Whatever is said about his future, there’s nothing to say against Derek Jeter’s past or present. And there’s nothing to say about anyone trying to manipulate anything for the home crowd, never mind this one.
He did it fair and square and with a flourish, and it only began against one of the American League’s best pitchers. When he sat on David Price’s full-count curve ball and curled it out in the third inning Saturday afternoon, nobody could mistake the moment for hanky panky. When he finished his day’s work of play with 5-for-5 including two extra-base hits, Jeter looked, for the first time in maybe every playing day since the start of 2010, like the guy whose Hall of Fame ticket is just a matter of when, not if.
If that little smile Jeter flashed as he rounded the bases after his launch landed looked even for a moment like a “So there!” exclamation, you couldn’t necessarily blame the man. All the previous fortnight, so it seemed, there were commentators aplenty able and willing to say that the only Yankee ever to collect three thousand base hits in that uniform alone—and the only man ever to do it in any New York uniform—had no business even thinking about getting the big one anywhere but in Yankee Stadium. Some were even willing to say that manager Joe Girardi and the Yankee brass owed it to Jeter, to Yankee fans, and to baseball itself to make sure it happened that way.
And there were others (including yours truly) able and willing to say that the only way to honour a player whose entire career had been played honourably enough was to let it ride, whether Jeter got the J3K at the Stadium or on the road. In fair competition. Trying to help his team win. Box office be damned.
Jeter himself justified those of us in the latter encampment. When Girardi offered to sit him out of the final game in Cleveland Wednesday, Jeter demurred. He didn’t exactly come right out and say it, especially since he’s still dealing with a balky enough calf to keep himself out of the All-Star Game, but if you’ve followed Jeter since his days as a young Yankee pup you know this is one dog who doesn’t want the hunt maneuvered in his favour one way or the other. However badly he wanted the big hit in front of the home audience, Jeter wouldn’t have accepted that kind of shift.
He squared up in the eighth Wednesday night and rapped a solid double, to send him home needing a measly three for the roses. He doubled in the second off Jeff Neimann Thursday. Then in the ninth, Jeter experienced one of those moments that have come too often since last season began. With two out and the Yankees in position to tie, Jeter worked the count to deuces wild and grounded out meekly.
Even his critics couldn’t help but feel for the man. It’s a struggle enough for this proud man as it is, without the weight of an unprecedented milestone and a packed Stadium bearing down on him harder than any pitcher ever could have done in the good old days. He admitted over the previous week that things weren’t exactly fun for him with all the speculation dovetailing to the pressure attaching to a milestone approach.
But any thoughts about when and how the Yankees are going to shepherd Jeter away from batting leadoff, if not from playing at all, vapourised in that third-inning moment. Any thoughts that he’d been voted to the starting All-Star lineup on legacy alone, in a season in which he’s fighting to be whatever’s left of Derek Jeter as baseball’s known him for almost two decades, dissipated as the ball traveled to the bleachers.
When the Yankees and the Rays were rained out Friday night, and the clubs couldn’t agree on a Sunday doubleheader to make up the game (the Yankees may have been thinking of the gate more than the game, standing to make less box office if the two played an old-fashioned doubleheader, even though the Yankees as the home team could impose it on the Rays, who opted not to go for the day-night job), the Yankees tried to imply the Rays were standing in the way of Jeter’s reaching his milestone sooner.
The only thing standing in Jeter’s way, as things turned out, was Price. Leading off in the first, Jeter looked at strike one, took ball one, swung and missed, took balls two and three, fouled off a pair, and then bounded a single into shallow left. In the third, it was damn near a replay of the first but for one detail: Ball one, called strike, ball two, foul-off strike, ball three, two more fouloffs, and a 420-foot launch into the left field bleachers.
Every arm in the Yankee dugout jerked toward the heavens, clenched fists exclaiming, as Jeter trotted around the bases. The ball landed as he rounded first. He crossed the plate into the bear hug of Jorge Posada, another distinguished Yankee veteran worn down by time, as the dugout and the bullpen poured out to congratulate him.
The best part was that Jeter’s one-out bomb tied the game at one. (Matt Joyce had taken A.J. Burnett over the right field fence solo with two out in the Tampa Bay second.) Curtis Granderson followed with a full-count walk, Mark Teixiera singled him to second, and—after Robinson Cano swished on 2-2 Russell Martin singled home Granderson, giving the Yankees a 2-1 lead before Posada looked at strike three for the side.
Jeter wasn’t even close to being finished, though. With the Rays up 3-2 thanks to B.J. Upton’s two-run bomb in the fourth, he led off the Yankee fifth with a first-pitch double to left and scored promptly enough on Granderson’s single. Teixiera singled Granderson to third and Cano scored him on a sacrifice fly to left. He did his best to produce something in the Yankee sixth, too, his two-out single to right moving Brett Gardner (walk) to second, then joining Gardner for a double steal to set up second and third for Granderson, who struck out off Tampa Bay reliever Ben Gomes for the side.
The frisky Rays got a little friskier tying it up at four in the eighth, when erstwhile Yankee (and Red Sox) Johnny Damon led off with a triple to the back of the yard and scored on Ben Zobrist’s followup single. And Jeter, the aging captain, saw and raised in the bottom of the inning, against another Rays reliever, Joel Peralta, singling home his heir apparent, Eduardo Nunez (leadoff double), with one out and a 1-2 count. The only spoiler was Jeter himself getting arrested for attempted grand theft second base for the side on a strike ’em out-throw ’em out double play.
Naturally, the 5-4 Yankee lead signaled The Mariano for the ninth. Just like the old days, The Mariano fed the frenzy in the manner to which Yankee fans and opponents alike have been only too long accustomed, more or less. He may be just a little more human of late; he may have his moments of vulnerability enough; but he is still The Mariano, and he is still not a man to be taken with a grain of ninth inning salt. Not when he opens with a pounding swishout of Sean Rodriguez. Not when he recovers from falling 2-1 on Kelly Shoppach to get the Rays late-game pinch-hitter and catcher to fly out to center. Not when he lures Justin Ruggiano to ground out to third for the game.
If this sounds like an echo of Yankee glories past, it is. Who comes into a game staring a milestone in the face, in the middle of a second season in the private hell of baseball aging before his public’s very eyes, and then reaches history on his second hit of an afternoon on which he’s going 5-for-5?
Better yet: What does it say that the young fan who ended up with the milestone mash, Christian Lopez, a cell phone seller who retrieved the ball after his father stabbed at it, went agreeably with Yankee Stadium security and gave Jeter the ball no strings attached? “I’m not going to be the one to take this away from him,” the boy told WFAN radio in-game. “I’ve got plenty of time to make money.”
Jeter has played his entire career on the proverbial up and up. He obviously had some kind of effect on at least one fan. Playing it fair, getting the milestone fair, and now getting the ball he blasted fair. Nobody had to manipulate this.
Nobody had to manipulate a three thousandth hit tying a game with one swing; nobody had to manipulate a five-for that climaxed with driving in what proved the winning run. Which makes the Big One almost more special than every division title, every American League pennant, every World Series ring toward which he earned credit enough.
The ball sailed over the fence almost a year to the day after Jeter had hit his previous Stadium bomb. For David Price, it had to be a becalming homecoming. When Price stepped onto a major league mound for the first time in 2008, Jeter was there to welcome him to the Show. With a bomb.
UPDATE—Christian Lopez’s spontaneous goodwill gesture got him a remarkable reward from the Yankees. He’ll get four suite tickets to all remaining Yankee Stadium games this season, including the postseason if the Yankees get there. Not to mention an assortment of jerseys, bats, and a personal audience with Derek Jeter himself. Who says the Yankees equal avarice squared?