Derek Jeter Saved My Family
by Elizabeth Taddonio
My dad is a huge Yankee fan. In order to understand this, you need to know that my dad is the kind of person who picks a few things to really like and then he likes them obsessively. My dad likes three things more than anything else in the world: Datsun Z Cars, old episodes of Superman and Star Trek, and the New York Yankees. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball history; you can see the joy on his face when he talks about his team.
So when I was a kid, whether I wanted to or not, I was going to know baseball. I learned how to keep a boxscore, I learned how to listen to games on the radio. My earliest memories are of my brother’s Don Mattingly posters and hearing announcer John Sterling remind us that a home run was “high, far and gone.”
Something a lot of people my age forget is that the Yankees weren’t a good team in the ’80s. They had some good players, like Donnie Baseball, but they weren’t a great team. They went to (and lost) the 1981 World Series, but after that it kind of fizzled. So when I finally learned baseball, I wasn’t used to the Yankees winning: I was used to them breaking my dad’s heart. This was around 1993, and my favorite players were Joe Carter and Bernie Williams. They looked like such nice guys, which was the basis for everything.
This is when my mom’s mental health started to come undone. She was drinking a lot. My entire family was impacted by it. We were all tired and on edge, afraid of who we would come home to. My dad was a different person than he is now, though the experiences we all went through then are still all over us and inside of us. I would still make jokes, I have always made jokes, but that time comes back as gray-tinged memories of feeling covered and almost trapped. I still associate my hometown of Rochester, New York, with grayness, especially the winters. Grays and tans. A lot of neutrals. And the Yankees weren’t winning.
Derek Jeter’s rookie season was considered 1996, but he played in 1995. I remember because I thought he was just the most handsome person I had ever seen. My dad was visibly excited about Derek Jeter and the next season. Spring training begins when Rochester is saddest and most depressed: the weather is so cold and the snow won’t go away and it’s just at the moment when you don’t think it’s ever going to melt that you hear the Yankees are in Florida and the season is going to start again. Baseball was our reminder that this — the soberness, the gray — would end.
The years of 1995 and 1996 were some of the worst times of my life. My mother was erratic and verbally abusive. She was hiding liquor from my dad. At one of her lowest points she hid a bottle of SKOL vodka in my Barbie bin, on the top shelf of my closet. When I went to get it down the bottle hit me in the head and I saw stars. I didn’t tell her; I hid it and gave it to my dad when he got home. I was 10 years old.
But the seasons changed again, and in spring of 1996 this beautiful 22-year-old kid was finally playing for the Yankees. I remember that season: how I felt about the Braves. I remember how excited we were during playoffs and how we ordered pizza and I stayed up way too late and we were just so happy in my house. The Yankees won the 1996 World Series and a few months later, my parents’ divorce was finalized. My mom was out of the house and it was quiet but no one was truly sad. I was the only woman in a house full of men, I didn’t know how to dress, I had no taste, but I loved playing baseball and I loved the Yankees. They continued to buoy us through the rest of the decade.
It can be hard for young women to become close to their fathers, I think. I didn’t really get to know my dad as a person, and not a sad ghost, until my mom left. He always seemed so ready to explode that the Yankee games really gave me a chance to see him when he was happy. When he could let go of everything we were carrying, together, for a while. And Derek Jeter helped us get there. He helped us bond; I became a young girl with a crush my dad approved of.
My last season at home was 2003 — the American League Championship Series when we beat the Red Sox but lost to the Marlins in the World Series. I never slept during playoff season. My dad’s friends would come over for viewing parties. We wore coffee filters on our heads to rally — someone’s grandmother’s tradition that we stole. It was magnificent.
I was at college that next fall when the Yankees lost to the Red Sox, their bitter rivals, in the ALCS. So many people at school were Red Sox fans that I called my dad and told him that it wasn’t the same. “Look what happens when you leave, Liz,” he told me. We were joking, I think.
Derek Jeter is 40 years old. Last year my mom died and this year Derek Jeter is retiring. Time is just pushing at us. I can feel it.
Jeter was more than a baseball player to us. He helped us see past the grey. He helped me get through adolescence, he helped me look forward to spring. And no, it really won’t be the same without him on the field, the stoic captain leading us into every new season.
Elizabeth Taddonio lives in Athens, GA with her husband and dogs, Elaine and Stevie. She is currently trying to forge a career out of asking questions and helping others as a speech-language pathologist. You can find her at yrfriendliz.tumblr.com or outside sitting on her perch.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.