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The unheralded Yankees who made Derek Jeter’s finale possible

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Jose Pirela and Antoan Richardson were key cogs in the captain’s storybook final play.

Baltimore Orioles v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

While the last decade of Yankees baseball has been relatively light on postseason glory, those lean years did produce an indelible memory: Derek Jeter’s swan song in 2014, punctuated by one last clutch hit that etched an exclamation point at the end of his story.

The hit in question came during the captain’s final game — a first-pitch, opposite-field single in the bottom of the ninth that felled the Baltimore Orioles in front of a delirious Yankee Stadium crowd.

Famous as that moment is, its genesis is often forgotten. While Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, and Joe Torre were waiting in the wings to congratulate Jeter on a career finely played, his game-winner depended upon two unknowns: Jose Pirela and Antoan Richardson, a pair of journeymen who appeared in a mere 57 games in pinstripes combined.

After the Orioles rallied for three runs off of Dave Robertson in the top of the ninth, the Yankees entered the bottom half of the frame with the game knotted at five. Enter Pirela, a utility player who’d debuted in the big leagues just three days prior.

He knocked a leadoff single, and then passed the baton to Richardson, who entered as a pinch-runner. Brett Gardner moved Richardson to second on a sacrifice, setting the stage for Jeter’s big moment — and for Richardson’s ensuing head-first slide to beat Nick Markakis’ throw home.

Richardson made the final major league appearance of his brief career with the Yankees three days later. And while he’s able to count his role in Jeter’s sign-off among his career highlights, it’s not the only achievement he can claim.

Aside from his 13 appearances for New York in 2014, he featured in only nine other major league games, back in 2011 with the Atlanta Braves. The rest of his time as a pro was spent bouncing around the minors.

But after his playing career Richardson, who hails from the Bahamas, made MLB history. While working as a field coordinator and minor league outfield coordinator for the San Francisco Giants in 2019, Richardson received a call to fill in as first base coach for the big league club for a game, making him the first Bahamian to coach in MLB.

That winter he joined the staff of the Giants, the same team that had drafted him in the 35th round back in 2005, on a full-time basis as the team’s first base coach. Whenever play resumes, either this year or next, the new job will present a big league opportunity for a guy whose on-field MLB experience was fleeting.

And though Jeter’s final game signaled the end of Richardson’s playing career, it only marked the first chapter of Pirela’s. After his time with the Yankees, Pirela found his way to the San Diego Padres in 2016. Though he’d proven himself a capable hitter in the minor leagues, slashing .311/.362/.493 in his Triple-A career, his success didn’t translate to the highest level.

His best run in San Diego came during the 2017 season, when he posted a .288/.347/.490 slash line over 83 games, but his production dipped in greater playing time the following year, and he struggled mightily on the basepaths.

In 2019 he was sent to the Phillies, who later released him so he could sign with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp of Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball. The move was serendipitous. While MLB’s attempts to restart the season continue to founder, Japanese baseball — and Pirela — resumed play yesterday.

Whether Pirela ever makes a return stateside or whether Richardson sticks as a coach in San Francisco, both men will have a unique claim – if not to fame, then to a piece of history. Jeter’s big hit is as romantic as baseball gets. But there’s romance in the simple plays that preceded it, as well.

Part of the game’s magic is in its details, which demand not just greatness from titans like Jeter, but timely contributions from unheralded call-ups like Richardson and Pirela. Without much romance in baseball at the moment, now seems as good a time as any to appreciate them.