I became a fan of the New York Yankees by accident.
When my family immigrated to the United States in 1989, we entered the country with $900 for 5 family members and lots of fears and hopes. As all Soviet émigrés of the time did, we spent the next few years on all sorts of public assistance programs, including welfare and food stamps. Needless to say, money was very hard to come by.
So when I needed a fall jacket, my mom took me to this discount store on Kings Highway in Brooklyn (I think it was called Robbins or something like that). There, fitting our budget, was this cool blue jacket with this white spider web-looking thing. As you are reading this, you probably readily recognize the color and the logo of the New York Yankees, but I had no frame of reference.
In Soviet Russia (insert your own Yakov Smirnoff joke here), there was no baseball. We had no idea such a game existed, didn’t know who the Yankees, or Mets, or Red Sucks, were. The shot heard ‘round the world didn’t penetrate the iron curtain.
And so when I put on the cool blue jacket with a white spider-web looking thingy in the late fall of 1989 in Brooklyn, I had no idea that I was setting myself up. In ensuing months, I would walk to and from school with random people yelling at me: “Blah blah suck!” Since then, I came to realize that what they were yelling was “Yankees suck,” (it was coming at the end of a few good years for the Mutts after all), but then I had no idea who Yankees were, or that it was even a word, and to complicate matters – I was like 3 months into learning English so it was all a blur of sounds and angry Americans screaming at me for some unknown reason. I thought it was something related to me being an immigrant (there was a lot of that too), but I actually never tied it to the jacket I was wearing.
Right around there, what was also happening was this guy, an American, in a jacket that was kind of like mine, but the blue was different and the white spider-web on his jacket was a yucky orange, kept coming up to me in PE, and talking to me in words I didn’t understand. It seemed that I should have, but I didn’t. My English at the time was at “My name is Vadim and I am from Soviet Union. I like America very much” level and he kept using these other words.
One phrase stood out in particular. He kept saying “home runs.” I think he was probably talking about Darryl Strawberry’s or HoJo’s hitting prowess, but at the time, I tied it back to the only thing I knew – I am an immigrant, I’m not wanted, and I should run home. So one day, as he kept rambling on and on about something, when he said “home runs,” I said: “I like America very much”, turned around and bolted.
Something else happened at around that same time. As we didn’t have money and were on public assistance, pretty much all of the furniture we had in our apartment was either a hand-me-down from another immigrant family who now started to make it and could afford to buy stuff, or found on the curbs during garbage days. Yes, as most of us did during that time, we furnished our house by digging through people’s garbage. At the time, the loot was good – we got 2 TVs, couches, chests, beds, etc. To make a long story short, we became very good at walking around the streets of Bensonhurst on garbage days and looking at what’s available.
One day, my mom came back with a Sega Master System. What probably happened was some mom got tired of her son playing Sega all day so she ripped it out and tossed it in the garbage. That is the only explanation I have for a relatively new game console, with two controllers, and a game (but no power cables or TV connectors) ending up in a trash. My mom didn’t know what it was. She brought it home and said to me that this looked like an interesting thing. But I knew. I knew exactly what it was. By then, I was in the country for probably 6-9 months and my friend had a system just like that. My excitement was up to 11.
As I mentioned earlier, the console had a game inserted in it. What was the game? Great Baseball.
Even though I already spoke somewhat decent English and new what a Sega Master System was, I still had no idea what baseball was. And neither did any of my friends. But as it was the only game I had, I would borrow my friend’s power and TV cables and try to play this silly game the only way I knew how – button mashing.
In time however, I learned the rules. That’s right, I learned baseball rules by mashing buttons while playing Great Baseball on Sega Master System my mom found in the garbage on the streets of Brooklyn. And as time went on, I actually connected the dots that were appearing all around me – the jacket, the Yankees, and baseball. And as long as I owned the jacket, I might as well own the title – a Yankee fan, and that’s how it all started for me.
But finishing up high school, adjusting to a new identity as an American, and growing up, and figuring out what to do with my life, and this whole college thing, baseball was just a thing I sort of followed. It wasn’t until the strike-shortened 1994 season that I really became a baseball fan and a Yankee fan in I guess a true sense of the term.
Yankees were doing great that year. I already knew the history of the team, and the fact that we were the best team in baseball (Montreal doesn’t count) and didn’t get a chance to go to the World Series hurt. So when 1995 came around, I was excited for the start of the baseball season. I followed my (by then) beloved Yankees all year, watching them lose to the Mariners, watching Donny run around the field asking for O’Neil, oh it was great. I don’t remember seeing Derek Jeter play that year, but I certainly remember spring training of 1996.
As the controversy surrounded him, I remember Jeter calmly sitting during one of the spring training media circuses (press conferences) and saying, that he wasn’t there to take anyone’s job (Tony Fernandez) but he was really there to do whatever was needed to help the team win and do his best. In a world of cliché sport sound bites, I guess it was pretty standard, but something about the way he said it that resonated with me, and been with me ever since.
The rest is history. I became a Yankee fanatic, routinely going to half-dozen to a dozen games each year, and watching probably at least 40-50 more on TV, each year, until game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. Watching Red Sucks fan celebrate on our turf was hard to bear. It was Jeter that gave us a glimmer of hope against Pedro in the 7th (I think) inning, but we ultimately lost, and to me, the Yankees lost their identity with that game.
To me, Yankees truly became my Yankees on Derek Jeter’s watch. I loved them all – Tino, Paulie, Bernie, Jorge, Mo, Brosius, Wells, Cone, Jeff Nelson, Torre. They were all almost my entire American identity. I was still a Russian, I still spoke with an accent, I still did lots of “Russian” things, but I was a fan of the New York Yankees and their excellence, their professionalism, their teamwork was something that appealed to me on a very deep and personal level, beyond the silly jacket and Sega Master System – it was what I thought being an American was all about.
But it was Jeter who anchored it all for me. In a three way great shortstop convo of the late 90s between A-roid, Nomar-oid, and Jeter, he had the lower stats, but he did everything with excellence. He always said the right things, did the right things, and he didn’t have to work at it – it all just happened. To me, he personified an ideal – a true professional, who loved what he did, excelled at it, and remained a human being.
And so starting with 2004 ALCS, I slowly began to lose my association with the Yankees and what they represented to me. The acquisition of A-roid, and then this obsession with trying to buy a World Series, and then the way he quit the team and then we took him back for even more money – I couldn’t associate with them anymore, until I found myself looking at the roster after spring training and not recognizing half of the names. And it all went downhill from there until the last few years, I didn’t even care. I only looked in on the standings once in a while to see what place they were in, but I also always looked in to see how Jeter was doing. And in my news feed, I still read his quotes and watched his interviews. For me, Derek Jeter busted through the baseball fences.
And so now it all comes to an end. As it really began with him, so does it end. As Derek Jeter played his last game, really the only reason I had for following the Yankees in the last few years came to an end.
Everyone talks about Jeter’s leadership qualities. I don’t know about that. I was never in the locker room or on the field, and I cannot judge someone’s leadership qualities based on TV coverage and media interviews. What I do know about is that as my daughter and my son are growing up to be athletes, what I can say, and really not ever be wrong about, is that Jeter is the ideal role model. I can point to him and say: “this is what an athlete is, this is how you work and how you live.” And for that, I am grateful. Thanks, Keptin, thanks for helping to shape my American identity and for becoming a great role model for my kids. I’m sure I’ll see you on TV, and maybe in a manager’s uniform someday, but for now, thanks and good luck.