The home team trailed 5-3 on a sunny day in the Bronx. The bases were loaded.
An initially slow, warm ovation quickly crescendoed into a loud fervor as the captain stepped to the plate. It lingered as he touched his bat to home plate and held his right hand up to the umpire, awaiting his first pitch from reliever Shawn Camp.
It may have been obvious long before to many Yankee fans, but at that particular moment, sitting in the upper deck behind the Yankee dugout with my mom, it struck me: This is Derek Jeter’s team now, and nothing could stop him from making his charge into history as one of the greatest Yankees ever.
Tino Martinez and Bernie Williams wrapped up their careers in 2005 and 2006, respectively. Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius and other Joe Torre dynasty mainstays were long gone.
Jeter was no longer the kid he was on those championship teams of the late nineties. At age 32 on Opening Day in ‘07, entering his twelfth full season in the majors, he ascended to veteran leader.
His ovation as he came to bat during this pivotal moment in the sixth inning reminded me of the scene in 61* where Mickey Mantle, hobbled by injuries, stepped to the plate to a louder-than-usual cheer from the crowd. Mantle was their guy, and they wanted him to keep pace with Roger Maris in the chase for Ruth’s home run record. That’s why the fans filled the seats back then, to see the Mick hit home runs.
All these years later, Jeter was our guy, and we came to the very same (renovated) stadium to see what kind of clutch, game-changing moment he would deliver next.
He lined a single up the middle to tie the game, an eventual 9-5 Yankee win.
I was seven when Jeter, a 21-year-old rookie, threw his arms into the air a split second before a foul pop up settled into the glove of third baseman Charlie Hayes for the final out of the 1996 World Series.
I was 11 when it felt like Jeter, with one swing, sealed the 2000 World Series with a leadoff home run on the first pitch of Game 4. The Mets, trailing the series 2-1 after winning game 3, seemed poised to tie the series at Shea Stadium before that first pitch shifted momentum back toward the Bronx.
I was 22 and driving in my car with my dad in the passenger seat, listening to John Sterling on the radio, when Jeter hit a 3-2 pitch off Tampa Bay’s David Price to join the 3,000 hit club.
Derek Jeter has scattered so many memorable moments throughout the timeline of my entire life that it’s hard to believe there won’t be any more … on the baseball field, anyway.
The older I got, the more I realized there was more to Derek Jeter than baseball.
He asked the Yankees not to tell the press when the team would volunteer to help in the aftermath of 9/11, because he didn't want the spotlight on the Yankees while so many suffered, physically and emotionally. He never asked if his family or friends could visit the Yankee clubhouse, but did make that request for a kid with cancer. Just a few of many examples of the type of character he demonstrated off the field. And we’ll probably hear plenty about Jeter’s endeavors off the field as he moves forward with his life, even though they may not be as thrilling as the moments he created wearing the pinstripes.
Jeter maintained an immaculate image and reputation in a city that doesn’t love exalting its heroes quite as much as it loves tearing them down. And yet, when you skim through a list of his past girlfriends, he didn’t deprive himself of the off-the-field lifestyle fitting of the greatest New York sports figure of a generation either.
I was 24 when Jeter announced his retirement on an unassuming February 2014 day.
Somehow it was different than finding out about the retirement of Mariano Rivera, a Yankee hero of comparable stature. Mo hinted at retirement before the 2012 season. Then he suffered a season-ending injury in May that year, followed by an announcement he would be back to play one more season in 2013. Rivera’s retirement was akin to finding out your friend is terminal, but has some more time left before you have to say goodbye. Yankee fans had a chance, beginning about two years before he played his last game, to ease into the idea of life after the greatest closer of all time.
Jeter’s announcement of his retirement, on the other hand, came very unexpectedly via his Facebook page. Hearing the news felt like finding out your friend was hit by a bus. It was unexpected and, despite his age, seemed just a little premature. Watching his final season would be like holding that friend’s hand as he lay in the street, spending a little more precious time before it would all be over.
When I played for my town’s recreational baseball league’s all-star team in 7th grade, I chose my jersey last. Numbers 2 and 7 were the only ones left.
Mantle was number 7, my dad reminded me, trying to sway my decision.
But Derek Jeter is 2, I replied.
He had Mantle. I had Jeter. I’ll enjoy watching the next great Yankee as much as my dad enjoyed watching Jeter, but nothing compares to growing up alongside the career of that one unforgettable player the Yankees manage to produce every generation.
So thank you, Derek Jeter, for providing so many memorable moments and every reason to watch the Yankees every day from April through the early days of November.