Do you remember where you were when Derek Jeter played his final game at Yankee Stadium?
I definitely do.
I can even remember what I was thinking about on that night, exactly three years ago today, during the ninth inning of that game. It was something along the lines of….
“Oh, shit! I need to get loose.”
On September 25, 2014, while most of America was getting ready to watch the season premiere of Scandal, I was in the home dugout at Yankee Stadium, wearing the pinstripes, surrounded by 48,000 screaming fans.
I was an outfielder for the Yankees at the time, but I wasn’t an everyday player, so I’d be lying to you if I said that when I woke up that morning I thought I was going to be part of baseball history a few hours later. I was often used as a pinch runner late in games, though, so after the Orioles tied us up in the top of the ninth, I started to think that I might be called on to make something happen.
What went down next I remember vividly.
Bottom of the ninth. The stadium is rockin’. Jose Pirela leads off with a single. As soon as he reaches first base, Joe Girardi gazes across the dugout, locks eyes with me and then points directly at me. I’ve already been stretching my body and moving around in the dugout, and when I see him pointing I nod back with a look of confidence.
What I really think is, Who, me?! But I quickly put on my helmet and pop out of the dugout.
I’m immediately captivated by the crowd and, honestly, just happy I even remembered to grab my helmet.
Brett Gardner bunts me over to second base. And then, without a whole lot of time to think about what was about to happen, I hear over the loudspeaker, the late Bob Sheppard’s recording….
“Now batting for the Yankees, Number 2, Derek Jeter, Number 2.”
Chants of “Der-ek Jee-ter” take over the stadium, louder than I’ve ever heard. Standing on second base, slowly looking around the stadium, it’s surreal … like I’m in a foreign place. And, of course, Derek walks up to home plate like he’s done for the better part of two decades — cool and calm.
At that point, standing out there on second, I’m having a hard time not being a fan. I know I have a job to do, but it’s extremely difficult to put the emotion of what I’m seeing to the side.
Derek settles into the batter’s box. The pitcher looks in for the sign, and I take a few steps off the bag, a little more cautious than usual. It is starting to sink in that I am the potential winning run at Derek’s last game at Yankee Stadium.
Now my heart’s beating so loud that the roaring of the stadium is more like a whisper.
Everything just kind of goes silent, and then….
Derek hits a rifle in between first and second, and, just like that, I start running.
I run as fast as I possibly can. I’m willing my entire body, every muscle, to do everything possible to go … fast.
Muscle memory takes over and my senses sharpen. As I approach third, I start to slow down. I look up and see Rob Thomson unexpectedly waving me home, so I round third, my left foot barely touching the bag. A million thoughts are going through my mind. I feel a shot of adrenaline. I know I have to find another gear.
There is no way I am getting thrown out.
As I get closer to the plate, I notice the catcher preparing to receive the throw, and I see Brian McCann waving his arms like crazy, signaling me to slide.
I know it is going to be close.
Everyone in that stadium, and millions of people watching on TV, are looking to me to score.
And then something completely unexplainable happens.
For some reason, in that moment, with everything on the line, I respond by doing something that I’ve never done in my entire career.
I slide headfirst into home.
In the moment, my body just takes over, and the next thing I know I’m diving.
To this day, I don’t know exactly why I did that. I was always taught not to slide headfirst into home because of the risk of a head injury from a collision with the catcher. But in the moment, my body just takes over, and the next thing I know I’m diving.
My chest hits the dirt. I slide through home plate. The umpire signals that I am safe.
Then … I don’t know what to do.
Do I hug McCann?
Jump up and down?
Run out to Derek?
At the time, I couldn’t believe what had just happened. But I suppose that’s what the great ones do, right? They leave the party in style. Sampras beat Agassi in a nail biter in the U.S. Open final, Kobe messed around and dropped 60 in his last game, and now The Captain had delivered a walk-off single to say goodnight to Yankee Stadium!
It’s an experience that I’ll always remember.
And it’s all the more special to me because my path to wearing the pinstripes and sliding home safely on that fateful night is one so unlikely that it almost feels unreal.
I grew up in the Bahamas. My single mother and grandparents took care of me, and we didn’t have much. I would sell sea grapes on the side of the road to help pay my way through school. It was money from selling those fruits that also helped my grandfather to purchase my first pair of cleats. My father was never in the picture. I couldn’t recognize him if he were standing next to me even today.
My childhood wasn’t easy.
One time in the fourth grade, I was rocking a baby blue turtleneck with some blue stonewash jeans — man, did I look fresh! I walked up to a girl I had a crush on, swag level on point. And things were going great … until she put her hand on my shoulder and asked me why my shirt had shoulder pads.
I didn’t know what to say really, because … well, I was wearing my older sister’s hand me downs.
My mother hustled and worked multiple jobs while my grandmother held it down at home for my sister and I.
I was a very competitive child, so I loved sports — all of them. In my mind, I thought I was a top performer, but it didn’t always pan out like that in reality.
In seventh grade I was cut from my school’s softball team.
But I got no sympathy tears from my mother. She was a former athlete and still went running each morning at 4 a.m. So I joined her, and we raced in parking lots every opportunity we got. I practiced throwing against the wall each day.
My mantra became No Excuses! It was on me.
At 14, my life changed forever. A chance encounter with a coach from American Heritage, a private school in Boca Raton, Florida, provided me the opportunity to go away to high school on scholarship. I didn’t get on the field much as a freshman, and I wasn’t even a part of the baseball team as a sophomore. It wasn’t until junior year that I started playing consistently.
At Heritage, I often felt like a fish out of water. I was a kid who grew up traveling around with seven people jammed up in a broke down four-seater car, and suddenly I was sitting in a class with kids who drove brand-new BMWs and Hummers. Some of these kids came from families that could literally buy their own island in the Bahamas.
Leaving my home country was the single most difficult thing that I’ve ever done. Being away from family, friends, and my school crush, and then getting thrown into a completely different culture felt unbearable. I would walk around school with my head down, my mind constantly wanting to be back spending time with the people I had left behind.
But I persevered, and at the end of my senior year I was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles and named the class salutatorian.
I got into Brown University, everything paid for, but passed on that opportunity to go to junior college and play baseball. After two years at JUCO, I was recruited to play at Vanderbilt University by Erik Bakich. I enrolled at Vanderbilt that fall, and finally started to feel at home. Erik made me a part of his real family. My Vanderbilt family took a displaced kid from The Bahamas, and turned him into the confident and deliberate man I am today. Our leader on the field was Coach Tim Corbin. He challenged me not to be just good on the diamond, but to be great in all areas of life. Those guys taught me one of the most valuable lessons I’ve ever learned — that good people can make all the difference in the world.
I was athletic and fast, but with my late start in baseball I had to work very hard to keep up with my peers. I put in a ton of 1 a.m. sessions at the school’s batting cages trying to figure things out, but even with all that time and effort, I still had a difficult time translating those skills to the field at Vanderbilt. So my stats were never that great.
Then, In 2005, I decided to leave Vandy and begin my professional baseball journey.
So, yeah, the kid who got cut from middle school softball, said no to an Ivy League school, and stunk it up on the field at Vanderbilt had the genius idea that he could play professional baseball.
Jesus take the wheel.
For whatever reason, the Giants actually agreed with me. They picked me in the draft, and gave me my shot.
It was like a dream come true at first. Then, six weeks into my first full season in professional baseball, my batting average was the worst in the league. I was hitting .163. It was blue turtleneck with shoulder pads all over again.
And from that point on, it was all a battle. Just years and years of grinding.
I was still doing school work during those years, and in December of 2008, I earned my degree in engineering science from Vandy. A few months later, the Giants let me go because I wasn’t good enough. And then the Braves dumped me on the last day of spring training in 2010.
But I somehow convinced myself that those teams had it all wrong. I thought of the boy who got cut from softball as a kid and the promise he made to himself to never give up, to never make excuses.
Eighteen months after being let go by the Braves, on September 4, 2011, there I was making my major league debut with … uh huh, the Atlanta Braves. And get this: My first hit in the big leagues came on the first pitch that I saw, from a guy who would have been introduced in 007 movies as Kershaw, Clayton Kershaw.
Fast forward three years later, and there I was at Yankee Stadium scoring one of the most emotional, dramatic runs in the history of baseball.
Life can be unpredictable sometimes, you know?
These days, my life is a bit different than it was when I played in the Bronx. For more than 10 years, while playing professional baseball, I was like a robot in the offseason. Just preparing and working out with everything I had.
But this offseason had a different vibe to it. A different passion of mine was starting to blossom. As much as I loved competing and playing professional baseball, I realized it was time to put my heart into something else — to use my skills for something else.
It became increasingly important for me to positively impact the youth in the community that I grew up in. And I felt like I needed to commit myself fully to that mission, so I retired from major league baseball in March 2017. My heart is now filled with the desire to be an uplifting force in the lives of young people pursuing their passions.
Today, I’m dedicated to helping young students in The Bahamas, serving them through Project Limestone. I started Project Limestone as a nonprofit organization with the objective of providing youth programs in an environment that encourages young people to respect their peers, to work together and to define their goals, and sets them on a path to achieve those goals.
Our organization’s three areas of impact are in the classroom, where we’ve focused on increasing exposure to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) topics; in sports, where we focus on team building and developing sound technical competencies; and in the community, where we reinforce to students the importance of investing in their environment.
The kids that I help through Project Limestone will likely never play in front of 50,000 fans at Yankee Stadium, but my aspiration is that each will one day contribute to making our world a better place. I hope they all will be inspired, fearless about their goals and limitless with their dreams.
This is the biggest challenge of my life, and, no disrespect to that incredible moment at Yankee Stadium three years ago, it is the most fulfilling thing I will ever do.
Of course, we never accomplish anything truly great without some support along the way, so I could use all the help I can get. If you’re ever in The Bahamas, look me up. And in the meantime, check out www.projectlimestone.org. With your support, we can give the next generation of young people hope to believe in themselves and to create their own improbable journeys.