By John Gruber
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It felt like fall, not summer, last night in the northeast. Chilly and damp, dark already by the time the ballgame started just after seven o’clock. Yankee Stadium was sold out. Full house. Electric with anticipation.
For the last 20 years, a game like this — this weather, this place, this team, this crowd, this autumn smell in the air — meant one thing: postseason playoff baseball. Not this game though. Not this year. The Yankees had been eliminated from postseason contention the night before. The electricity came from the fact that this would be Derek Jeter’s last-ever home game. Remarkably, it would be the first and only home game he would ever play, in a 20-year career, where the Yankees had been eliminated from postseason contention. They call such games “meaningless games”, and Derek Jeter had never played one in Yankee Stadium.
And in a sense, it feels like he never did play a meaningless home game, because with the emotions, the crowd, the palpable sense of the ending of an era, there’s just no way that last night’s game could be called “meaningless”. It was clearly the single most meaningful game the Yankees played all season.
The Yankees today aren’t those Yankees from the first decade of Jeter’s career. But I remember those Yankees, the dynasty years, like yesterday. Joe Torre. Paul O’Neill. Tino Martinez. Bernie Williams. Jorge Posada. Andy Pettitte. Mariano Rivera. Of course Jeter would be the last of them to go. Of course.
The game played out well. Jeter slammed a double against the left-center wall in the first inning, so he’d acquitted himself nicely no matter what he did the remainder of the game. The memories flowed. Jeter came to bat in the 7th inning, with the bases loaded and one out. Tie game, 2-2. A broken bat slow grounder that wound up scoring two runs on a throwing error. Not pretty, but effective. Not a bad final at-bat, it felt like. Go-ahead RBI.
And then all too soon came the top of the 9th. Yankees leading 5-2, their outstanding closer, David Robertson, on the mound. This was it. Jeter’s final moments in pinstripes, on the field at shortstop. His entire life, all he ever wanted to be was the shortstop for the New York Yankees. Two long Orioles home runs, though, and it was all different. 5-5 tie game. There would be a bottom of the ninth. And batting third would be Jeter.
Jose Pirela bats first. Single to left. He’s replaced by speed demon Antoan Richardson. Center fielder Brett Gardner bunts, and Richardson moves to second.
One final time, Bob Sheppard’s voice booms through The Stadium. “Now batting for the Yankees, number 2, Derek Jeter. Number 2.”
Winning run on second base. One out. Everyone in The Stadium is standing. I’m standing watching at home. My son, 10, is standing on the couch next to me. The tension is excruciating. First pitch, Jeter jumps on it with his signature inside-out swing. Single to right! Richardson beats the throw to the plate. Yankees win. Yankees win. Pandemonium. My boy jumps off the couch into my arms and we run around the house, hugging, screaming, laughing like the maniacs that we are.
Things like this just aren’t supposed to happen. Real-life endings aren’t like scripted storybook endings. Except with Jeter they so often were. That broken-bat RBI grounder in the 7th was a realistic ending. A spectacular walk-off game-winning single in the bottom of the 9th was not. It felt like the World Series. It felt like the old days.
“This is what it used to be like,” I told my son, “every single year. Something crazy always happened. And then someone for the Yankees always stepped up. Jeter was always in the middle of it. Every year. This is what it was like.”