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'More than just a game': Derek Jeter thanks Yankees, fans in emotional Baseball Hall of Fame speech

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It was one of the smallest crowds in the history of the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony, but no matter the size, the fans were loud, passionate, and, oh, did they ever show their appreciation for New York Yankees great Derek Jeter.

Jeter was the star attraction in a ceremony delayed by a year also honoring Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and the late Marvin Miller, founder of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

The crowd was primarily filled with Yankee fans, wearing their jerseys, T-shirts and caps, frequently chanting, “De-rek Je-ter!"

NBA Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing were on hand to salute Jeter. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson even honored Jeter by wearing a Yankee jersey instead of a sport jacket or suit like everyone else on stage.

The crowd stood and cheered for several minutes before he could even speak, with Jeter finally saying, “I forgot how good that feels.’’

Derek Jeter speaks during the Hall of Fame ceremony on Wednesday.
Derek Jeter speaks during the Hall of Fame ceremony on Wednesday.

Jeter talked about the thrill of sitting for three hours alongside Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson. He talked about being honored and humbled when Hank Aaron walked up to him at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, saying, “I always wanted to meet you.’’

Jeter went onto thank virtually everyone, from his hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., to his trainers, former teammates, fans and the Steinbrenner family.

He talked about the importance of simply going to work every day, playing the game right, having no regrets and taking his dad’s advice: “Keep building that resume and proving the doubters wrong."

Jeter, one vote short of being a unanimous selection, couldn’t help himself, saying: “Thank you baseball writers – all but one of you – who voted for me.’’

It had been two years since the last Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and before the speeches began, there were moving tributes narrated by Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, honoring each of the 10 Hall of Famers who since have since passed away: Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Whitey Ford, Joe Morgan, Phil Niekro, Tommy Lasorda, Don Sutton and Hank Aaron.

Yet, reflective of these times, Bench was absent from the ceremonies for the first time since his induction, testing positive for COVID-19 last week despite having been vaccinated. Many of the Hall of Famers on stage, but not all, wore masks throughout the ceremony. And most of the eldest Hall of Famers, such as Willie Mays, Whitey Herzog, Luis Aparicio, Sandy Koufax, Bill Mazeroski and Brooks Robinson, elected to stay home instead of risking their health.

Simmons, who had to wait all these years before he was inducted, perhaps delivered the most eloquent speech. He even quoted the Beatles to thank his wife, Maryanne: “In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make... We finally got here sweetheart."

Walker easily had the most humorous speech, even before he began, wearing a SpongeBob SquarePants pin on his suit, and taking out his cell phone to shoot video of the crowd before speaking his first words.

He talked about not knowing the rules of baseball growing up in Canada, telling the story of running behind the pitcher’s mound instead of re-touching second base on his way back to first base on a fly ball to the outfield that was caught. He talked about going on social media trying to get into the Hall of Fame with a hashtag, “Fergie needs a friend,’’ and turned around and thanked Fergie Jenkins for being the first Canadian into the Hall of Fame. And joked he about those report cards filled with D’s and F’s.

Simmons thanked those who helped him along the way, including late San Diego Padre executives Kevin Towers and Bill Bryk, while also making sure to honor those who courageously paved the way for free agency: Curt Flood,

Catfish Hunter, Andy Messersmith, and, of course, Marvin Miller.

“Marvin Miller made so much possible for every player,’’ Simmons said. “I could not be more proud to enter this great hall with this great man.’’

Don Fehr, former executive director of the players association, delivered a passionate 23-minute speech for the Miller family, with Miller passing away in 2012, describing the man who every player will forever be indebted.

“He was easily the most practical person I ever saw,’’ Fehr said. “He was quiet, soft spoken, I never heard him raise his voice except to me once or twice in exasperation. Never to players, owners, fans, media or staff. He was polite, thoughtful, deliberate, fiercely and incredibly intelligent, extraordinarily meticulous, well-prepared, incisive and decisive. The man had a an endless reserve of patience."

He talked about Miller’s trust towards the players, which they reciprocated.

“Baseball was not the same after your tenure as it was before,’’ Fehr said, “it was and is much better for everyone. You brought out the best of us, and you did us proud.’’

The 2 ½-hour ceremony ended with Jeter thanking the fans, and delivering a message to the active players.

“This is a game that requires sacrifice and dedication, discipline and focus,’’ Jeter said. “It's a game of failure that teaches you teamwork and teaches you humility. One thread with all of us here on stage that we understand is there's no one individual bigger than the game.

“The game goes on. And it goes on because of the great fans we have. So take care of it. Protect it. Respect it. Don’t take the time you have to play for granted.

"Remember the most important thing, it's more than just a game. The greatest ever to play in the Hall of Fame family – they’re all watching.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Derek Jeter Hall of Fame speech: Yankees SS inducted in Cooperstown