Hunting for Yankees (Jeter, A-Rod, et al.) in London

I have been down on the Yankees lately. The team’s intransigence has morphed from déjà vu through Groundhog Day to sheer monolithic insanity – 14 years without a World Series title creating an existential crisis on River Avenue. The metronomic rhythm of modern Yankees frustration is enough to drive anyone mad, and the casual insouciance of upstart juggernauts in Cincinnati, Arizona and Miami contrasts with the life-and-death grind of pinstriped exceptionalism.

Every once in a while, it can be fun to escape the Bronx pressure cooker and watch mercurial talent bloom in more carefree environments. I even explored the concept of fluid fandom earlier this season, doubting the tribal conclusions of binary Yankees fanaticism contained in Conflict, my 2020 baseball memoir. Then Derek Jeter and friends came to London, and everything clicked back into place. Then I met my heroes, and everything made sense. Then I lived my childhood dreams, and fate took care of the rest.

MLB London 2023 – training day and Trafalgar Square

I came into the weekend expecting to simply enjoy an intriguing two-game series between the St Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs with Patrycja (Pati), my fiancée. The only ex-Yankee on show figured to be Mike Tauchman, currently hitting leadoff for the Cubs, so I left my interlocking NY cap and Jeter shirsey at home. I was just happy to savour the first baseball games in my homeland since 2019. Any MLB action in London was a pipedream as I grew up, and the novel excitement never dies. I never take these weekends for granted, and they always feel like a surreal fantasy.

Upon arriving in London on Friday afternoon, Pati and I headed straight to the London Stadium, where the Cubs and Cardinals held a ticketed workout day. While watching both teams complete drills in the glaring sunshine, we managed to snare signed baseballs from Christopher Morel, Miles Mikolas, Adbert Alzolay and Team USA head coach Mark DeRosa, who interacted with fans long after his MLB Network duties were over. It was cool to see such esteemed baseball dignitaries spare time for their international admirers.

That ambassadorial spirit continued on Friday evening in Trafalgar Square, commandeered by MLB for the entire weekend. A virtual reality home run derby featured hybrid teams of former ballplayers and emergent influencers, while myriad exhibits and attractions lured newcomers to America’s pastime. I added signed baseballs from Hanley Ramírez and David Eckstein to my nascent collection, but the highlight of our Trafalgar Square visit was meeting Nick Swisher, a World Series champion with the 2009 Yankees.

Ryan Ferguson, Yankees blogger, with Nick Swisher

 

All the reports on Swisher are true; you could not wish for a more approachable, energetic and enthusiastic envoy to grow baseball overseas. I was starstruck, in all honesty. Meanwhile, as Nick signed my baseball, Pati asked him about Jeter, a former Yankees teammate also due in London to make his broadcasting debut with Fox. “It would be great to have a ball signed by you both,” said Pati. “No shit,” joked Nick. “I’d take one of those, too!”

Searching for Derek Jeter, A-Rod and David Ortiz in London

Jeter is my ultimate hero, of course. Of all living humans, he would be my first pick for a fantasy dinner party. I wore out a Jeter model PL158C Rawlings glove as a kid, pretending to be The Captain on the Wirral council estate I called home – 3,300 miles from the Bronx. I chronicled Jeter’s farewell tour as a raw teenaged blogger, crying at the emotional majesty of his final Yankee Stadium walk-off. I continue to collect Jeter cards, books and regalia, and even wore my #2 shirsey to the Coliseum in Rome, spreading the gospel through Europe. Derek will always be my definitive Yankee, just as Baby Boomers had Mickey Mantle and Gen Z-ers currently have Aaron Judge. Nobody compares to Jeter in my mind.

Yankees blogger Ryan Ferguson

Yankees blogger Ryan Ferguson, Derek Jeter Rome Coliseum


Alas, growing up in working class England, I doubted the prospect of ever being in the same country as Derek Jeter, let alone the same city, street or building. There was a certain mystical distance between Jeter and I – the kind of epistemic chasm upon which all gods rely. However, this weekend, aged 28, I finally closed that chasm. Derek and I were in the same city, albeit with nine million others, and the notion of seeing him in the flesh loomed as a tantalising possibility. In fact, as the weekend progressed, meeting Jeter became my primary objective – my inner kid yearning to amend a childhood of baseball depravation.

Our search began on Saturday morning at a pub in Westminster frequented by Jeter, along with fellow Fox analysts Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz, the day before. Pati used her internet sleuthing skills to find an Instagram post from A-Rod outside the pub, and we ventured there while sightseeing in the stifling heat. According to the local bartender, the trio asked to record a Fox segment inside the pub, only to be rejected due to a lack of prior permission. I was shocked. Did those in charge of the establishment know they were serving three of the greatest baseball players of all-time, with nine World Series rings and 38 All-Star Game appearances between them? Probably not, but such is life in our comparative baseball backwater. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.

By that point, I had to acknowledge the elephant in the room – or, perhaps more accurately, the elephant on my head. Sure, I like the Cubs, but I love the Yankees. I cannot help it. The emotion just hits differently. I experienced a sudden urge to wear my default Yankees cap, necessitating a trip to JD Sports on Oxford Street. Pati has long lobbied for a black-on-black Yankees cap to join the growing collection, and this was the ideal opportunity to buy it. The hat just felt right, and it increased my odds of interacting with former Yankees roaming the London labyrinth – a trick from the Zack Hample playbook.

Indeed, upon entering the stadium for game one, it did not take long for a former Yankee to appear. Not just any Yankee, either. The divisive Rodriguez, no less. Some love him, many hate him, but all acknowledge his preternatural talent and its rank in the sacred pantheon of baseball immortals. The veracity of A-Rod’s greatness is a debate for another day, but that greatness happened, and it dominated baseball as I came of age. Empirically, perhaps only Barry Bonds and Mike Trout usurp A-Rod for production during my two decades as a baseball fan, so seeing him up close – striding towards me in a crisp suit and aviator shades – was a big deal. I almost managed to grab A-Rod’s attention, but he strolled to the Fox desk in foul territory. Ortiz followed soon thereafter, waving as he went, then came Jeter, dressed immaculately in a sharp grey suit. I could barely believe my eyes. 

Derek looked ever so slightly anxious ahead of his Fox debut. A natural introvert, Jeter came up trumps in so many huge moments throughout his playing career, but broadcasting is still new to him, so pre-game nerves were inevitable. Derek looked a little antsy en route to the Fox desk, motioning to fans that he would sign autographs afterwards. I respected that, because athletes do not owe autographs to fans, contrary to popular opinion. These guys have jobs to do, and they cannot honour every request. Simply being a few feet from Jeter – looking into those icy green eyes – stunned me. It was enough to breathe the same air as my far-flung idol. Anything else was a bonus.

MLB London 2023 Game 1 – Cubs beat Cardinals, 9-1

While the Fox show, anchored by Kevin Burkhardt, unfurled before us, a procession of former big leaguers milled about in right field – from CC Sabathia and Dellin Betances to Jimmy Rollins, Raúl Ibañez, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins. Many of the players tipped their caps to Jeter in a fine mark of respect. Then, at one point, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred corralled the group for an epochal photograph, and it was terrific to see such effort poured into the London games.

I nabbed Rollins and Betances for autographs as they headed back into the stadium bowels. It was a buzz to see these demagogic figures – mere pixelated figments of my MLB TV subscription back home – brought to life before me. Yes, I was 13 when Rollins won the National League MVP award in 2007, but meeting him never seemed possible back then, so please excuse my fanboy wanderings despite my advancing age. Baseball keeps us young, after all. That is its eternal promise. 

Jimmy Rollins signed baseball

I missed Jeter again as he made a beeline for the dressing room, but settled in to watch a compelling ballgame. Adam Wainwright, another relic of my baseball emergence, started for the Cardinals, whose lacklustre season continued in London. The Cubs got to Wainwright early and often, knocking him out in the fourth inning. Chicago won a laugher, 9-1, and another bucket list item was ticked off as fans waved their iconic ‘W’ flags while singing Go Cubs Go, the Wrigleyville victory song. I was slightly preoccupied by that point, though, in the hallucinogenic afterglow of my dream encounter with Derek. Yes, it finally happened.

Derek Jeter signed baseball

Pati knows how much I idolise Jeter, and admiration for him and the Yankees has become a shared passion. Our wedding is scheduled for March 2024, and though I’m not the type for lavish spending or random extravagance, Pati vowed to buy me a signed Jeter baseball in lieu of an expensive watch or vintage champagne to mark the occasion. It has become a running joke between us, but knowing Pati, she probably had every intention of buying a Jeter ball online. Such a purchase is no longer necessary, though, because Derek signed a baseball especially for us. Well, especially for Pati, of the 54,662 fans in attendance, and Pati gifted the ball to me. I cannot compute the sheer improbability of that happening.

Receiving a baseball signed by Derek Jeter is miraculous in the abstract, but the means by which Pati procured it were ingenious. In the middle innings, Pati grabbed some food and returned with a giant box of popcorn – the only snack vaguely aligned with my gluten-free diet. Once we despatched the contents, Pati transformed the popcorn box into a handwritten sign using a Sharpie found in her bag. Addressed to Derek, the sign asked if he would please sign a baseball for her future husband. Those sat nearby sniggered as Pati prepared the sign, but she had the last laugh when Derek read it while lingering near the field awaiting the final out before his Fox post-game duties.

Lurching out of my seat as Pati shrieked, I saw Derek read the sign, nod subtly, change his stride and motion for the baseball. Pati provided a pristine ball and the aforementioned Sharpie, which Derek took in his hands and scrawled that sacrosanct scribble across the sweet spot. He handed the ball back, and I thanked him profusely, blubbering like a wreck. “No problem, buddy,” said Derek, as I fought for consciousness. A surfeit of clarity was unlocked in that moment, an age of Yankees fandom instantly reaffirmed, allowing me to breathe a huge sigh of relief. This is why I adore the Yankees, because no other team produces immortals quite so worthy of worship.

When Pati passed the baseball to me, and I raised it in the air, our entire section erupted with applause, high-fives and happy smiles. Those who previously frowned suddenly asked for pictures of the ball, which I cradled with shaking hands, careful not to smudge the sacred signature. One nearby family of Cubs fans, over for the weekend from Chicago, asked to take a photo of Pati and I, along with the sign and baseball. We duly obliged, and the photo was sent to Pati via WhatsApp. I will treasure it, and everything in it, until the day I die.

Yankees blogger Ryan Ferguson, Derek Jeter signed baseball

Pati and I floated back to our hotel room in a state of complete bewilderment. I could not process what had occurred. After all those years worshipping Derek Jeter in the wilderness, watching him lead the Yankees in the depths of British night, I finally met him. Even more incredibly, he signed a baseball for me – a notion I could barely dream of mere seconds before it happened. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, and I barely slept that night. Tiredness could not touch me, though – I was too overjoyed. And when morning broke over sunny north London, I raced to the MLB superstore to buy a UV-protected display case for the baseball, which Pati protected like the crown jewels.

Alex Rodriguez signed baseball

Incredibly, the weekend became even more surreal during game two on Sunday. Out of sheer curiosity, I took a walk around the stadium during the middle innings, venturing towards the second deck behind home plate to glimpse a beautiful vista of the full field. I tiptoed down a nondescript exit ramp towards the field and emerged into the resplendent sunlight. Looking to my left, less than six feet away, I spied A-Rod and Michael Kay, broadcasting live for ESPN. A solitary usher patrolled the section, oblivious to the VIPs in their domain.

My heart thumped out of my chest, and I gathered my thoughts on the concourse before mustering the courage to ask A-Rod for an autograph. Peeking at the diamond, I waited for the third out of the inning so as not to interfere with the broadcast. I knew this was a taboo – bordering on creepy – move, and part of me thought about returning to my seat. However, the kid in me prevailed and, seeing a commercial break rolling on the small monitor near A-Rod, I took my shot.

If Alex told me to fuck off, I would have understood, but he nodded, took the baseball from me, signed it, and handed it back in one sweeping motion. I thanked him profusely, extending my hands as if in prayer, but the broadcasting headset muffled my pleas of gratitude, so I scarpered back to my seat shaking. Undoubtedly, I crossed some sort of line, and rationality eluded me in that moment, but I had to take the chance. Only British baseball nuts will understand. This was for them – so often shunned, so repeatedly isolated, yet suddenly caught amid a dream. I would do it all again in a heartbeat. 

Derek Jeter signed baseball, Alex Rodriguez signed baseball

MLB London 2023 – final thoughts

St Louis won game two, 7-5, before 55,565, earning a split that did little to help either team. I bought another display case for the A-Rod ball and mansplained the irony of Pati carrying signed Jeter and Rodriguez memorabilia side-by-side in her handbag. We returned home safely on Monday, precious cargo intact, and arranged our weekend wares. A safe was purchased, and white gloves. Rarely will those baseballs be removed from safe hiding, and there is already talk of preparing a will to ensure they stay in the family. For all the talk of collectible valuations and opportunistic traders, I would never sell those baseballs. They are now treasured heirlooms, and no fee could prise them from my grasp. 

Indeed, for years, marooned far from the baseball hotbed, I had no such ties – familial, geographical, historical – to any MLB team. The Yankees have repeatedly filled that void – from gifts and autographs to serendipitous meetings and symbolic gestures. It is fate, ultimately. I’m just meant to root for the Yankees. Winning has little to do with it, and authentic connection has everything to do with it. Sure, I’m still intrigued by many sports teams, but the Yankees rest in a different echelon altogether. They transcend my fandom and represent a loftier mission. My faith has been restored, and it will never be shaken again. Oh, and they honeymoon? Pati and I are going to watch the Yankees in New York. We may even pay a visit to Derek. We are buddies, after all. Let that never be forgotten.


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