For Yanks' Jeter, Life is Beautiful
Westchester Journal News, October 26, 1999
By Ian O'Connor

NEW YORK -- Charles Jeter is railing against your thought, mocking its very existence. Perfect?

You must be kidding, he says. He is a trained psychologist and social worker, a leading scholar in the field of human frailty.

If there's anything he has learned in his 50 years on this planet, it's that no man, woman or child is infallible.

Not even his son, Derek Sanderson Jeter, best player on the best team, brightest light in the biggest city. "The golden child of New York," star outfielder Bernie Williams says.


Charles Jeter will tell you all about perfect. Sure, his son is playing for his third World Series title in four years as the Yankees' shortstop, sitting on a 2-0 lead over the Atlanta Braves, holding fast to the only job he has ever craved. And, yes, Derek dates runway models by night and holds doors for their grandmothers by day.

But what about that Little League afternoon when Derek wouldn't shake hands with his victorious foes, when his father told him it was "time to grab a tennis racket, since you obviously don't know how to play a team sport"?

How about the curfews Derek broke? The family car he used for some silly prank?

The 56 errors he committed in a single minor league season? The nights he returned to his hotel room and cried himself a river, dialing the phone and waking his father and mother, Dorothy, with the familiar 2 a.m. wail of a lost baseball soul? "That was a nightmare," Charles says.

"I'm overwhelmed by what's happened to me since," Derek says. "If this is a dream, don't wake me up."

It's an American dream, built on three generations of love, sweat and tears.

Family matters

Charles grew up one-parent poor in Alabama, a black child raised by his mother, Lugenia, who worked as a domestic to make her family's way.

Dorothy was one of 14 children, the white daughter of a church handyman, Sonny Connors.

The couple met and fell in love in Germany while both were in the Army at a time when the culture was short on tolerance.

Derek was born in June 1974 in New Jersey. Every summer, Sonny schooled Derek and his younger sister, Sharlee, on the virtues of a hammer and nail.

While Sonny worked on Derek's soul, Sonny's wife, also named Dorothy, made a play for his heart. She was the Yankees fan who decided her grandson should some day bond with pinstripes, too.

A young Jeter carried his Yankees loyalties across state lines, when his family moved to Kalamazoo, Mich.

If time allowed for a measure of interracial acceptance, Derek and Sharlee weren't spared an odd look here, a small-minded whisper there.

"You can't get away from the fact there are racist people in society," Charles says. "Some things happened, but our kids never let that affect them. We told Derek and Sharlee to chase their dreams, to not let anyone stop them."

Once a softball star at Kalamazoo Central High, Sharlee is a junior at Spelman College in Atlanta, a business and math major surrounded by enemy fans.

She was part of a ritual that Don Zomer, Derek's baseball coach at Central, witnessed on nightly walks, finding the entire Jeter family after practice, working on technique.

"Some people go to the movies for fun," Sharlee says. "We went to the field. It was part of being close."

Close enough to draw up codes of conduct. Every August, Derek signed a contract stating his academic goals and curfew responsibilities.

Charles says his son was an industrious student but needed to be grounded for late-night breaches of the deal, like the time he stranded the car after a friend's parents caught him trying to get her attention by tossing a stone at her window.

"No drugs, nothing serious," he says. "We were blessed with a good kid."

Growing pains

Jeter played on losing high school teams, a hard picture to frame. "But he had a quiet arrogance," Charles says. "Even in basketball, he always wanted the last shot. He usually didn't make them, but he was never afraid to fail."

The sixth pick of the '92 draft, he fumbled the ball 56 times his second season at Class A Greensboro (N.C.). Charles and Dorothy slept with one eye on the phone.

The parents would go to bed early, "but the phone always rang," Charles says. "We knew that meant he had a bad game."

Charles reminded his child that Chipper Jones made his share of minor league errors, too. Jeter would ultimately credit Brian Butterfield, a minor league coach and instructor, for patching the holes in his glove.

"I wrote Derek a letter after the '96 World Series, just to say how proud I was that a rookie wasn't in awe of anything," says Butterfield, now Arizona's third-base coach.

Jeter's is a hushed form of leadership, with exceptions. A half-hour before Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, he approached several teammates with these counterfeit claims from Boston starter Bret Saberhagen: "Saberhagen told me he's got your number. . . . Sabes said you've got nothing."

A good clubhouse moment in a year that saw its bad ones.

Jeter forgot a scheduled team picture, missing it for teammate Jorge Posada's birthday.

He was embarrassed when teammate Chad Curtis confronted him in Seattle after the shortstop cavorted with his friend, the Mariners' Alex Rodriguez, at the close of a Yankees-Mariners brawl.

"That really bothered Derek," David Cone says. "It was definitely mishandled by Chad, and admittedly so. But that was the first time Derek's integrity was questioned in public."

It should be the last. Jeter has adopted Joe DiMaggio's signature line, the one about going hard every day because there might be someone watching who never saw him play.

"He has a lot of his grandfather in him," Sharlee says. "I mean, we used to open presents on Christmas Eve because our grandfather worked every Christmas Day."

Sonny Connors died of a heart attack on New Year's Day. He did the plumbing and electricity at Queen of Peace in North Arlington, N.J., for 36 years . He was always too busy fixing parishioners' cars, for no charge, to see his grandson play. Derek was among the 800 mourners at the biggest funeral ever at Queen of Peace.

"He showed me the meaning of hard work," Jeter says.

As did his parents.

"We never saw our mom," Sharlee says. "She busted her butt every single day for me and Derek."

Dorothy Jeter, an accountant, declined to be interviewed, a decision Sharlee explained: "When you talk to my father, you're talking to my mother, too."

The Jeters speak for each other, live for each other. When Derek asked his father to leave his job and assume control of his Turn 2 Foundation, a charity established to steer children from drugs and alcohol, Charles didn't hesitate. "I want Derek giving back to the community," he says. "I don't get caught up in all this New York Yankee stuff."

He'll leave that to the adoring masses. Jeter has achieved an "Elvis-like status," Cone says, a status coming with a price. Gossip pages are forever spotting him where he's not. Photographers lurk in cabs, waiting for him to date another woman with singer Mariah Carey's profile.

"I found Mariah to be a good person, and I trust Derek's judgment," Sharlee says. "But he's my brother, and I want to keep him away from women who only care about his fame."

Jeter isn't about celebrity, even if he's John Kennedy Jr.'s successor as the closest thing to a New York prince. Before and after games in Atlanta, he spent hours with his parents and sister, talking about and life and his 15-game playoff hitting streak.

"Derek Jeter, to me, happens to be one of the top two or three ballplayers in the game," Braves manager Bobby Cox says.,p> Derek will dig into the Yankee Stadium batter's box tonight in Game 3, wave his bat, and aim for a place next to DiMaggio, Mantle and Ruth in Monument Park.

It all sounds like a flawless scene, a perfect life. "I don't know if anyone has a perfect life," Jeter says. "But it's close. It's getting there."

Charles just might ground him for that comment.

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