Quick disclaimer for those who enjoy reading about travel on these pages. This post is certainly not about travel (well, technically I did ultimately travel for this event). So, I won’t begrudge you if you turn the figurative page. But, if you decide to hang around for a bit, I hope you’ll leave with a smile.
This story starts and ends in the Bronx. I don’t have an exact start date, though I need to figure that out at some point. I’ll say it was 1980, in the summer. My father and I were sitting underneath the overhang in the second deck. It was raining, but we were mostly dry. It was my first ever Yankees game. They were playing the Kansas City Royals. If my memory serves me correctly, the final score was 14-2. The Yankees were never really in the game. I was hooked forever.
If you’re not a Yankees fan, I won’t bore you with the details of the ensuing 30+ years, but suffice it to say that the last 20 have been pretty sweet.
Fast forward to last night, Derek Jeter’s final home game. Even if you’re not a baseball fan, you likely heard about it. To put the length of his career in perspective, here’s a quote from a recent Sports Illustrated article, written by Tom Verducci:
Jeter played his first game in 1995, two years after the Web browser was introduced; he won his first championship in ’96, the year of the first high-definition broadcast; he was named to his first All-Star Game in ’98, the year Google was founded; he was third in the American League MVP voting in ’99, the year the commercial camera phone was introduced; he won the World Series MVP in 2000, as the Yankees began to form the YES network; he notched his 2,000th hit in 2006, the first season with TMZ and Twitter.
And all he did since then was win another World Series, provide epic drama around his 3,000th hit, all with a level of class not often seen in professional sports.
There were so many reasons I wasn’t supposed to be at the last game. My schedule didn’t fit. The tickets were way too much. I missed two easy opportunities to get tickets at face value and even and seats were going for hundreds of dollars on the secondary market. The Yankees drifted out of playoff contention and the prices drifted down. My schedule changed. It would involve a 5-hour car ride in both directions, but I was going!
The biggest story leading up to the game wasn’t actually about Jeter. It was about Mother Nature. The hourly weather forecast for the day showed a 95% chance of rain every hour, dropping to as low as 60% later in the game. As I embarked on the 5-hour ride to NYC, it was raining hard. Arriving at the stadium, it was still raining lightly. As I walked in and the players took the field, the rains stopped and the sun even peaked out for a few minutes. All the ominous talk of cancellation disappeared, the Yankees Stadium ghosts whipping up just enough wind to keep the rain at bay all night.
The whole game was a ceremony, 48,000 folks packed in to the stadium to honor an outgoing hero. Our starting pitcher quickly gave up 2 home runs to quiet things down, and then we moved on to the bottom of the 1st inning. You could see Jeter struggling with his emotions as he came up to bat in the bottom of the first inning. An aging star criticized for waning defensive and offensive skills, he cranked up another bit of drama by lacing a ball to left center. From where we sat, it looked like it was gone. But, the winds whipping around the stadium kept it just inside, the ball bouncing high up the fence near the 399 foot mark. No matter for us, the celebration of the Captain was well underway.
As the game wore on, the score stayed tied in a defensive struggle. The cheers of “Thank you, Jeter!” and “Thank you, Captain!” grew louder, more urgent. He turned a double-play, whisking to his left, while battling nerves that we would find more about in the post-game press conference. And, in the bottom of the 7th, he came up again in a tied ballgame, bases loaded. A ball hit somewhat sharply in the infield ended up being missed by the 2nd baseman for a potential double-play ball, and all of a sudden the Yankees were winning! 2 RBI and a broken batt hit that resulted in an error. That was good enough for him, and for the screaming fans.
The top of the ninth inning arrived with the Yankees holding a 3 run lead. Our closer took the mound to close things out. After the Yankees got the first out, we began to openly wonder if the manager would pull Jeter from the game. After all, with a 3-run lead, there would be no bottom of the 9th inning. But, there was still more story to write this evening. The closer gave up a walk, then a home run. Now the score was 5-4. He settled down and got the next batter out. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, right before he gave up another home run to tie the game.
Sitting where we were, I had to turn around to see the primary scoreboard and stats. After the game was tied, I turned around to discover that batting 3rd in the bottom of the ninth was…..Jeter. I was at the game with my cousin, Ron, who’s a fellow diehard Yankee. We both shook our heads at the prospect of Jeter coming up to bat with the game tied, possibly his last time ever. What if he got a hit? Would the manager pull him for a last standing ovation? What if we didn’t win the game then?
The leadoff hitter slapped a ball to left-field and ran to first base. He was lifted for a pinch-runner. Our true leadoff, Brett Gardner, was up next and beautifully bunted to sacrifice the runner over to second. Jeter climbed into the batter’s box once more. But, there couldn’t be more drama. Not after The Flip, The Dive, Mr. November. All trains run out of steam eventually, even the magical Jeter, in his last home game in Yankee Stadium after 20 years of defining the word “clutch”.
As it turned out, in his last at bat, the engine did have steam. Rather than build any more drama, Jeter jumped on the first pitch he saw, knocking it in between first and second base, to the outfield, as if to say, “Looking for an ending? I’ve got one”. The throw to home plate would be too late as the runner scored. Jeter rounded first, jumped as high as a 40-year old superhero can, and stood there waiting for the mob of players. That man, who moments before was fighting back tears as the game looked finished in the top of the inning, was now all smiles, celebrating as if the Yankees had just clinched the World Series.
As he was mobbed, it felt that way in the stands. I’ve never felt Yankee Stadium move, but the energy after that hit was the most intense I can ever recall. Everything moved, everything hummed. It was, in a word, electric. As Jeter himself would say earlier, the ghosts of Yankee Stadium had come out one last time to help him.
Jeter hugged all the Yankee greats who had showed up to see him off into retirement. There was Mariano, Andy, Jorge, Tino, Bernie. And, of course, Mr. T (as Derek refers to Torre). There was the picture of Jeter’s nephew, tears streaming down the little boy’s face.
And then, there was just Jeter, walking the infield grass, with a singular purpose. We were a crazed bunch. Amidst all that frenzy, he still had one more item on his list. He walked out to that familiar spot, just to the right and behind 2nd base, and crouched down, silently staring at the ground one last time in the place he called home for thousands of games. I’m not ashamed to admit to some tears before we got this far, but I can’t imagine too many dry eyes in the house as he crouched there collecting his thoughts.
Too quickly, the moment was over as he headed back to the dugout. There were some more hugs and the fans persisted with their chants and cheers, bidding farewell but hoping to hold on for just a few minutes more. We weren’t alone, as Derek decided to come back out to the field and walk the bases one more time, using a towel in a vain attempt to hide his face and the emotions spilling out of him. You could see him mouthing the words “thank you”, tipping his cap, touching his heart. The feeling was mutual.
We would hear later in his post-game press conference that while he respected the game and the Red Sox immensely and would play in the last few games, he had worn his fielding glove for the last time. The memory that he wanted to take from the stadium was playing shortstop there, at home, where the fans always had his back.
One last walk to the dugout, and a last hug shared with Torre before he walked down those stairs for the last time in pinstripes.
As Ron and I walked to the exit, there were still thousands of people in the stadium but it was eerily quiet. We stopped and watched a highlight of the final hit. In the craziness that ensued, we hadn’t actually seen the replay. When it was over, I turned to Ron and said, “It just feels like walking out of here tonight, I feel like I’m leaving something behind.” Ron agreed.
I’ll be a Yankee fan until the day I die. But I don’t know that it will ever be the same.
I was incredibly lucky to be there last night. I can imagine many years from now being that old guy who’s grandkids don’t believe him when he tells them how great # 2 was. It can’t really be true? Yes, it can. Why? I was there to witness it.
Thanks for that, Derek. Thanks for making me believe that you can do things the right way, without drugs or scandal, without cheating. That passion and love of the game mean something.
In short, thanks. I’ll never forget that moment. No, not the game winning hit (though I won’t ever forget that, either). Just that moment, crouching down at shortstop, collecting one last memory.
And making one last memory at the same time.