Let’s get one thing straight, right from the start: There was an actual scripted ending to all of this. Before the unexpected, game-winning hit in his final at-bat, and the celebration, and the emotions and Derek Jeter crying all over the field, the Yankees really, truly had a proper send-off planned.
The surprise, hatched by longtime equipment manager Rob Cucuzza, was this: When the game ended and the Yankees won, Jeter’s teammates were going to send him on a victory lap around Yankee Stadium, letting him thank the fans who spent the last 20 years with him.
Then, as Jeter would be coming down the third-base side of the stadium, he was supposed to be greeted by his five former brothers in pinstripes –Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, joined by their former manager, Joe Torre – who would take him from this world to the next.
“They were going to let him walk off into the tunnel,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi revealed after all was said and done. “Basically say: ‘It’s time to join us.'”
And Derek Jeter would walk off into that place where revered athletes go to live forever, fully content about his final night in the Bronx. About his final night in the field being blemished by a throwing error. About his final line in the box score being 1-for-4 with two runs batted in. About his final at-bat in a Yankee uniform being a broken-bat, sure-thing double-play ball that turned into an error by the Baltimore Orioles shortstop.
Jeter was at peace with all of this. He braced himself for the emotions, the holding back of tears and trying to – his words here – trick himself that this was just game No. 159 of 162.
So that planned send-off hung out there all night, right next to the Yankees’ three-run lead, everyone knowing about it except for Jeter himself. The quintet of his former teammates lurking near the batting cages along with their former manager during the final inning, ready to emerge. This was going to be great. A moment to remember.
And then Derek Jeter decided that if he was crossing over to the other side, he had one more magical moment left in him.
“As the ninth inning is happening, we were saying, ‘You know how this is going to end, right?'” Pettitte chuckled later. “He’s special, man. Special players do special things like this.”
Richard Gere – yes, that Richard Gere – was staring out into the pouring rain from the visiting dugout, hoping something would change. The 65-year-old actor was like everyone else more than two hours before the start of Thursday night’s Yankees-Orioles game, hoping that Mother Nature would come through with a solid and clear the skies before first pitch.
“Why did it have to rain today?” he muttered. “Today is a pretty special day. Today is bigger than baseball, ya know?”
It did feel that way. Brush aside all of the pomp and circumstance, the Gatorade and Nike commercials and #RE2PECT, and this was a stadium having waited in a very long line to pay tribute to a piece of the fabric of New York City.
To mark the occasion, you could buy 10 different types of authentic Jeter jerseys in the team store. You could choose between the OFFICIAL DEREK JETER 5-PIECE FINAL GAME SET for just $75 – a $100 value, mind you – or the $45 “Mrs. Jeter” tank top with lipstick-embossed lips right on the Yankee logo. (If only it were that easy. Or cheap.)
Fans like Christopher Seith of New York City waited in the line that snaked around the store to load up on Jeterabilia – “You’ve got to have something to remember this night,” he said – trying to take a piece home with them. Others used personal touches.
Someone gave him a copy of Welcome to the Real World, by Lauren Berger. Sitting on top of a pile of fan mail in front of Jeter’s locker was a personalized check from a fan, with a Post-It note attached:
It has been an honor and a pleasure to watch you play. Enclosed is a check for your Turn 2 Foundation for the amount of $531.98. It is in honor of my mother, Maria Schiro, who was a huge Yankees fan. She was killed by a drunk driver on 5/31/98 and she was a big fan of yours.
Enjoy your retirement,
“He’s somebody baseball should be proud of,” said Baltimore’s Buck Showalter, who managed Jeter during his major-league debut 19 years ago.
As the tributes from fans, teammates past and present and others throughout baseball flowed, Jeter seemed uncomfortable. Before the game, he was caught mouthing “Let’s start the game already” to trainer Steve Donohue. But one item had to be taken care of first – the weather. And on a night where the forecast called for rain all day and all night, the skies cleared at 6:20 p.m.
Twenty-four minutes later, the sun peeked through the clouds, with Jeter taking the field for the first time two minutes after.
The Flip. The Dive. The Leadoff Homer. Mr. November. Home run for 3,000. You can measure Derek Jeter’s life in pinstripes by iconic moments. He has one of those perfect, four-syllable names that reverberate through a stadium. A charmed life. Last season, when Jeter returned from a fractured ankle and hit a home run on the first pitch he saw, Joe Girardi marveled “He’s a movie, is what he is.”
So when Yankee closer David Robertson gave up three runs on two homers in the ninth inning and ruined the perfectly scripted ending, there was a feeling that something more improbable was in the works. Jeter was due up third, after all.
“Everybody said throughout the day, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if Derek Jeter got the game-winning hit?'” Tino Martinez said. “But the chances of him being up to end the game are slim and none.”
There’s no way that he gets the Hollywood ending. He’s 40. The body is breaking down. He’s batting .205 in September. He admitted he almost cried in his car on the way to the stadium. Almost cried before his first at-bat of the night. Was so nervous that he was hoping the ball wouldn’t be hit to him. No way he gets to play savior one last time. The hero can’t always save the city and get the girl.
Bottom of the ninth, runner on second. First pitch, the other way.
Base hit, right field.
He did it again.
Jeter leapt into the air just past first base as rookie Antoan Richardson slid in safe at home plate. Teammates mobbed him. His parents, Charles and Dot, were overcome by emotion when they realized what had happened. Even the Baltimore Orioles stood at the top of the visiting dugout applauding, having been bested one last time. And then there were the six former Yankees.
They had bandied around the idea that this might happen. That the last one of the “Core Four” would light up the ballpark one final time. But no way. They had come to see him off. To help him cross over to the other side and enter baseball’s Pearly Gates. His spot was already reserved next to them and the other greats of the game, there was nothing left to prove. The script had been the fairy tale; there was no need for theatrics in the final act.
But as Jeter made his final emotional lap around the infield, there were Rivera, Posada, Pettitte, Williams, Martinez and Torre standing in front of the dugout expressionless. Motionless. This ending? For this guy? On this night? Not real.
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“This is above and beyond anything I ever dreamed of,” Jeter said afterward, pausing to catch his emotions as his bottom lip quivered. “I don’t even know what to say.”