One Last Jeter Footprint in the Yankee Stadium Dirt
Just after 6.45 pm ET on Thursday evening, a rainbow arched over a crimson sky above the Bronx, New York. It was a parting gift from the baseball gods: Derek Jeter’s final wish, to play his final home game without a deluge, granted with aplomb.
Ten minutes later, Jeter, smothered in those hallowed, heavy pinstripes and sporting that illustrious, iconic cap, mustered enough strength to hold his emotions at bay and sprint from the first base dugout. He charged towards the most coveted quadrant of dirt anywhere in sports: between second and third base at Yankee Stadium, the captain’s field of dreams.
As fans, we were granted a rare insight into the sweet banality of the game, with television cameras trained solely on Derek as his teammates whirled the ball about the infield in pre-game preparation. The quintessential shortstop scooped a few ground balls, uncorked a few throws, among the last of a storied career spanning two decades and innumerable peaks of drama.
Throughout this marathon farewell tour of platitudes and gifts and eulogies and tokens, Jeter has remained stoic, reserved, and almost distant. He has been thoughtful and focused, taking it all in stride with clarity of thought and trademark poise. However, on this night, this wholly extraordinary night, he seemed to open up, drop the facade, and soak it all in. With his team finally eliminated from postseason contention, Derek could take centre stage without feeling selfish. He enjoyed every moment.
While fielding those pre-game ground balls, Jeter was more animated than usual. He looked up and scanned the seating bowl ensconcing him. He took a moment to admire the sacrosanct frieze and to gaze once more into the bleachers. He took long, exaggerated breaths, kicked at the sleek turf and teetered on the brink of tears.
Right there, prior to this first meaningless home game of his life, the magnitude of the moment finally felt authentic to Derek and to the watching masses. It was really happening. In a matter of hours, he would ride into the night, never again to don the home whites of his beloved team.
Bald Vinny, leading his right field Bleacher Creatures, initated one final roll call, with 48,613 lending their tongues to the lusty pronouncement of “DE-REK JEE-TER!”
Amid the cacophony, Nick Markakis, Baltimore’s leadoff man, lofted a most unwelcome home run into the second deck in right field, reminding all in attendance that an actual game was to be played and pressing home an often torturous season for a Yankee club toiling in the Orioles’ wake. When Alejandro De Aza followed with a long ball of his own, a little air was let out of The House That Jeter Built, on this night crammed with melancholic patrons and bathed in a persistent susurrus of history.
In the bottom of the first, Brett Gardner kickstarted the New York revival with a single, bringing Jeter to the plate for the 12,594th time in his career. He took three straight balls from Kevin Gausman before the big righty hit the outside corner with a fastball. Then, after a throw to check on Gardner at first, Derek got a pitch he liked, lashing a fat 95-mph fastball out on a line towards left-centre field. The ball streamed through the wet air, propelled by a bellowing, howling, disbelieving crowd willing it to get up, get big and get out.
I thought it was gone.
At the last conceivable moment, the ball dived, glancing with a satisfying rip off the outfield wall for a long double that scored Gardner and sent Jeter humming past the immortal Tony Gwynn on that particular all-time list.
When an 0-1 pitch from Gausman to Brian McCann got away from Oriole catcher Caleb Joseph, Jeter, ever conscious of the finer details, advanced to third, inspired by a rolling wave of enthusiasm and good will pouring forth from the grandstand. McCann grounded into a shift yet reached on a Kelly Johnson error, with Jeter sprinting home to score the 1,923rd run of his career. Even in the waning hours, Derek was still compiling, still adding on, still hitting and scoring and making people cheer, regardless of the standings.
In the second inning, Jeter even provided grist for his critics, committing a throwing error on a Johnson grounder. However, on the very next play, he charged hard to field a slow roller behind the mound and, with customary panache, fired a dart to first to nab the runner, Jimmy Paredes.
Baseball is a game of failure and it’s greatest exponents are those able to dust themselves down and react in a humble, fierce and resilient manner. Of that, Derek Jeter was the past master.
Following early nerves, Gausman and Hiroki Kuroda, perhaps hurling his last ever game on American soil, settled into an absorbing duel, trading zeroes through six-and-a-half innings which included, among other things, a Jeter ground out to short and a Jeter strike out evoking a guttural groan from a gathered metropolis. At times, in the quieter moments, one could literally feel the flailing embers of ones childhood drift away. It was a happy moment. It was a sad moment. It was drenched in pathos.
In the seventh, New York loaded the bases for Derek Jeter. How fitting. This felt like The Moment. Derek, attempting to keep his emotions in check and the script on track, didn’t launch a titanic grand slam. Rather, he again grounded to short, where JJ Hardy, among the potential winter replacements for The Captain, threw away the ball, allowing two runs to score, gifting the Yankees a 4-2 lead and granting Jeter another RBI. McCann added a further run with a sacrifice fly, providing New York a 5-2 lead with which to advance to the top of the ninth inning. Derek Jeter’s final inning at home.
David Robertson, perhaps feeling the tension emanating from thousands upon thousands of fans chanting, barking and yearning, lost Markakis to a leadoff walk before striking out De Aza. Then, as the roar of “THANK YOU CAP-TAIN!” grew louder, Adam Jones, immune to pressure, golfed a two-run dinger into the left field seats. 5-4, Yankees.
Robertson struck out Nelson Cruz swinging, bringing the end ever nearer. One out remained. However, these party-pooping Orioles could not be restricted, and Steve Pearce launched a missile of his own, tying the game and receiving only a cursory glance over the shoulder from an exhausted Jeter, resting on his haunches at short. He knew it was gone. He knew he would have to rise one last time to one last New York occasion.
Jose Pirela began the Yankee ninth with a sharp single to left field. Joe Girardi brought in Antoan Richardson to pinch-run. Richardson, I’m proud to inform, represented Great Britain in the last World Baseball Classic qualifiers. He would soon scamper his way into the record books. Gardner bunted the speedster over to second, setting the scene, forming the moment and passing the baton. Derek Jeter did the rest.
For the last time in history, the cashmere voice of Bob Sheppard cut through the New York night. Now batting for the Yankees: number two, Derek Jeter. Number two.
From a crouched position near the Yankee dugout, Derek sprang into life, shot into action and strode to the plate. A shattering applause settled to a respectful, almost mournful hush. Jeter fiddled with the navy guard on his left elbow, dug into the batters box with slow and deliberate care, and fiddled with the brim of his cap. He spun the bat once, twice, thrice, and settled into that familiar old pose. The legs were a little stiffer than in 1995, the posture a little robotic, but the heart and soul were still there.
So was that sweet, scything swing.
On a plump outside breaking ball from Oriole reliever Evan Meek, Derek unleashed a smooth but violent, inside-out hack, the like of which has propelled him into the annals of immortality alongside Pete Rose, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker and the like.
Steered by the force of a thousand New York hearts, the ball grew wings, fluttering past a diving Pearce and rolling into right field. The yell of agreement from Yankee Stadium was immediate. Markakis came up throwing, as all around eyes bulged with kinetic pride. Richardson, the doting Brit, came hurtling around third to score in a blaze of his own excursion. Cue delirium, tears and candid overtones of Sinatra. The Captain had done it again.
In his final plate appearance at Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter came through in the grandest way possible. In his final plate appearance as a shortstop, Derek Jeter, ever the commander of time, rolled back the clock. In his final plate appearance wearing those fabled pinstriped, Derek Jeter won the game. So typically, classically, quintessentially Jeter.
For that one moment of mass jubilation, Derek was a kid again, thrashing about the diamond with fire and life and energy. He was free.
In his final act on familiar ground, Derek Jeter, the princely Yankee icon of our generation, once again proved worthy of his place in that hallowed lineage.
He did it, and he did it right. There cannot be anything more to say.