My grandfather passed away in June at the age of 89. I’d never met my other grandfather — I’m named after him, but he died before I was even thought of — so Poppy filled a role normally held by two men.
He was more than up to the challenge, and he became my hero — a man who served his country and his family. He was quiet, steady, the salt of the earth. He was the kind of man who raised his sister-in-law’s children for months at a time when she was sick. He was the kind of man who sat by his dying wife for hours every day even when Alzheimer’s had robbed her of any memories of him. He was the kind of man who was always there.
When he died, I tried everything I could to fill the void. I cooked the special meal he used to make whenever he’d come to visit: fried chicken cutlets with peas. I scoured the internet for his service record from World War II — his ship was once sunk out from under him in the Pacific by a Japanese torpedo. I talked to relatives I hadn’t seen in years, desperate for another story to cling to.
But nothing helped nearly as much as watching Derek Jeter play baseball.
The Yankees hold a sacred place in my family’s heart, sitting just a rung below the Catholic Church. The men in my family don’t speak much, but they do when they talk about the Yankees.
Especially when they talk about Derek Jeter. He was the one player who brought all of us together, transcending eras to relate to fans 67 years apart in age.
When Poppy and I watched baseball, which was whenever we were together from April through October, Jeter did something almost every night that sparked my grandfather to go off about how Jeter played hard, like the Yankees of his era: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri.
He told me to play hard like Jeter. I took his advice literally, waggling my bat above my head and trying to play shortstop as an uncoordinated southpaw.
Last Sunday, Jeter played his final Major League game, exactly 12 years and one day after I first saw him play in person as a 10-year old, overwhelmed by the bright lights of a Friday night game at Camden Yards.
Long ago I realized that I would not be the next shortstop of the New York Yankees, but I still got the same thrill every time I watched Jeter dig into the batter’s box.
And when he pulled off yet another superhuman feat, I still called Poppy.
As Jeter’s retirement loomed over the Yankees (and my life) this past season, people have praised him for many things. They’ve lauded Jeter’s work ethic, his charitable foundation and his ability to navigate the paparazzi in New York for two decades with his dignity still intact.
But what has gone unheralded is how Jeter connected people. These past few months, it has been comforting to watch Jeter and hold onto that connection to Poppy. It has taken me back to those hours in front of the television as the sun set outside, watching baseball and hanging onto Poppy’s every word as he launched into one of his stories.
Many writers infinitely more talented than myself have discussed Jeter’s retirement these past weeks and months. I originally did not want to join in the chorus just to reiterate yet again the same compliments about a great ballplayer. But I do want to say thank you for making a difficult loss just a little easier.