Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A fond farewell to Derek Jeter

American League shortstop Derek Jeter, of the New York Yankees, singles during the third inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game, Tuesday, July 15, 2014, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The voice of the late Bob Sheppard came over the public address to introduce Derek Jeter’s at-bat, as it always does at Yankee Stadium, a surprise gesture that seemed to make Captain Cool pause.
As 41,000 fans rose as one and serenaded Jeter with a standing ovation, time froze for one of those perfect sports moments that we’ll remember fondly 20, 30 years from now.
National League starter Adam Wainwright placed his glove on the ground, stepped off the mound and joined his teammates in applause. Fans chanted “De-rek Je-ter” over and over. Target Field felt alive.
Jeter smiled, doffed his helmet, waved to the crowd. Then he dug in for his first at-bat in his final All-Star Game and smoked a double down the right field line.
Wainwright later admitted that he grooved the pitch, a statement that he undoubtedly regrets, but that shouldn’t obscure the genuine emotion on display Tuesday night.
The 85th All-Star Game will forever be remembered as a tribute to Jeter, his game, and the future Hall of Famer, at age 40, delivered a vintage performance in a 5-3 victory by the American League.
He began with a dazzling defensive play on a diving stop in the first inning that leadoff hitter Andrew McCutchen beat by a whisker. He doubled in his first at-bat and singled in his second to raise his career All-Star batting average to .481, fifth-best in MLB history.
And then his final exit. What a moment that was.
Jeter took the field for the fourth inning, only to be replaced by Alexei Ramirez. Jeter left to a third standing ovation — this one lasting more than a minute — as Sinatra’s “New York, New York” played over the loudspeakers.
Jeter hugged teammates in the dugout, as the ovation continued, and then climbed the steps for a curtain call.
“It’s a wonderful moment that I’m always going to remember,” he said. “It was unscripted.”
The entire All-Star gala served as a celebration of Jeter’s career, his legacy, one extended tip of the cap by baseball and its fans before the Yankees shortstop retires after the season.
Fans smothered Jeter in adulation from the moment he arrived in town, and while he sounded genuinely appreciative and touched by that outpouring, his stoicism never failed him. He didn’t want this to be solely about him, as if that was possible.
“I felt the focus should on everyone that’s in this game,” he said.
The idea of a farewell tour makes Jeter squeamish, but the reaction of baseball fans from all over the country at this event felt authentic. It originated from a place of respect.
Respect for Jeter’s unique ability to play the game with grace and dogged competitiveness. Respect for him as a five-time World Series champion. Respect for the way he’s conducted himself with class for two decades while conquering a pressure-cooker market.
“I try to be respectful of everybody I deal with, players, fans, media,” he said.
The best reflection of Jeter’s influence on baseball could be measured in the reverence of the other All-Stars. Numerous teammates used the word “legend.” Another admitted that he referred to Jeter as “Mr. Jeter” the first time they met during a game.
One of the game’s best players, Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, chose No. 2 as his jersey number because he idolized Jeter as a kid.
“Every day, just looking at the No. 2 reminds me to be a professional,” Tulowitzki said.
In a moment of reflection this week, Jeter recalled being too nervous to talk to Cal Ripken at his first All-Star Game appearance. His favorite All-Star memory came in 1999 when he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to find Hank Aaron standing there.
“He said he was looking for me because he wanted to meet me,” Jeter said. “That’s something that stands out.”
And so will this one, the 14th and final time he was selected to play in the All-Star Game. Tuesday’s festivities began with a red-carpet ride down Nicollet Mall in the back of a pickup. As always, Jeter came impeccably dressed in a navy suit, purple tie and sunglasses. Cool to the end.
As the procession crawled toward Target Field, fans of all ages — kids, grandmas, even cops — raised phones to capture a glimpse of baseball royalty. Everyone wanted a snapshot of this final ride.
The crowd roared as Jeter reached the stadium and then formed a mosh pit as he stopped to sign autographs. A group of young girls screamed in unison: “We love you, Derek.” Not to be outdone, a few middle-aged women standing behind them echoed, “We love you, too.”
Perhaps it was a lone voice along the parade route that encapsulated this All-Star Game, this final bow, in a way that was both succinct and meaningful. After Jeter had passed by and the crowd stopped cheering, one man bellowed, “Thank you.”
A perfect response to a perfect farewell.

Chip Scoggins •

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