What Derek Jeter means to me and my father

I can’t remember the first time I went to a baseball game. That absence of memory currently holds claim as one of the things I have most the regret with in my (albeit, relatively short) life. It’s not as if the memory is insignificant and floated away from the inner channels of my brain.

The moment, at the time, simply did not matter at all.

My parents came to America two months after I was born in May of 1995. Our family’s primary motivation, at the time, was to allow my dad to get his Ph.D. at Boston University. My parents didn’t grow up in American culture and, although, my dad appreciated sports, our first journey into the concourses of Fenway Park as father and son simply did not carry the weight it has for many parent-child relationships in this country.

While Kodak worthy now, the moment did not mean much to my dad, my mom and myself. At the time, it was just another experience to add to the Boston bucket list before my dad finished up his Ph.D. and our family headed back to Korea.

My dad’s pursuit of his degree meant that he was not around a lot through my early life, from preschool through third grade. He would come home after a long day of studying to my mom and I passed out. At the time, all three of us slept on one queen size mattress on the floor of our small one bedroom apartment in Brookline.

I didn’t really feel anything towards my dad for the early years of my childhood. I, honestly, had no idea who he was as a person and I spent an exponentially greater amount of time with my mom. Every once in a while, he brought me to his office on the sixth floor of the BU School of Management. There, I would sit in his office playing some sort of educational computer game or worked on a Thomas the Tank Engine coloring sheet as he continued to chip away towards his degree. That was the extent of our relationship.

There are very few moments, outside of my time on the computer in his office, that I remember spending with my dad early in my life. He spent countless hours at school working towards his degree so he could provide for my mom, myself and now my little sister. He was absent in the memories of my early childhood.

My dad didn’t have a dad for most of his life. When my dad was six-years-old, my grandfather passed away after he was hit by a car. It’s something that my mom constantly reminded me of growing up, letting me know how fortunate I was to even have a father. The youngest of three kids, two of them sisters, my dad was pushed by my grandmother to succeed. To this day, he’s absolutely adored by my grandmother.

Whenever my family visits Korea and first steps foot into my grandmother’s house, she scurries across the floor and gives my dad the biggest of hugs.

"Sangkyu, my star son," she said.

Throughout his life, my dad had a lot of pressure placed on him academically, something that is inherent with the school-centric culture of South Korea. He would wake up in the wee hours of the morning to head off to school, then go to a second “test-prep” academy and would end up studying late into the evening until that process repeated itself the next day.

In Korea, there are no high school sports. If you are good at something, you’re put on a track to succeed in that one specified area. People good at sports only play sports. Others who excel academically focus solely on their studies. It’s a culture that still persists to this day and something I struggle wrapping my head around given my vastly different life in the United States.

As someone who stayed atop of his academic class throughout his entire schooling career, my dad did very little else beyond study. I remember asking my dad whether or not he played sports during school. Every time, I received the same response: a slight raise of the eyebrow and a slight frown on the right side of his lip.

"Things are different in Korea," he said. "I didn’t have the opportunity to play sports because I spent so much time studying."

Living in a house full of women who, to this day, hold little-to-no interest in sports, my dad did not have an outlet to express his interest in athletics. While Korea is a growing baseball country today, the sport, as my dad told me, was considered irrelevant throughout his childhood.

My mom always told me my dad had no idea what it meant to be one after living his whole life without a father. For years (and not to his fault) he was to me what his father was to him, not there by him.

My dad tells me the first time he was captivated by baseball in America was in 1999, when Pedro Martinez’ starts became an event. Martinez’ electrifying stuff and story planted interest in the sport. That interest, however, wasn’t fully shared with me until years later.

The day my dad first sat down with me to explain baseball is one of my earliest, clear memories. The game was a FOX afternoon broadcast on July 26, 2003 of the Red Sox and Yankees. My dad, interested in the team’s acquisition of Byung-Hyun Kim (Korean players, to this day, still raise his interest in baseball), decided to sit me, a third grade kid with no grasp of baseball, down to watch the game.

My memory specifically clicks on in the ninth inning of that game. Kim was brought in to preserve a 4-4 tie game. Through the first two batters of the innings, my dad explained what Kim was doing on the mound (the submarine pitching style was completely foreign to me).

And then in stepped Derek Jeter.

Jeter, my dad explained to me, was the quintessential New York Yankee. He was the captain of the team (the Yankees’ Nomar Garciaparra as he explained it) and played the game in a way that everyone respected. Nearly on cue, Jeter slapped a grounder up the middle, as Jeter has done year-after-year.

"We’re not supposed to like that guy," my dad said. "He’s their best player."

Kim stranded Jeter on first base to finish off the inning and David Ortiz (naturally) finished the game off in the ninth inning with an RBI single off Armando Benitez to drive in Jeremy Giambi. Right then and there, I knew that baseball was something I was interested in. I asked for a baseball book.

A couple nights later, my family took our walk into the Coolidge Corner Brookline Booksmith. I headed straight to the kids’ section to look for baseball books. Lo and behold, the first book I found had a picture of Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez and Jeter.

That book sparked my curiosity into baseball and eventually led to the first game that I remember going to with my dad.

After failing to get day-of-game tickets, my dad and I waited around until the fifth inning to head into the ticket office as a last resort. The broker sold us a pair of tickets that were never picked up. The tickets brought us five rows behind home plate (the player I was most excited to see that day was, wait for it, Damian Jackson).

From that day forward, my dad followed the 2003 Red Sox religiously, reading the newspaper together and following the team’s chase for the playoffs. When it came for the Red Sox to play the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, I was beyond excited. Those games was the first time in my life I can remember my dad and I spending an extended period of time together when I was truly excited to spend time with him.

"Dad?" I said.

"Yes, Joon?"

"I, umm," I stuttered. "I hate Derek Jeter."

He gave me a hug.

My first opportunity to cover a Red Sox-Yankees game came in 2013. As an intern for the Boston Herald at the time, I was told to head to the New York clubhouse to pick up any relevant news and sound bites for the day.

As I walked through the doors into the cramped visitor’s clubhouse, a body zipped by me.

"Excuse me," the man said while walking into the trainer’s room.

I peeked into the trainer’s room and my eyes immediately opened.

Derek Jeter had just bumped into me before getting treatment on his ankle. At that point, I was generally no longer star struck by athletes, but Jeter was different for me. Immediately, I zipped back to the day where I had sat on the couch with my dad to watch Jeter step in against Kim on a grainy, standard definition television.

Jeter walked past me again, sitting down at his locker, which sat next to the coaching staff and resided closest to the trainer’s room. I walked over, my palms sweaty enough to fill a glass and my hand shaking like a top ready to fall over.

"Hi Mr. Jeter," I said with the confidence I could muster. "I grew up in Boston and this probably doesn’t mean much to you, but thank you for being my favorite least-favorite player growing up."

Jeter chuckled.

"Hey, thanks a lot," he said with his signature bravado and genuine smile.

Given that he had no plans on playing that day, I chatted with him for less than a minute. I told him about how my dad and I had watched him play day-after-day and how I had learned to love baseball through the many Red Sox-Yankee games I watched growing up.

I noticed the rest of the media contingent heading into manager Joe Girardi’s office for his pre-game press conference.

"I’ve got to go," I muttered to Jeter, "but thank you so much for your time."

"You’ve got it," he said. "Thank you."

It’s a conversation that he’s probably had countless times with fans and it’s something that he likely wouldn’t recall if he was asked about it. The genuine interest he had in hearing what I had to say, however, is something I will never forget.

Nearly all of the greatest moments I had with my dad center around baseball, whether it was the long drives for my travel team games, sitting on the couch watching the Red Sox during the summer or being at Fenway Park together for David Ortiz’ game-tying grand slam during Game 2 of the ALCS.

Given my aspirations as a writer in sports journalism and my focus on the Red Sox as a point of coverage, I don’t consider myself a fan of the team anymore as I did throughout my childhood. That, however, hasn’t changed the fact that I still turn revert to my third grade self whenever I have the chance to watch a game at Fenway Park as a fan with my dad.

This weekend, Derek Jeter will take his final at-bat ever in the batter’s box of Fenway Park. For me, the brightest memories of Jeter’s career won’t be from his endless bloop singles into the outfield, his jump throws from shortstop or his constant peppering of Red Sox pitching.

It’ll be him taking the time to hear the story of an 18-year-old writer and having genuine interest in my dad.

That’s what stands out most about Jeter. Regardless of whether you think he’s a great or terrible fielder or an underrated or overrated shortstop, it’s the impact that he had on people, both in and outside baseball, that truly measures the legacy he leaves behind.

So for everything, from the destruction of my dreams of a 2003 World Series victory for the Red Sox to the love you helped bring into the relationship between my father and me, thank you Mr. Jeter.


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