Jeter’s Grand Finale

This may not have exactly been the ending the Derek Jeter wanted. For 20 years, he prided himself in helping the Yankees win championships. For all the individual statistics and accolades (all well-deserved), he started every season with the goal of raising the World Series trophy 7 months later. His post-game remarks on Wednesday, following the 9-5 loss to Baltimore that eliminated the Yankees from the playoffs, spoke of the disappointment about his season ending in September. After 20 years, Jeter still was ever-focused on winning, speaking with the bitter resentment that a 28th championship had eluded his team this year. All season, Jeter received honors and gifts signifying the end of a remarkable career, but there was still baseball to be played and games to be won. This season, just like his first or tenth, was about winning championships.

That part of the story didn’t quite pan out. Jeter will end his career with two years of injuries and missed postseasons, a far cry from the many championships that highlighted his early years. There would be no “Win one for the Captain” this year, no ticker-tape parade, no MVP-type numbers, no final championship to share with his teammates. His numbers declined, and his critics whined. There was chatter about whether he should be batting second or fielding shortstop. It didn’t matter, Jeter was going to play anyway. Day in and day out, Derek Jeter approached each game with the same dedication and pride that he has showcased for 20 years; he played the game the way it was supposed to be. Every team that honored Jeter recognized the impact he has had on the game. They were not just acknowledging one of the best players of all-time; they were also thanking a man who honored and appreciated the game of baseball, who worked hard to succeed and served as a role model for players and young fans. Whether he will admit this or not, the emotional effect of this season certainly affected Jeter. Not many players can fully dictate the manner at which they depart the game; even fewer can expect to receive such gratitude from fans across the globe. The past month became a storm of Jeter-mania, with players and fans scrambling to hang onto each memory, to be a part of a story that, for many, is ending far too soon. This week we were treated to another curtain call, when Jeter broke out of a late-season slump and hit .353 during his last homestand, including his first and only home run at Yankee Stadium this year. All of New York geared up for the final game in Jeter’s House. Ticket prices shot through the upper-deck; the rain forecast magically missed the Bronx, and Jeter took the field for what would undoubtedly be an emotional final game. On the field though, the game seemed largely a formality. The Yankees were out of the playoffs; the Orioles had already clinched the division. Injuries had hit the normal New York lineup, and Baltimore was already looking ahead to the postseason. Of course we expected a hit or two, or maybe a jump throw from the left side of the infield. But beyond that?

Another Yankees storyline of the season, David Robertson had inherited the very unenviable task of following the irreplaceable Mariano Rivera in his role as the Yankees closer. The New York bullpen, although solid for most of the year, had given up some close games of late. Yet with the Yankees leading 5-2 after eight innings, few in the stands believed that Thursday’s game would go to the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees would at least guarantee another winning season. Derek Jeter would leave the field for the last time, while enjoying another win, and fans would begin to say goodbye. The stage was set for an ordinary finale…but we should have known better. In what will be considered the best blown save in Yankees history, two deep home runs to left field inexplicably tied the game. Joe Girardi (who luckily had not removed Jeter from the field for a farewell in the top half of the inning) turned to his lineup, where of course Jeter was due up third. A single and sacrifice bunt brought Jeter to the plate for the fifth time that evening, this time with the winning run in scoring position. Great players find themselves in pressure situations, the true champions always rise to the occasion. Any fan calm enough to take in the moment saw Jeter step up to the plate the same way he has done over 11,000 times: the way he adjusts his helmet and raises his hand in the air before glancing toward the pitcher and waiting for the ball. His inside-out swing lashed at the first pitch, as it has done so many times, and suddenly Derek Jeter was 22 again. The fans saw the same young shortstop that burst on the scene as Rookie of the Year and hadn’t stopped working to improve his game. We recognized the boyish charm of the the world champion who hoisted the trophy so many time. In an instant, the ball lept off the same P72 bat into right field, and we could relive 20 years of Derek Jeter’s greatness. Was there any other moment that could fully capture the magic of such a career? The throw from the outfield was a second too late; Richardson ran just fast enough to dive across the plate; the umpire was ruling it safe at home. Now Jeter was raising his arms in the air and mobbed by his teammates. He saw Andy, Jorge, Mariano, and Joe, with whom he shared so much of his career. He found his family, who were instrumental in his success as a player and as a person. And all the while, looking on the from opposite dugout was Buck Showalter, Jeter’s first manager who made sure the future captain wore #2.

In true fashion, he saved one his best moments for the end. Derek Jeter ended his career the same way it began: with perseverance, honor, class, joy, and victory. All Derek Jeter ever wanted was to play shortstop for the New York Yankees. In his final game at Yankee Stadium, he showed us just how much the privilege of being that Yankee shortstop meant to him: helping his team win, and becoming a champion the right way. Not a bad ending at all. A perfect finale. AN

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