Most rabid and lifelong baseball fans can recall, with detail, memories of their first baseball game. The year, the stadium, the smell of the ballpark food and perhaps even the result of the game. We've all told our story hundreds of times to anyone who will listen. For the record, it was in the summer of '74. Shea Stadium. Mets and Braves. Pretty sure it was Hank Webb vs. Buzz Capra. Ralph Garr played in that game. The only reason I know that is because my brother and I laughed when his name was announced. We had a dog named Ralph. Amazin' what 6-year-olds find funny. Can still remember the aroma of burned hot pretzels and sitting very, very high up in the upper deck. Next to a pigeon. Wouldn't trade those memories for anything in the world.
Reminiscing recently about the good ol' days made me realize how close I was in age to having memories of watching perhaps the most talented baseball player in history. Willie Mays. The Say Hey Kid played in his final game less than a year before my maiden voyage to Flushing, Queens. Mays' finale took place in the 1973 World Series between the Mets and Athletics. That was 41 years ago. Based on the stories, the vintage film footage and the raw statistics, not sure the game has seen a better baseball player since. Or ever. I'm not alone in wishing I had seen Mays play in person. Guess life is all about timing, huh? Archived film, Internet databases and stories round the campfire will have to suffice.
Fast forward to 2014. Same city. Different team. A very different story is coming to an end. Another all-time great is preparing to say goodbye. This September, perhaps October, Derek Jeter will play in the final game of a brilliant and almost flawless 20-year career. If you love baseball history, if you want your kids to get one last glimpse of greatness on the postseason stage, you best be pulling for Jeter and his Yankees to reach to the postseason. In a recent conversation, a disgruntled lifelong Mets fan posed the question: "Haven't we had enough of Derek Jeter?"
You don't have to love the Yankees. Heck, you don't even have to like the Yankees. But you should, at the very least, acknowledge a once-in-a-generation athlete. A player who did it the right way. Made the game proud. Did things on a field we all wished we could do. An athlete who raised his game when the pressure increased and stakes were at their highest. And he did over and over and over again.
My colleague, Kevin Millar, who was on the 2004 world championship Red Sox team that defeated the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, summed it up like this. "Derek Jeter has the ability to keep his heart rate normal in big moments." He also had the abilty to make our hearts race with excitement. Easier said than done when the world is watching. The great ones make it look easy. Thousands of players come and go without ever enjoying a signature moment. Great athletes who play the game at the highest level yet leave us with nothing more than a stats page in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Jeter didn't just benefit from good timing in winning five World Series titles. He was able to enter the record books for many postseason accomplishments while representing a city and an entire sport. He did it while playing shortstop on, perhaps, the most recognizable sports franchise in the world. Jeter reached the pinnacle of the sport five times in two decades.
MLB Network analyst Mark DeRosa, who was part of the 2010 world championship run with the Giants said, "When kids dream of a Major League career, Jeter's is the career they dream of."
We may never see another player like him.
In all corners of this great country, there are little kids, say 6 years old, who are ready to see their first game. Ready to embrace baseball as a lifelong passion. If the timing is right, they'll get to see a legend before his time is up. Here's to hoping it lasts as long as possible.
Matt Yallof is co-host of The Rundown on MLB Network from 2-4 p.m. ET. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.