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“Derek Jeter picked it for me,” exclaimed Leon Clarke Jr., 24, dressed in a black, fitted suit from DKNY. He had just stepped out of a room filled with an assemblage of blazers, trousers, shirts and ties in a medley of colors and prints, having been styled by none other than the Yankees star. “He literally measured my neck and shoulders, asking if I work out. He’s so down-to-earth — taller than what I had expected.”
Clarke was giddy as he walked out of the small room, before declaring it was “by far the best day” of his life.
Not many men get the opportunity to have Derek “The Captain” Jeter personally pick out a suit and carefully measure his neck and chest as he playfully shouts, “Flex, flex!” with a tape measure in hand.
The Brooklyn-based Clarke was one of a group of six chosen by Career Gear — an organization that provides professional clothing, mentoring and life skills to men in need — and the Yankees’ Hope Week to be recognized for contributions to their communities through empowering and mentoring other men. The Yankees later donated $10,000 to Career Gear while DKNY, a longtime sponsor of the team, helped host Tuesday’s event.
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The six men — clad in gray Hope Week T-shirts — had trekked to the Career Gear offices in lower Manhattan to hear they were being honored. They were oblivious to the fact that they would also meet members of the Yankees, as well as Jenny Steinbrenner, daughter of the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who later handed the organization a $10,000 check.
The occasion was the start of the Yankees’ sixth annual Hope Week, one that aims to give back to the community through various outreach programs. In the past, the team has worked with organizations like the Daniel’s Music Foundation, which helps disabled men, women and children receive free therapeutic music instruction. In 2010, Hope Week honored Mohamed Kamara, who less than 10 years ago was struggling to provide food for his family in war-torn Sierra Leone, and helped secure him a paid internship with the New York Stock Exchange for the summer of 2011.
On Tuesday, while cameras clicked, each of the six men sat quietly in a half-circle, unaware of what was going on.
“I feel like a star,” Rodney Gordon said. Once incarcerated, the 55-year-old resident of East New York now volunteers with Career Gear, which gave him his first nice suit.
“I honestly came here a few years back, and I was just actually coming back from being in incarceration, going on an interview and was looking for a suit,” Gordon said. “Eventually this place became extended family for me. Aside from the suit they helped me get a job at the Samaritan Village. Now I’m volunteering here and am an intern, letting other people learn from my experiences.”
Sitting next to him was Dion Thompson, 48, who has had a history of substance abuse. Through Career Gear he was able to secure a job at Daytop, a substance abuse center. “I remember my first suit they gave me,” he said. “Brooks Brothers. Pin-striped. Changed my life.”
Minutes later, their eyes lit up and their smiles widened as they glimpsed not only Jeter walking toward them, but also Yankees players Hiroki Kuroda, Brian Roberts, Jacoby Ellsbury and Alfonso Soriano.
For the day, the players traded in their suits or Yankees uniforms for matching gray Hope Week Ts to be in unison with the men they were to meet. “Hey guys! Good meeting you,” Jeter said, shaking each of the men’s hands.
Each of the players took a seat next to the men, who quickly introduced themselves. One, Coss Marte, admitted going from making $2 million a year as a drug kingpin and later serving four years in prison to now creating a positive “prison-based” workout program.
“I was 240 pounds and lost 70 in six months,” he said. “I had no clothing that fit and came to Career Gear seeking a new suit. I left that day, transforming my illegal hustle to something positive.”
“I just want to say I feel like crying,” Norman Gaye said, misty-eyed. He said he grew up in the Bronx, adding, “I used to walk to Yankee Stadium and watch batting practices with [players] like Joe Pepitone, Tony Kubek, Yogi Berra, and now I see you guys in person. It’s a moment for me. I have a history of drug abuse, homelessness, but now, through this organization, I can finally get my life back around.”
Their lives would be enhanced now with their new suits, elevated by the experience of having five of the players pick out their suits from DKNY. One-by-one the men sauntered into a fitting room with each of the players.
“Hey, this looks like it’ll fit,” Roberts said to one of the men, handing him a blazer.
“Let me measure your neck,” Soriano offered, talking like a tailor.
“You work out, man?” Jeter asked.
“Jeter, you gotta get his tie — tie him up,” Roberts shouted.
“It’s crazy how many guys on our own team don’t know how to tie a tie, and I’m not just talking about the rookies,” said Jason Zillo, the press officer for the Yankees.
It was obvious that pulling the clothes was the extent of what the baseball players were able to do.
For professional fittings, the men rushed over to Margarette Sampson, Donna Karan’s personal patternmaker. She spruced the men’s looks for the cameras in a frenzied five minutes.
“Stress? No. I’ve worked for Donna Karan for 31 years,” she said.
A few minutes later, Gordon walked out of the dressing room clad in his fitted suit. He spoke to Jeter for a few moments.
“You know, my cousin, George Brown Jr., was a batboy for the Yankees. I asked Jeter if he remembered him, and of course he did,” he said. “Jeter actually helped pay for him to get his education a few years back. He asked how he was doing, and I told him because of him he’s still patrolling the stadium.”
“Yeah, George,” Jeter confirmed. “He was a batboy with us for a long time. It was probably around 10 years ago. Now he’s a police officer running around the stadium.”
Asked if it was because of his help, Jeter replied, “I don’t know about that. If he wants to tell that story, he can tell that story. I’m glad he’s doing well.”