A DREAM IS BORN
“Jeter, the rookie from Kalamazoo, takes a lead off second after his double. . . . There’s a line single to right, Jeter comes around third, he’s racing for the plate. . . . Here’s the throw. . . . Derek Jeter slides under the tag and he is . . . SAFE! The Yankees win the World Series! Holy Cow! Derek Jeter, the kid who came out of nowhere, has helped the Bombers return to glory! Listen to that crowd roaring his name . . . Der-ek . . . Je-ter!”
“Derek! Derek Jeter! Are you with us?”
Derek’s third-grade teacher, Ms. Wagner, was staring down at him, frowning. Behind her the whole class erupted in laughter. Derek woke from his daydream into an instant nightmare. He sat up straight and said, “I was listening, Ms. Wagner! I really was!”
“Well, then maybe you can repeat what I said—for anyone in the class who wasn’t listening.”
Yikes! He was really stuck now. What was he going to say? The awful truth was that his mind had been miles away—at Yankee Stadium for the Fall Classic, not here in Room 212 of Saint Augustine Elementary School in the middle of April.
Ms. Wagner’s frown curled into a smile. Before Derek embarrassed himself any further, she added, “Never mind. This is an important assignment, class. So let me repeat it again, just so everyone gets it. Tonight’s homework is a two-page essay entitled ‘My Dreams for the Future.’”
A wave of giggling came from somewhere behind the teacher. For some reason a few of the students thought the topic was hilarious.
Ms. Wagner’s smile morphed back into a frown. “I want you all to take this seriously, now. You have the whole weekend to think about it. Don’t just write something silly—that you want to grow up to be Luke Skywalker or Tina Turner. I want to know your real dreams, the ones you could actually make come true.”
“Ooo! Ooo!” Jamali Winston said, raising her hand and waving it frantically.
“What if we’re not sure what we want to be?”
“You don’t have to be sure about anything. This essay is your chance to think about your future and come up with some goals.”
Derek wrote down the assignment, smiling. This was going to be easy! He knew what he wanted to be—a big-league baseball player. He’d wanted to be one ever since he was . . . well, even before he could remember.
The bell rang. Derek grabbed his things and stuffed them into his book bag. He threw on his coat. It was still pretty wintry in Kalamazoo, Michigan—which was not unusual for mid-April. Piles of leftover dirty snow were still on the ground from a blizzard they’d had two weeks before. And more snow showers were expected for tomorrow.
Derek sure hoped it got warmer soon, because Little League season was about to start. He sped down the hall toward the exit doors, dodging slower kids like he was running back a kickoff.
“Hey, Derek!” came a familiar voice from behind him. “Where are you running to?”
Derek turned and smiled. “Hey, Vijay. How’s it going?” The two boys high-fived.
“Excellent, as always. Little League next week! You ready for some baseball?”
Vijay Patel had started playing ball with Derek and the other kids as soon as his family had moved into Mount Royal Townhouses. Vijay’s parents were from India. They both loved cricket, but because Vijay had grown up here in the United States, he had become a big baseball fan.
The only problem was, he wasn’t exactly a natural athlete. At first he hadn’t been able to figure out which leg went forward when you threw the ball. Derek had helped him straighten that part out at least. From then on, Vijay had been his devoted friend, and Derek took pride in Vijay’s improvement. On the night of the Little League tryouts in February, Derek had even given Vijay one of his Yankees sweatshirts so he wouldn’t look so out of place—Vijay was wearing a jack-o’-lantern sweatshirt at the time.
“I sure hope we’re on the same team,” he told Derek as they got outside.
“Yeah, me too,” Derek said, giving Vijay a pat on the shoulder. He meant it too. It was fun to have your friends on your team. But even more importantly, he wanted to be on a really good team for a change, a team that had kids with baseball talent.
Derek’s last two teams hadn’t done well at all. He had memorized all the ugly numbers. His Giants had finished 2–10 two years back. The following year his Indians had been only slightly better, at 3–9. He hadn’t liked watching other teams celebrate at his team’s expense, or the razzing he had gotten the next day at school.
The two boys walked back to Mount Royal Townhouses. It was a gigantic housing development with garden apartments, row houses, and a few taller apartment buildings. There were parking lots all around—lots of cement, and only a few green patches of grass and trees here and there. In fact, if it hadn’t been for “The Hill,” there would have been no large area of grass at all—no place to play baseball.
The Hill was really just a gradual slope, so it was possible to play there. But it was still far from ideal. Home plate was at the bottom of the slope, so Derek and his friends were always hitting and running uphill. Sometimes the outfielders tripped racing down the hill to make a catch, and wound up doing somersaults, or worse, scraping their knees.
They had to dodge trees, too! There were two trees in the outfield, and they often got in the way. But Derek didn’t care. Any game of baseball was better than no game at all. His love of the game had inspired the rest of the players too.
Derek had been the ringleader of this bunch of ball-playing maniacs ever since his family had moved to Mount Royal. The kids had started calling it “Derek Jeter’s Hill” in his honor—he practically lived there.
Every day, even in cold or rain, he’d be out there tossing a ball into the air by himself, until one of the other kids saw him through their window, grabbed a glove, and came out to join him. Two kids could play a pretend game on the hill, complete with radio announcing by Derek and whoever else was playing. If there were three kids, it made it even better.
With four or more kids they could actually play a real game—bending the rules, of course, but still, an actual game, with winners and losers and genuine thrills and chills. The games were often between the Tigers, the favorite team of most of the kids, and the Yankees, Derek’s idols. Jack Morris versus Dave Winfield, Kirk Gibson versus Ron Guidry.
“Want to play some ball?” Vijay asked Derek as they came to the bottom of the hill. From here they had to go opposite ways.
“Gotta write my essay first,” Derek said.
“You’ve got all weekend to do that!”
“Not me. I’ve got to finish all my homework before I get to do anything else,” Derek said.
Vijay already knew that those were the rules in the Jeter house, but he shook his head, still unable to figure it out. “Okay. Whatever, I guess. See you later, then. If you finish before dark, that is.”
“I’ll be there,” Derek promised. He already knew what he was going to write. At least, he thought he did.
• • •
“When I grow up,” the essay began, “I want to be a big-league baseball player.” Derek read it over silently. He nodded, satisfied.
A good first sentence, plain and simple and true. But that was it. That was all he had! What else was there to say about his life’s biggest dream?
As he sat there thinking about it, his gaze drifted to the pin-striped Yankees uniform pinned to the wall. The back of the uniform was facing him. It had the number 31—just the number, not the last name of the player who wore it: Winfield. Dave Winfield. That was one of the great things about the Yankees. They didn’t have names on the backs of their home uniforms because it was about the team, not the individual. For a minute Derek wondered what number he would wear if he were a Yankee. So many of them were already retired: 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 15, 16 . . . Not much to choose from.
Derek was suddenly struck by a flash of genius. He wrote: “I want to play for the New York Yankees.”
There. He read the essay over again, all two sentences of it, and decided it was just about perfect. In fact, it was even better, because now he had made it more specific.
What else could he add? Staring at the mostly empty page, he realized he had to fill it all with words—and another page besides. I’m going to have to get even more specific, he told himself.
His gaze wandered away again and found the big poster of Dave Winfield launching a long ball at Yankee Stadium.
Derek picked up his pencil. “I want to be the star of the Yankees of tomorrow, just like Dave Winfield is the star of the Yankees today.”
Derek scrunched up his face. He knew something was missing. “Except I don’t want to play in the outfield like Dave Winfield. I want to be the shortstop instead.” After another moment he inserted the word “starting” before “shortstop.” If you’re going to dream, you might as well dream big.
He continued writing, feeling inspired now. “I want to be like Dave Winfield, because he is a great athlete at many sports. He could have been a star in professional football or basketball, but he chose baseball instead. Baseball is my favorite sport too, even though I also play basketball and soccer.”
He paused again. One page was almost completely full of writing. The empty second page did not scare him now. He knew he could fill it easily, by writing lots of facts about Dave Winfield and how great he was, and how Derek wanted to be just like him.
He read over what he’d written so far, and sat there, smiling. It wasn’t like there was anything new about what he’d written. He’d had all those thoughts before. But somehow, there was magic in writing them down. Reading it now, he could see that he had put his life’s dream into words and crystallized it so it was as clear as the blue sky outside.
He remembered Ms. Wagner’s sly little smile as she’d handed out the assignment. Derek realized that this must be exactly what she’d been after! She wanted all the kids to think about their future—so that they would realize how important it was to pay more attention in class, and not talk or daydream so much . . . like he did.
When he finished the paper, he saw that there was still daylight, so he grabbed his mitt with the rubber band around it and the ball inside, and stuck a bat under his arm as he headed downstairs.
“Hi, Dad!” he called to his father as he crossed the living room.
His dad looked up from the term paper he was grading, peered at Derek over the top of his glasses, and said, “Did you finish all your homework?”
“Uh-huh. Two-page essay.”
“Two pages, huh? And you finished it so fast?”
“Yeah. It was easy!”
Mr. Jeter’s eyebrows arched in surprise. “Hmm. Well, I’ll be glad to hear more about it later.”
He turned back to his paper, and Derek headed out into the brisk late afternoon, toward the hill that was named after him. Just think what else they would name after him, he thought, once he was the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees!
Derek found himself in another daydream. There he was, in a real Yankees uniform, coming out of the dugout onto the big, beautiful diamond in the Bronx, hearing the fans cheer his name as he jogged out to short. . . .
It was a bit of a letdown to arrive at the rock they used as home plate, and to find Vijay and Jeff Jacobson waiting for him, instead of Dave Winfield and Willie Randolph.
“Hey, Derek!” Jeff said, high-fiving him. “Where you been?”
“Doing his homework, I told you,” Vijay said, nudging Jeff. “You finished it fast, huh?”
“That’s me,” Derek joked. “The Flash.”
“I’m gonna do mine Sunday night,” Jeff said, waving the assignment away as if it were a mosquito. “I’m just gonna write about being a lawyer. My dad’s one, and so’s my mom, so . . .”
“A lawyer, huh?” Derek said. “That’s cool. You’ll look good in a suit and tie.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna sue all kinds of people who annoy me. Like you guys.”
That cracked them all up. Jeff had a wicked sense of humor.
“I would have written about being a doctor someday, and curing kids with cancer,” said Vijay. “But luckily I’m not in your class, so I don’t have to.”
“Too bad,” Derek said. “That would have been a good essay.”
“What did you say you wanted to be, Derek?” Jeff prodded.
“What do you think?” Derek said. “A professional baseball player.”
Jeff snorted. “Ooo-kay . . .”
“Starting shortstop for the Yankees, in fact,” Derek added, to make sure Jeff understood he’d really thought it out in detail.
“Ms. Wagner’s not going to love that,” Jeff said, cocking his head to one side.
Suddenly Derek felt nervous. “Why not?”
“Come on,” Jeff said, snorting again. “Shortstop for the Yankees? Didn’t you hear her say she wanted us to be realistic?”
“Why is that not realistic?” Vijay blurted out, before Derek could even react. “He’s a good ballplayer, so why not?”
“Are you kidding?” Jeff said, laughing. “Give me a break. I mean, get real!”
Derek felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. Vijay put a hand on his shoulder and said, “You can so do it, Derek. Never mind what this fool here says.” Turning to Jeff, he added, “Why do you say stupid things that only make people feel bad?”
Jeff made a face. “Oops! Sorry. Just sayin’.” He shrugged, then seemed to remember something important. “Hey, by the way, speaking of the Yankees—I’m on the team!”
“Huh?” Vijay and Derek both said at once.
“Little League? Hello, didn’t you guys get your notices in the mail?”
“Yeah,” Vijay said. “I’m on the Tigers. That’s good, huh? India? Bengal Tigers? Get it?”
Derek laughed, thinking what a great friend Vijay was. Somehow he’d helped Derek go from feeling lousy to laughing in about thirty seconds. And along the way, he’d stood up for Derek the way Derek had stood up for him.
“How ’bout you?” Jeff asked Derek. “What team are you on?”
Now it was Derek’s turn to shrug. “I didn’t get anything in the mail today. . . .”
“Uh-oh,” Jeff said. “Sure hope they didn’t forget all about you, dude. That would really stink, not being able to play.” Seeing that Derek looked worried, he quickly added, “No, just kidding. You were one of the best kids at the tryouts. I’m sure the letter’ll be in your mailbox tomorrow.”
“I sure hope so.”
“It will be!” Vijay proclaimed. “For sure, for sure! I hope you’re on the Tigers too, Derek. That would be so cool!”
“Uh . . . yeah!” Derek said, still worried about not getting his notice in the mail. “Yeah, really cool. Hey, let’s play some ball before it gets dark, huh?”
He started running up the hill, his heart racing and his gut churning. He couldn’t wait for Jeff to hit him a ball so he could get his mind off all the troubling thoughts that were swirling in his brain.