"Just panic! I called in and said, 'I think I'm in trouble,'" Sterling recalled, with a chuckle. "If you can't get across the bridge, what are you going to do? My car is not amphibious. It stayed that way for 10 or 15 minutes. I don't have any idea why. I was supposed to be on the field!
"But I made it, easy."
Of course he did. Sterling's distinctive baritone has boomed out of radio speakers around the Tri-State Area for every Yanks game since 1989, a terrific run that he attributes to his continuing passion for the job, as well as a batch of good genes.
"He's never missed a day?" Jeter said. "Wow. That's pretty good. He's probably tired of seeing me, too."
That's hardly true. As Jeter winds down the final days of his career, Sterling and broadcast companion Suzyn Waldman say they feel fortunate to have tracked each step of Jeter's ascension from rookie shortstop to team captain and five-time World Series champion.
Dates with Monument Park and eventually the National Baseball Hall of Fame are imminent, and Jeter's highlights have been on a consistent loop all season on scoreboards across the country. But Sterling and Waldman prefer to reflect upon the Jeter they saw when the cameras were trained elsewhere, including his private interactions with his parents, Charles and Dorothy.
"When I think of Derek Jeter, it's not the flip play and all that stuff," Waldman said. "It's that in '96, Dr. Charles and Dottie, one went with Derek to the playoffs, and one went with [Jeter's sister] Sharlee, because Sharlee was in a high school softball tournament. It was just as important for Sharlee to be in Michigan as it was for their son to be with the New York Yankees in the playoffs.
"I remember coming off the field in '98, they all had cigars," continued Waldman, who has covered the Yanks as a broadcaster or reporter for the last 28 years. "I remember Dorothy saying, 'Derek! That cigar!' And he went, 'Aw, ma!'
"I can't think of Derek without thinking of that family. It all makes so much sense."
Jeter was asked if anyone else might be able to claim the complete set of his big league service. Jeter's parents immediately popped into mind, but even they haven't attended each game in person.
"I'm sure my parents probably would've seen most of them," Jeter said. "Even when they're traveling, they'll check up, but I don't know if they've seen every one on television -- every single game."
So unless further evidence presents itself, we'll credit Sterling as the one and only to be in the building for every game. What he has seen, Sterling said, is Jeter's progression into a worthy ambassador and statesman for the game.
"He's just done that by doing what he can do every single day," Sterling said. "He's never taken a step back. It's something you can't plan to do, you have to do it on a daily basis. He stayed on the field. We're seeing how rare that is, staying on the field.
"You name something, he's done it -- and done it right, too. He's gone on from there to have this phenomenal career. We know that he's got [3,460] hits; that's a lot of hits. But he just did it by being consistently terrific all the time."
Sterling said that he first met Jeter in 1992, when the Yankees shuffled their first-round Draft pick up to the press level at the old Stadium. Sterling and Michael Kay peppered the kid with a few questions and received polite responses, but Jeter didn't make waves -- a sign of things to come with his media dealings.
Sterling said that it wasn't until 1996 that he saw something special begin to materialize.
"He had that first game in Cleveland [on April 2, 1996, when he hit a home run], and then I started noticing something, which is so Jeter," Sterling said. "He was a captain without a portfolio. I saw him, the first one out of the dugout to greet someone who hit a home run or scored a big run. He had leadership in him."
Jeter's focus has always been on the championships. Waldman recalls standing near Jeter's locker after the six-game 2003 World Series loss to the Marlins and being incredulous that he had declared the year to be a failure.
With that in mind, Waldman believes this season has been difficult on several levels for Jeter, given the increased attention on one player while the team fights for its playoff life.
"He'd never admit it, but I think he's largely uncomfortable with all this," Waldman said. "I think he's overwhelmed with what has happened. He's enjoying it, but I think he's uncomfortable with it."
This long goodbye, as Joe Torre told Jeter back in February, was always going to be more of an opportunity for the fans to offer their gratitude. There is no better evidence of that impact, Sterling said, than the ovations that Jeter has received on the road this year.
"They've adopted him," Sterling said. "I think they can see that this guy is not only talented, but works hard and is all about team. I think all those things play into the respect and adulation he has received, not just in New York but all over the country. He's the same way off the field. He's such a great example."