The Last Hurrah: Derek Jeter & The Jordan Brand

When it comes to Derek Jeter, who turned 40 today, everyone probably has a favorite memory from his vast catalog of accomplishments–Mr. November, DJ3K, Angel in the Outfield, take your pick. Mine, however, is somewhat of an uncommon choice.

Though they didn’t actually win, the Yankees’ World Series run in 2001 was unique because of the charged climate in New York at the time, about a month after September 11. Even as a Mets fan, I’d become enthralled with the Bombers’ title pursuit as a beacon of normalcy during a turbulent time, and their frequent comeback victories served as a symbol of the City’s resilience.

On October 30, President Bush arrived at Yankee Stadium to throw the first pitch; regardless of your political beliefs, this was to be a moment to demonstrate, essentially, that our way of life would continue undeterred. Clad in an FDNY jacket over a bullet-proof vest, Bush was warming up his arm when Jeter approached him.

“I just asked him if he was throwing the first pitch from the mound, or from in front of the mound,” Jeter said in the documentary Nine Innings From Ground Zero.

Bush responded that he planned to throw from the base of the mound, and Jeter responded coolly: “You’d better throw it from the mound, or you’re going to get booed. This is Yankee Stadium.”

The President acquiesced, and as Jeter walked away, the shortstop looked back over his shoulder and said, stone cold serious, “Don’t bounce it. They’ll boo you.” (Perhaps thanks to Jeter’s pep talk of sorts, Bush threw an inspiring perfect strike–from the mound.)

Jeter always stood out to me for the sheer cool factor of having played a pivotal role in such a memorable occasion. And for the life of me, I could only think of one other athlete who might have had the authority, the gravitas and the audacity to give such frank advice to a sitting President in a moment as climacteric as that one: Michael Jordan.

As such, it makes perfect sense Jeter was personally selected by MJ back in 1999 to be the first baseball ambassador on Team Jordan. And for a player whose hallmark is sustained excellence, it’s only right that Jeter has become the longest-tenured Jordan signature athlete short of Michael himself, an achievement the brand has honored throughout his 19th and final season with the #RE2PECT campaign.

It’s clear the Jordan Brand relishes its association with a player as accomplished and dignified as Jeter, and it would seem Jeter shares that affinity.

“The brand’s gotten bigger and better throughout the years,” Jeter once said. “You know, MJ to me is like a big brother. He’s always looked out for me, and he’s a person I can go to for a lot of advice.”

Unsurprisingly, Jeter accepts that advice with a side dish of good-natured trash talk. How often does Jordan bring up to Jeter that he has six championship rings to Jeter’s five?

“He reminds me all the time,” Jeter once told ESPN. “All the time.”

That spirit of healthy competition stems from the fact that Jeter and Jordan are basically two sides of the same coin. When the Jordan Brand first expanded to include other signature athletes in the late ’90s, Jeter was probably the one most similar to Michael himself in demeanor and mentality. Sure enough, in this classic 1999 commercial, ostensibly a coming-out party for the newly formed Team Jordan, Jeter is the first person you see.

(Sidebar: The other Jordan Team members in the ad were a perfect snapshot of the best in sports circa Y2K. Besides Jeter, you had Roy Jones Jr., the most feared boxer; Randy Moss, the most dynamic force in football; and Ray Allen, the sweetest shooter in basketball. Incredibly, Allen remains an active player, though he is considering joining Jeter in retirement. And Jones–to my knowledge, no longer a Jordan Team member–still fights on occasion, though everyone wishes he wouldn’t.)

Derek Jeter
Jordan Brand

Regardless, much like Jordan, Jeter is renowned for his dedication, determination, and consistency. The shortstop is a strong bet to earn a 14th All-Star nod this summer–matching Jordan’s total. Jeter is one of just 28 players with more than 3,000 hits, and he’s won both the All-Star and World Series MVP Awards. He’s never won a regular season MVP, but he deserved to win in 2006, no offense to Justin Morneau.

Most notably, Jeter and Jordan have long shared a certain it factor only the true greats possess: year after year, game after game, there was a good chance he would do something, anything, to help his team win. Jordan scored 38 with the flu; Jeter risked life and limb diving into the stands after a great catch. Jordan came out of nowhere to strip Karl Malone before the Last Shot; Jeter materialized all the way across the diamond for The Flip.

In certain ways, Jeter serves as a baseball avatar for a man who clearly loves the sport enough to give it an earnest try back in the mid-90s, but who wasn’t able to play it at the highest level. “I’m not Michael Jordan,” Jeter said with a half-smile in one commercial. “I’m his designated hitter.”

Especially rare for a baseball player, Jeter’s sneaker legacy also stacks up with any player except for Jordan. The Captain was blessed with no fewer than a dozen signature sneakers; start with the Jumpman Jeter DJ and work your way up. And much like Jordan, Jeter wasn’t content to simply be a figurehead, choosing to become involved with the design process.

“I’ve been meeting with the designers throughout the years, and it’s not like they’re just making a shoe and I’m signing off on it,” Jeter said. “I really have a say, and they’ve really come up with some great ideas, they deserve a lot of credit.

“It’s been a fun process for me.”

The fact is, Jeter’s importance to the Jordan Brand can’t be understated. That first wave of Team Jordan athletes went a long way in demonstrating the brand was more than just Michael Jordan, helping at least to some degree to set up the company for continued prosperity long after MJ retired. Jeter, a star both on the field and in his charitable pursuits, was the crown jewel of that initial class.

Every time Jeter celebrated a World Series title or a milestone hit, he did so with the Jumpman emblazoned on his batting gloves, wristbands and cleats, a good look for Jordan. Plus, Jeter blazed a trail for others to represent the Jordan Brand on the diamond, including All-Stars like teammate CC Sabathia, Carl Crawford, and Jimmy Rollins. And if Manny Machado’s Air Jordan 6 PE cleats are any indication, JB can only hope the 21-year-old third baseman can pick up where Jeter left off.

“If you follow basketball at all, you have to be a fan of MJ,” Jeter once said. “Not only the things he did on the court, but the way he handled himself off the court. I’ve gotten to know him more and more over the years, and I think you have a sort of respect for him–more so as a person than as just a basketball player.

“So that’s always been something I’ve wanted to be associated with.”

It would appear the #RE2PECT is quite mutual.

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