In Stadium finale, Jeter leaves it all on the field

    Friday, September 26, 2014, 12:42 PM [General]

    He almost cried on the drive from lower Manhattan to Yankee Stadium. He retreated to the clubhouse between innings to dab at his moist eyes. He stood at shortstop and breathed in and out and peered at his cleats, more evidence that tears were a millisecond from dripping on his pinstriped uniform.

    This was Derek Jeter, the coolest of shortstops, on his last day at the Stadium. And, by Jeter's own admission, he was an emotional mess. As much as Jeter had tried to disguise his feelings and act like Thursday night was just another game, he had failed. Miserably. It wasn't another game. It was the last home game, the last time he would ever report to his office at the Stadium.

    Jeter has always been the smile-and-have-some-fun superstar, the player who spoke to young fans in the on-deck circle during the World Series. But, in a regular season game that had no meaning beyond it being Jeter's farewell to the Bronx, Jeter was so unnerved that he uttered something we never thought we would hear.

    "First inning, I was saying, 'Please don't hit it to me,'" Jeter explained. "The last inning, I almost lost it."

    With all of those emotions churning and all of those memories simmering, Jeter was surely hoping that David Robertson would protect a 5-2 lead and allow Jeter to get closer to a box of Kleenex. But Robertson failed. Shockingly, he surrendered two homers and three runs and created a bottom of the ninth inning. The third batter in that inning would be Jeter. Millions of amateur script writers began to fashion the quintessential Jeter ending.

    When Jeter got to the plate, there was a runner on second base with one out. It was a perfect situation for Jeter to be the hero, but was this really happening? Didn't this seem too surreal? As Jeter walked to the plate to face Evan Meek, I searched for this Jeter quote from about 15 years ago.

    "I feel like I'm going to be successful. Always. Obviously, that can't happen. But it doesn't stop me from feeling that way. I don't care who I'm facing. I don't care what I did the last time. I feel like I'm going to be successful and I have no doubt at all. None whatsoever."

    Seconds after I found the ancient quote that oozed with confidence, I watched Jeter line Meek's first pitch fastball to right field, of course, to drive in Richardson with the decisive run, of course, and then celebrate like a gentleman, of course. It was so fast, so dreamy, so incredible, a career built around success, respect and privacy ended with a walk-off hit and ended with a 40-year-old man ambling around the field, almost in a daze.

    The always regal Jeter looked drained, drained of energy, as he hugged his teammates and then his family members, waved to the fans while taking a lap around the infield and soaked up his final moments at the Stadium. Jeter made one last trip to shortstop, paused in the grass just beyond the position, knelt down and said a prayer. He was saying good-bye to shortstop, a spot he will never play again.

    "I want to take something from Yankee Stadium," Jeter said. "The view from shortstop here, tonight, is what I want to take from it."

    We saw Derek Jeter, unplugged, in the post-game on Thursday night. Throughout his career, Jeter has hidden his emotions, never allowing any outsiders to know what was broiling inside of him. But, after Jeter's walk-off hit, he was insightful, candid and raw, describing how difficult it had been to deal with the finish line and how the season sometimes felt like a funeral. Jeter, the iciest of players, wasn't even sure how he had managed to play on Thursday.

    But he played, he played hard, like he always did. And he succeeded. The player who always expected to get a hit, .255 average be damned, collected one more hit at the Stadium. And then Jeter came as close as he would ever come to bragging, even though he was telling the truth.

    "I know there's a lot of people that have much more talent than I do throughout the course of my career, not just now," Jeter said. "And I can honestly say I don't think anyone played harder. I don't. Maybe just as hard, but I don't think anyone had more of an effort."

    He's right. Jeter was always working hard for the Yankees, always the reliable rock at shortstop. Those days are gone and, after a siesta of a weekend in Boston, Jeter will be gone, too. He had one of the best regular season send-offs a player could ever experience. After the cheers dissipated and the questions ended, I hope Jeter found a peaceful place to be alone in the clubhouse. And I hope he cried.

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    Jeter always marched at his own pace

    Thursday, September 25, 2014, 12:28 PM [General]

    In Derek Jeter's final days with the Yankees, moments in which he answered questions about whether he would become emotional or remain stoic when his memorable run at Yankee Stadium ended, Jeter offered a subtle reminder of how he has thrived and survived in New York for so long.

    "I don't like to complicate things," Jeter said.

    Call it a mandate or a rule, but Jeter lived by that simple sentence for his entire career, never letting any situation become too cumbersome and never letting anyone control what he did or what he said. When you are as talented and as confident as Jeter and you refuse to let any type of chaos engulf you, even the chaos that can exist in Yankeeland, you can march at your own pace. Jeter always marched at his own pace.

    After the Yankees were eliminated from postseason contention on Wednesday, Jeter had a look of finality in his weary eyes and admitted it was getting "more and more difficult" to not think about the end. The Yankees will not play games in October for the second consecutive season, a season in which their lineup, including a punchless Jeter, stalled. With an offense that was even slightly more robust, the Yankees might have been able to snag a wild card berth. Instead, Jeter's last season was a lost season.

    As reporters quizzed Jeter about his final game in the Bronx on Thursday, about the strong possibility that rain would delay it and about the likelihood of Jeter playing in the last three games in Boston this weekend, he shifted back and forth in front of his locker and uttered several "I don't knows." I stopped counting after the fifth "I don't know." Mentally, Jeter wasn't ready to go to all of those places so he didn't complicate things. He never does.

    When the 40-year-old Jeter leaves the baseball stage, he will do so with close to 3,500 hits, with five World Series rings and with a generation of fans who will weep because they don't know life without him. These are the fans who wore No. 2 from the cradle until college, who chanted "De-rek Je-ter, De-rek Jeter" and who expected Jeter to be a baseball superman, even when, like this season, he couldn't be super, man.

    "I just decided," Jeter said, "it was time for me to go."

    At the end of any story, it's sensible to remember the beginning. Jeter's story of growing up as a Yankee fan in Kalamazoo, Michigan has been well-chronicled. Derek's parents, Charles and Dorothy, encouraged him and Sharlee, his sister, to chase their dreams, but those pursuits came with strict rules, daily lectures and lofty expectations. The contracts that Jeter signed with his parents were serious, written agreements that fostered responsible behavior and had almost nothing to do with athletics.

    During a day I once spent with Jeter and his parents in Kalamazoo, Jeter described how his father always called him after a professional athlete had made news for negative reasons. It was a way for Jeter's father to remind him that one poor decision could stain everything he had worked so hard to achieve. Sometimes, Jeter would see a story about an athlete behaving badly and he would call his father, knowing that his phone was about to ring any way.

    "I thank my parents by not embarrassing them," Jeter said. "I think that would be the worst thing I could do, if I embarrassed them and did something stupid. If I mess up, obviously, it's going to be on TV. I show my respect for them by not messing up."

    Jeter made those comments about showing respect for his parents 14 years ago when he was already a Major League player, but he could have made them when he was still a high school player. I've interviewed several of Jeter's relatives and friends and, universally, they said Jeter was acting like a big leaguer long before he was actually a big leaguer. The Jeter we saw across the last two decades was basically the same Jeter they saw in Kalamazoo, the kid who predicted in an elementary school yearbook that he would play for the Yankees and then took a few hundred swings in his garage every winter day to work to make that happen.

    So, as Frank Sinatra sang, and now the end is near. Jeter, who proudly said he “always wanted to be up with the game on the line” because he believed he would get a hit, will now be playing in games that have no post-season significance. When Jeter plays on Thursday, it will only be the second game in his career in which the Yankees didn’t still have at least chance to get into the playoffs. The fans will still treat Jeter like royalty in the Bronx, a celebration designed to say thank you. But it won’t be the team celebration Jeter had hoped to have in his final season. 

    You can twist Jeter's statistics in various directions to incite a debate, but it's impossible to argue against his status as one of the greatest shortstops in history. That's enough, isn't it? Isn't calling Jeter one of the greatest shortstops ever a perfect and fair way to describe him as he retires? Of course, it is. There's nothing complicated about that.

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    JCTV, Episode 44: Otis Brown III

    Thursday, September 4, 2014, 4:58 PM [General]

    In the latest episode of JCTV, host Jack Curry sits down with dynamic jazz drummer Otis Brown III to discuss the musician's impressive career and his love of sports.

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    For Yankees great Paul O'Neill, pursuit of perfection led him to Monument Park

    Friday, August 8, 2014, 5:56 PM [General]

    There are so many images that remind me of Paul O'Neill's career with the Yankees, a career in which he helped them win four championships in his nine seasons. Images of pivotal hits, bulldozing slides, lunging catches and percolating emotions. Watching O'Neill play was like watching a simmering tea kettle. Eventually, he was going to boil over.

    But the image of O'Neill that lingers with me more than any other has nothing to do with his hits, slides or explosions. It has everything to do with his disdain for losing. When I think of O'Neill, I remember him sitting in front of his locker after a loss, his elbows resting on his knees, his hair flaring in 13 directions and a scowl decorating his face.  

    In those moments, O'Neill looked as unapproachable as a 300-pound bouncer who just saw you cut the two-block long line and just felt you step on his foot, his injured foot. But here's what was interesting about O'Neill. He was approachable in those darkest moments. He wanted to discuss what had gone wrong in the game and wanted to revisit what had thrust him into such a sour mood.  

    "I guess I just had to share it with someone," O'Neill said. "Talking about it made it feel like it would go away quicker."

    The raw anger that O'Neill exhibited after making an out, emotions that helped endear him to fans, came because O'Neill was a perfectionist. We all know perfectionists, people who push and prod in trying to do everything exactly as they think it should be done. Perfectly. And they all fall short of that goal.

    In baseball, a hitter's pursuit of perfection is a ridiculous goal. If a hitter is successful in three out of ten at bats, he is an elite player. But O'Neill, who batted .303 with the Yankees, really thought he could and should get a hit every time up. That's where the flying helmets, sailing bats and dented coolers came from. O'Neill hated failing, hated being anything less than perfect.

    "I truly believe you're just wired that way," said O'Neill, in an interview that will air during "Hail To The Warrior" on the YES Network at noon on Saturday. "Some people are wired to be able to turn the page quickly. There were times out on that field where I knew that, if I didn't turn things around, I wasn't going to sleep that night. That's motivation in itself. You want to do well. It's not always someone in the front row that's booing you. It's to do it for yourself. You just feel this need to be better, to be better and to work harder."

    Saturday promises to be a humbling, memorable day for O'Neill, who will be honored with a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. He will thank his parents, Charles and Virginia, who let the youngest of their six children behave like he was bigger and tougher than he really was and that's how he became bigger and tougher and fashioned a 17-year career in the major leagues.

    Hours before the Yankees won the 1999 World Series, Paul's father passed away from heart disease. O'Neill played in the clinching game, won another ring and then wept in right field after the final out. On O'Neill's ring finger, he wears two wedding bands: his and his father's.

    "My mother gave this to me two days ago," O'Neill told me during the 2000 World Series, fiddling with the thinner gold band under his thick gold band. O'Neill called his father, who was a former minor league player, his "hero" and added, "Anything you accomplish is because of what your parents did for you."

    Are you still friends with any of your classmates from kindergarten? O'Neill is. He is more than friends with Nevalee, the neighbor who he car-pooled to school with when they were five years old in Columbus, Ohio. They became husband and wife. O'Neill will thank Nevalee and their children, Andy, Aaron and Allie for the endless support. And he will thank his four older brothers and one older sister, the siblings who helped mold his competitive spirit because he was constantly chasing them.

    "He's been playing like his life depended on it since he was a little kid," wrote Molly, his sister and the person who has written the most eloquent pieces about O'Neill.

    When George Steinbrenner first called O'Neill "The Warrior," O'Neill was taken aback and didn't know how to react. At first, O'Neill thought it was corny. But then O'Neill reflected on Steinbrenner's passion for winning and the expectations that the owner had for his players and he embraced the nickname. Still does. So O'Neill will surely thank Steinbrenner and the rest of the members of the Yankees family, from ownership to the front office to Manager Joe Torre and teammates like Joe Girardi, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter.

    "You start to think about what you want to say on that day and you get nervous," O'Neill said. "It's an unbelievable honor."

    To be successful as a player, O'Neill said he had "a drive every single day" of his career because he wasn't the type of player who couldn't have one amazing month to carry him through a season. He felt as if he needed to have one productive day followed by another and another. He judged himself from at bat to at bat.

    As insane as it is to think a batter could be successful every time at the plate, O'Neill actually explained to me why that approach made sense to him. O'Neill hated the theory that batters needed to "tip your cap to the pitcher" and credit them for getting you out. Because, at some point in O'Neill's career, he said he had drilled the pitch that just retired him. Whether it was a low and away fastball or a curveball up in the zone, O'Neill said there "wasn't a strike out there," that he had failed to pummel.

    "So don't tell me to tip my hat because I've hit that pitch before," O'Neill said. "I made an out. I made the out. I never thought, 'The pitcher got me out.' I made the out."

    With that answer, the ornery O'Neill was back. Eventhough he was wearing a suit and tie and we were sitting in a quiet room, O'Neill, who is now a broadcaster on YES, reverted back to being a hitter who just lined out with two runners on base. Don't dare say the pitcher got me out, O'Neill stressed. That was typical O'Neill. Still fighting for hits, 13 years after retiring.  

    In 1999, I asked O'Neill about the possibility of someday being honored in Monument Park and he dismissed the question. O'Neill said he didn't even like to look in that direction because he didn't belong with those legendary players. Now that O'Neill will be joining those famous Yankees, he said he will bring his family and friends there and say, "Hey, look at that. They made a mistake. They put one of me up there."

    It is no mistake. O'Neill deserves the plaque, a fitting tribute to how much he meant to those dynastic Yankees. But, when someone asks me what I remember most about O'Neill, I'm going to talk about that dejected guy sitting near his locker with his head bowed and his uniform crumpled at his feet, the guy who chased perfection and despised losing. That's the Paul O'Neill I will remember.

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    JCTV, Episode 43: Ben Gibbard

    Thursday, June 12, 2014, 4:13 PM [General]

    In the latest episode of JCTV, Death Cab for Cutie lead singer Ben Gibbard stops by to discuss his success in the music business, his dream of playing professional baseball and his band's unique name.

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    JCTV, Episode 42: Nils Lofgren

    Tuesday, May 27, 2014, 12:02 PM [General]

    The second part of Jack Curry's interview with Nils Lofgren, longtime member of the E Street Band, touches on a life spent on the road, and what makes Bruce Springsteen such a special performer.

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    JCTV, Episode 41: Nils Lofgren

    Tuesday, May 20, 2014, 12:47 PM [General]

    Host Jack Curry chats with Nils Lofgren, longtime member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, about the musician's illustrious career and the honor of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. 

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    JCTV, Episode 40: Garland Jeffreys

    Thursday, May 15, 2014, 1:16 PM [General]

    In the second part of Jack Curry's interview with musician Garland Jeffreys, the Brooklyn native talks about attending Jackie Robinson's MLB debut, the power of words and the role of family on his career.

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    JCTV, Episode 39: Garland Jeffreys

    Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 10:59 AM [General]

    In the latest episode of JCTV, Brooklyn native and musician Garland Jeffreys talks about his love of performing, what keeps him motivated and which artists have inspired him.

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    JCTV, Episode 38: Charlie Daniels

    Wednesday, April 16, 2014, 1:20 PM [General]

    In the latest episode of JCTV, legendary musician Charlie Daniels talks about what keeps him motivated, the feeling of playing to a packed house and his musical inspirations.

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    JCTV, Episode 37: Goose Gossage

    Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 12:41 PM [General]

    In the latest episode, Hall of Famer Goose Gossage talks about his work with the Yankees during spring training, what to expect from the post-Mariano Rivera bullpen and the power of intimidation.

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    JCTV, Episode 36: David Wells

    Monday, April 7, 2014, 9:56 AM [General]

    In the latest installment of JCTV, former Yankees hurler David Wells chats with Jack Curry about the lefty's All-Star music lineup, his life after baseball and whether or not he could still pitch in the majors.

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