You weren’t always my favorite player. The #1 place in my heart was held by #51 from the day I saw Bernie hit a home run during my first Yankees game in 1994 until the time he retired in 2006. You were, perhaps appropriately, a close #2 in my heart and your poster hung prominently next to his above my bed for years. Over time, though, you couldn’t help but become #1 in my heart and the hearts of all Americans.
From the first time I saw you play in 1995, I knew there was something special about you. I was young myself – only in my early teens – but I had enough perception of greatness to know I was witnessing the kind of career that grandparents tell their grandchildren about. I soaked it in at every opportunity.
Some of my greatest childhood memories are of watching my beloved Yankees on TV with my dad, who taught me that “all of baseball exists just so the Yankees would have someone to play.” Night after night, we would watch and cheer on you, Bernie, Tino, Andy, Jorge, and Mo. And night after night you gave us reason to tune back in tomorrow in hopes of catching yet another historic moment that would forever be recorded in the annals of baseball lore. Even now that I’m grown up and gone, my dad and I still watch baseball “together” – him on TV in NY, and me online in VA.
The things that made you great were many, and they were more than just statistics and numbers, although your numbers are indeed impressive. It was the intangible things you brought to the field that made you so exceptional.
You were humble. You were The Captain of The Greatest Team on the world’s biggest stage during a period in which the team enjoyed great success. Your ego could be enormous with good reason. Instead you chose to stay grounded, recognizing that you were blessed, not entitled, to be living your dream. You were never too busy to sign an autograph for a kid, chat with a fan in the on-deck circle, or encourage a struggling teammate. Your greatness ran deep, but your humility was deeper, and that made you so much more admirable.
You were professional. You were always in the spotlight, which is exceptionally harsh in NY. But the spotlight didn’t faze you, and it didn’t destroy you like so many others. You were never the star of a media circus, and didn’t have to play damage control when something you did last night made it into the tabloids. It simply didn’t happen. In baseball’s dark era of steroids, there were never allegations of you using them. You did it clean. Your headlines stayed on the sports pages, where they belonged. You were the perfect example of what a professional athlete should be – a role model for others to emulate, and someone that every kid in America could look up to. I certainly did.
You gave back. You made a ton of money and built a successful brand for yourself. But you didn’t selfishly keep it all; you shared it with those who needed that money more than you did. You chose to use your position of influence to make a positive change in the world both on and off the field. Perhaps most impressive is that you started these efforts long before you were ridiculously wealthy. You paid it forward and changed the lives of people who will turn around and do the same. Your legacy will be great.
You were consistent. For 20 years, you were there, day in and day out. For TWO DECADES, the fans and your teammates could always count on you being ready to play. We didn’t have to wonder if you’d pull yourself from the lineup because of a tweaked muscle or a slump. We just knew that you would be on the field steadily giving your best, fighting through the pain, and grinding through the dry spells until healing and hot streaks came. Your consistency and dedication to your task are an example to be followed by anyone aspiring to achieve greatness in their field. You proved that the American dream still exists for those willing to keep showing up, keep pushing hard, and keep giving it their all.
You were clutch. Your consistency day in and day out put you in position to come through in the clutch time after time. You were there in the mundane every day, but you saw the opportune moments and seized them every time. Your greatness shone in every game you played all season, but it gleamed brightest in October when it mattered the most. The Flip. The Dive. The November home run. When the game was on the line, you wanted the ball, and you did not disappoint.
You united us. Baseball fans love to hate the Yankees. But we were all Yankees fans in the fall of 2001 as you and the team became a beacon of hope for a city and a country that had been shaken to its core. You showed America and the world that fear would not win, and that we would stand strong once again. You led the charge here at home as our troops began the charge overseas. Over the years, you became beloved by baseball fans across the globe, regardless of what logo was on their favorite cap. You were The Captain of the Yankees. But you were also The Captain of Baseball in a time when America’s Favorite Pastime had become less favorite. You brought America back to the game that we’ve always loved, and the kids all across the country taking fielding practice with #2 on their backs are a testament to your unifying legacy.
As you turn the page on this era of your life, I wish you all the best in your future endeavors. Whatever they may be, I have no doubt that they will be achieved with all the same class, humility, and exceptionalism with which you played the game. You honored the game, the Yankees, and your family through your actions, and I know you will continue to do so.
You will be deeply missed. Indeed, there IS crying in baseball over your departure. The void you leave in the game and in our hearts is great, but we are better fans and better people for having known you. And that, perhaps, is your greatest legacy of all.
With much love and RE2PECT,
A Grateful Fan