As I sit down to try putting the capstone of Derek Jeter‘s career into words, I am reminded of the words of Roald Dahl: “Those who don’t believe in magic will certainly never find it.”
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What better word is there to describe what happened in the Bronx on Thursday night? After 20 years as the heart and soul of baseball’s most visible franchise, there didn’t seem to be anything left for Derek Jeter to accomplish on the field.
Respect? Have you seen the Nike ads that incorporate his number into the word itself? #RE2PECT
His stirring performance at the All-Star Game this year could have been a as good a final act as any player has ever had. But that wouldn’t quite be enough for Derek Jeter.
There’s no doubt he would have loved to end his career in the postseason, but even the Yankees come up short sometimes. And the final day of the regular season was not in Yankee Stadium but in Fenway Park, where fans would be dutifully appreciative of his accomplishments, but they wouldn’t exactly shower him with love, either. So, it came down — as anyone who could read a schedule could tell you — to his final game in the House that Jeter built on Thursday night.
The Baltimore Orioles had clinched the division title, and the Yankees had been eliminated from the postseason. So there was nothing to play for that counted in the standings, but everything that counted in matters of the heart.
In the words of a song from the musical Damn Yankees, you gotta have heart, miles and miles and miles of heart. And Derek Jeter certainly has that. The fans in New York know it, and they reflect it right back at him. There was no way that his last home game could be anything but memorable.
But the magic almost didn’t show up. It wasn’t until the Yankees David Robertson allowed Baltimore to erase a 5-2 deficit in the ninth inning that things began to take shape. When Jose Pirela singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth, and was sacrificed to second by Brett Gardner, it was as if, in the words of W.P. Kinsella, the cosmic tumblers had fallen into place.
Baseball strategy, on any other night, with any other player coming to bat, dictates that the next hitter be intentionally walked to set up a double play possibility. And if the thought crossed Orioles manager Buck Showalter‘s mind, he decided against it. If he needed the game for playoff purposes, who knows if he would have called for the intentional walk. But this was too much to pass up.
This was likely going to be Jeter’s final Yankee Stadium at-bat, but there was no time for an extended show of emotion from the fans, such as he received at the All-Star Game. Baseball is a game, after all, and there was an outcome still to be decided.
The idea of mounting tension as Jeter fouled a pitch away, or worked the count against Orioles reliever Evan Meek, apparently never occurred to him as he stepped into the batter’s box. He wanted to go for the win, and he got it by inside-outing the first pitch he saw into right field. The improbability of it all has been compared, rightly, to a scripted ending. And yet it was entirely real.
For at least the past decade, we’ve heard complaints that baseball either doesn’t have the big-name stars that football and basketball do, or that MLB doesn’t market their stars effectively. But Thursday night’s game reminds us that baseball’s stars are as bright as they come, and the game itself offers opportunities for heroics that no other sport can match.
I’ll miss Derek Jeter when the baseball season gets underway next year, but he sure left me — and every other baseball fan — with one hell of a farewell performance.