Yankees always seem to come out ahead of Boston. The All-Star shortstop made one of the greatest plays of his championship career, hurtling headfirst into the stands at full tilt for a catch that ended the 12th inning. While he was on his way to a hospital, the Yankees rallied past the Red Sox 5-4 in the 13th on Thursday night for a stirring sweep.”

And Nomar watched the whole thing from the dugout.

That was the day I came to respect Derek Jeter as a baseball player, even if he was a member of the New York Yankees.

After all, Jeter could have rested in the third game of that series. The Yankees had a big lead in the standings and had already taken two of three in the series. On the third day, he could have rested.

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Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees dives head first into the crowd of July 1, 2004, against the Boston Red Sox.

Instead he dove into the stands, cut open his face and proved why he is one of the greatest baseball players who ever buttoned up the uniform.

On a personal level, though, I’ve also seen the class and grace of Jeter up close.

In 2009, Brian Cashman, the General Manager of the Yankees, invited one of our local high school softball teams — who had been robbed a chance of winning a state championship by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference — down to the new Yankee Stadium to be honored for their successful regular season.

Though I had vowed never to set foot in Yankee Stadium, it was an event I had to cover so I made the journey down. (For the record, I spit on the Yankee Stadium field as an official protest to what I feel about the organization).

Before the game, the girls were invited to watch batting practice, getting an up-close-and-personal look at what transpired on the field before a game.

When Jeter came out of the dugout, he walked over to the girls, met them, talked with them, and signed autographs for them. He spent time with them and made their day, quite likely giving them a memory they will carry forever inside them.

Remember A-Rod? He was a Yankee then, too. He came up out of the dugout, looked up and saw the girls and made a right-hand turn specifically to walk away from them. He didn’t give them the time of day. I witnessed this and it disgusted me, which pretty much sums up my feeling for his tenure with the Yankees, as well.

But this is about Jeter and he is nothing but class, a ballplayer first and foremost and somebody who gets it. He proved it to me on July 1, 2004, when he walked off the field with blood streaming down his face. And he hasn’t let me — or any of his true fans, for that matter — down since.

As for Nomar? Well, the Red Sox traded him later that summer and, of course, the team went on to win its first World Series since 1918.

We have three since then, while the Yankees have just one. That’s 3-to-1 in the last 10 years if you’re keeping score. And, yes, Red Sox fans are definitely keeping score.

I certainly don’t want Jeter, who announced earlier this week that he’s hanging up his spikes after his 20th season in the big leagues, to go out and win a World Series in his final season. But I can say that when Jeter walks off the field for the final time later this summer (or fall), baseball will have lost something pretty special.

And, I will definitely miss watching him play.

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