A player fixated on winning for 20 seasons, Jeter walked off the Yankee Stadium field a winner in large part because of what he did: three RBIs, one run and two hits, the second a characteristic opposite-field single delivered in the ninth inning to provide the decisive run in a 6-5 victory against the Orioles.
Jeter hadn't imagined such an ending to his time in the Bronx. Before the Orioles tied the score in the ninth, he had whispered to himself, "Please don't hit it to me." His eyes were leaking, his concentration was compromised. But once home runs by Adam Jones and Steve Pearce inadvertently afforded him another opportunity, the fans wanted one more piece of heroism from their hero. And he wanted to seize the moment. He did.
Think of it: Jeter's final thrust in the home whites of the game's most storied franchise was a game-winning hit. Come on! Seriously? Once again, we are shown that fact can be grander than fiction. A victory and a couple of hits for the captain would have satisfied the assembled multitude Thursday night, would have sufficed for his frenzied public. But as Yogi said, Jeter "exceeded expectations and more."
On the night when New York bid a temporary too-da-loo to the captain, he temporarily erased some of the frustration that has been so thick in the Yankees' clubhouse since they appeared to find life with three victories in four games against the Tigers in mid-July. He brought joy to the Stadium that had been depressed for most of baseball's gun lap month. And the Stadium, filled to the brim, brought tears to his eyes on several occasions before, during and after the game.
Some 48,613 celebrated his every appearance, even the mundane -- a double play initiated by the shortstop, challenged by the opponent and finally approved by the men officiating the game. They cheered with volume and uncommon verve as if the play and game actually mattered, as if the Yankees' misfortune of the previous afternoon could be reversed if only because the captain had put a dot of his DNA on the ground ball that had bounced over second base.
Well before the ninth inning, they had made the Yankees' final home engagement a game of chants only because they knew the expiration date on Jeter's time in pinstripes had arrived. The "Deh-rick Jet-er, Deh-rick Jeter" could have been heard in Kalamazoo, Mich. But unlike other days and nights at Yankee Stadium, the chanting never ended -- not for long, anyway.
Between the top and bottom of the seventh inning, folks in the upper deck beyond third base used the captain's name as a four-syllable mantra; not that the shortstop had done anything noteworthy in the top of the inning, nor was he among the three players scheduled to bat in the bottom half.
It was merely the right thing to do on an extraordinary baseball evening in a borough that had produced more than any city's share of unforgettable baseball moments. This evening ranked up there with the home run nights of the 2001 World Series (see Mr. November), Charlie Hayes squeezing the foul pop in 1996, Aaron Boone's gamer, the perfect games, Yogi's return, the retirement of No. 6 and any of the other remarkable happenings of the past 20 seasons -- Jeter's seasons.
And then, because it was Jeter's night, he did bat in the seventh, and he did contribute to a rally that produced a lead. Astonishing -- isn't it? -- how often he does what needs to be done in moments that, if they are not critical, are at least memorable. "He's like a movie," Joe Girardi said earlier this season. Rated R for remarkable.
And what had he done other than hit a ground ball to his counterpart? (Orioles shortstop J.J. Hardy wears No. 2, too.) But the unseen hand -- Jeter often has referred to the phenomenon as "the ghosts" -- turned Hardy's sidearm flip to second base into an errant throw that reached right field. Teammates advanced, so Jeter had a hand in another Yankees' rally. Of course, he did. He has so often in the past 20 summers and in many of the autumns beginning in 1996.
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Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager turned media man, was in the press box Thursday night. He was working and enjoying himself at the same time, watching the shortstop who had been an obstacle for his Mets teams. Phillips recalled Jeter's flip to catch Jeremy "He didn't slide" Giambi, the courageous but ill-advised leap into the stands against the Red Sox. Etcetera, etcetera.
And the precision relay to the plate in the sixth inning of Game 1 of the 2001 World Series to cut down Timo Perez at the plate. The Yankees won, 4-3, in 12 innings. If the Mets win ... "Who knows?" Phillips said.
The throw, made while Jeter was moving to his right, was merely perfect -- one bounce, on the foul territory side of the third-base line so that the gloved left hand of Jorge Posada could handle it without difficulty. Phillips called it "a Jeter play." The highest possible praise.
"I never hated him," he said. "I wasn't fond of the Yankees for all the grief they caused us. But I never hated Jeter. I respected him. I just recall all he did to make it tougher on us. It always was him, making big plays in big moments. We had a chance to even the Series in Game 4, and he hits a home run leading off the game."
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Choosing Jeter's best play is akin to identifying Sinatra's best recording or De Niro's best movie. His 3,000th hit comes on a home run. The November walk-off. His last at-bat at the Stadium wins a game. And the Giambi flip. And the throw to deny Perez.
We scoffed earlier this season when Robin Ventura, Jeter's teammate in 2002 and '03, suggested the captain was the greatest Yankee ever. Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Yogi and Mantle readily came to mind, and still do. But Jeter so often has done the remarkable -- see Sept. 25, 2014 -- that he cannot be ignored. He's part of the conversation. Isn't he?