This past Wednesday, September 24, there was nary a seat to be had on the typically vacant 11:01 a.m. Metro-North train from Tarrytown, New York to Manhattan’s Grand Central Station. That’s because every piece of pleather and plastic was covered with the tuchus of a diehard Yankee fan playing hooky to catch Derek Jeter’s second-to-last home game (and last such afternoon affair) in pinstripes.
Businessmen in their casual duds threw back Bud Light cans. Kids of all ages rejoiced in what had suddenly, when tacked onto two eminent days off for Rosh Hashanah, become a de facto five-day weekend. And scores of female fans bent the brims of their Bombers caps and began chattering praise for No. 2.
That morning represented their collective hajj to the storied mecca of Yankee Stadium, where they could all pay homage one last time to their diamond god. I, on the other hand, was simply hoping to catch a catnap en route to the licensed, certified grounds of my therapist’s office, where I would inevitably end up agonizing over where player appreciation ends and engineered athlete-worship takes root.
Of course, there’s nothing secular or dispassionate about New Yorkers and baseball, especially not in the Bronx, where Yankee Stadium hosts a museum dubbed Monument Park, all but deifying its organizationally appointed legends. (This is in contrast to Flushing’s Citi Field, home of the hapless Mets, whose outfield wall boasts but one retired jersey number of a past Metropolitan player: Tom Seaver’s 41.) But between myth-affirming Air Jordan ads, lusty YES Network coverage and an endlessly hyped MLB Network airing of his ultimate night under the lights at 161st Street, the smallness of the situation has been lost.
As a Mets fan with no love for the Yankees legacy but open respect for Jeter’s on-field accomplishments and impeccable ambassadorial nature, this is not simply sour grapes. Rather, it’s hard to overlook that this July, we all marveled anew at Lou Gehrig’s iconic “luckiest man” speech, stunned that it’s been 75 years since he moved millions with his remarkable perspective, despite no preparation or even pretense that he’d address 61,000 that day. It is, as Keith Olbermann stated with due appreciation, “one of the greatest speeches in history“– precisely because a man who was larger than life allowed for a candid glimpse into his humanity.
Riding the train that Wednesday morning, eavesdropping (as if there were a choice) on all the platitudes the Jeter faithful reserved for their idol – nearly 3,500 career hits, 14 All-Star appearances, numerous instances of sacrificing his body for the game et al., ad infinitum – it occurred to me that No. 2 has remained a mystery to us all. And it’s only fitting that all this hoopla, most of it put in motion the moment Jeter announced his retirement well in advance of this season, feels more like ritual enshrinement than grassroots send-off.
And it’s no wonder, then, that fans and followers on social media have participated in the pageantry of his final week (the Yanks were, in fact, eliminated from playoff contention that afternoon) with proportionate fervor. And, yes, as a Mets fan, there’s always going to be a mixture of envy and alienation that goes hand-in-hand with witnessing the Yankee way. But stopping again on Gehrig’s humility, and believing that Derek Jeter believes he’s blessed to have brought so many people together, it’s too bad all this ceremony has reinforced is that we’re only allowed to appreciate it with distance and awe.