This article was originally published in The Daily Pulp on September 30, 2014.
In 1998, I was six, Derek Jeter was twenty-four, and Yankee Stadium was still on the south side of 161st street. On a cool May Saturday, I sat midway up left field, often more interested in concessions than the game, and watched the Yankees lose to the Red Sox, due in no small part to a thunderous moonshot by Mo Vaughn. It was my first experience with Derek Jeter, not yet the Captain, and my father’s first home loss of five in a season when the Yankees only lost nineteen times at home.
By Thursday, September 25th, 2014, I was twenty-two, Derek Jeter was forty and the stadium had moved to the north side of 161st. Even though Curt Ramm was there to play the national anthem, hearing his horn echo into the upper decks of Yankee Stadium felt more like taps. The Jeter era spanned nearly two decades, with the fortunes of the Yankees almost mirroring those of the nation as a whole – exuberant in the late nineties, then unmoored, uncertain, punctuated every so often with moments of triumph that left one only more nostalgic for the times gone by. Now, that era was coming to an end on a Thursday night against the Orioles, the last home game in an unremarkable Yankees season.
The game meant nothing to either team. The Orioles had clinched the division the week before, and the Yankees were themselves eliminated from postseason contention the previous night. Despite all that, the evening had a postseason feel to it, a stadium packed all the way to the furthest ends of the upper deck, thunderous cheering, and drama usually found in elimination games. In a way, it was an elimination game – no matter what happened, Derek Jeter would never again don the pinstripes.
But what a final pinstriped showing it was. In a night filled with former teammates, coaches, and fans recollecting their favorite Jeter moments on the centerfield big screen, Jeter himself seemed to be giving us a highlight reel of his career, replete with the jump-throw, clutch hitting, and digging out every single play with the grit and grace that made him the outstanding player he was. In a career filled with storybook moments, this game was perhaps the storybook-iest, with the rain clearing out just before game time, and melodrama better fit for opera. When the Orioles went ahead by two in the 1st with solo homeruns by Markakis and De Aza, Jeter responded with a RBI double and scored himself on a fielding error. With the bases loaded in the 7th, Jeter ground out another infield error, driving in the go-ahead runs. And, of course, with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth, Bob Shepherd’s voice still reverberating for what was the last time, Jeter gave us all a new memory to take home – a classic opposite field inside-out single for the walk off win.
Was it a great game? No. Was it the greatest game I have ever seen? Yes. It was better than all of his Series wins, all the walk offs that came before it, all the imperceptible motifs that made Jeter such a sublime pleasure to watch on the field. It was watching not just Jeter, but a tremendous chapter in Yankees history and baseball legend come to a close – like seeing Lou Gehrig walk off the field for the last time. Jeter was more emotional than I have ever seen him, visibly fidgety even from the upper decks. He acknowledged the fans’ ceaseless chanting every chance he got, and by the time he was taking his victory lap around the infield, he was visibly misty. So were we all.
Derek Jeter was one of those childhood heroes that was as good as you wanted to believe he was. No scandals. No affairs. Never a bad word about his opponents. Never a bad word about his teammates. Derek Jeter represented, as I believe the game of baseball does every year, at all levels “all that was once good, and could be again.” His presence assured us that heroes do exist, and with the world constantly threatening our higher ideals with common and recurrent evil, Derek Jeter, in his own small way, helped to stem the tide. While Jeter will be with us for many years, his career, his legend, now belong to the ages. And what a legend it was.
Cover photo by Casey Camire.