September 8, 2014 Issue
We know Derek Jeter by heart, so why all this memorizing? The between-pitches bat tucked up in his armpit. The fingertip helmet-twiddle. The left front foot wide open, out of the box until the last moment, and the cop-at-a-crossing right hand ritually lifted astern until the foot swings shut. That look of expectation, a little night-light gleam, under the helmet. The pitch—this one a slow breaking ball, a fraction low and outside—taken but inspected with a bending bow in its passage. More. Jeter’s celebrity extends beyond his swing, of course, but can perhaps be summarized by an excited e-mail once received by a Brearley School teacher from one of her seventh graders: “Guess what! I just Googled ‘Derek’s butt!’ ”
This is Derek Jeter’s twentieth and final September: twenty-seven more games and perhaps another hundred at-bats remain to be added to his franchise record, at this writing, of 2,720 and 11,094. He’s not having a great year, but then neither are the Yanks, who trail the Orioles by seven games in the American League East and are three games short of qualifying for that tacky, tacked-on new second wild-card spot in the post-season. It’s been a blah baseball year almost everywhere, and, come to think of it, watching Derek finish might be the best thing around.
Jeter has just about wound up his Mariano Tour—the all-points ceremonies around home plate in every away park on the Yankees’ schedule, where he accepts gifts, and perhaps a farewell check for his Turn 2 charity, and lifts his cap to the cheering, phone-flashing multitudes. He does this with style and grace—no one is better at it—and without the weepiness of some predecessors. His ease, his daily joy in his work, has lightened the sadness of this farewell, and the cheering everywhere has been sustained and genuine. Just the other day, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon groused about the rare sounds of cheering offered up to Derek by his customarily sleepy attendees.
At every stop, there have been replays of Jeter’s famous plays and moments up on the big screens—the no-man’s-land relay and sideways flip to nab the Athletics’ Jeremy Giambi at the plate in the 2001 American League Division Series; that horizontal dive into the Yankee Stadium third-base stands against the Red Sox in 2004. I don’t expect further dramatics—he’s forty and often in the lineup as d.h. these days—but closings have been a specialty of his, and it’s O.K. to get our hopes up one more time. I’m thinking of the waning days of the old Stadium, in 2008, when Derek’s great rush through September carried him to the top of the all-time career hits list at the famous crater, each fresh rap of his coming as accompaniment to the deep “Der-ek Je-tuh!” cries from the bleachers that the new restaurant site has pretty well silenced. The next year, up there, he passed Lou Gehrig for Most Yankee Base Hits Ever. Two years after that, he delivered his three-thousandth career hit: a home run that touched off a stunning five-for-five day at the Stadium against the Rays.
All right, I’ll settle for one more inside-out line-drive double to deep right —the Jeter Blue Plate that’s been missing of late. It still astounds me—Derek’s brilliance as a hitter has always felt fresh and surprising, for some reason—and here it comes one more time. The pitch is low and inside, and Derek, pulling back his upper body and tucking in his chin as if avoiding an arriving No. 4 train, now jerks his left elbow and shoulder sharply upward while slashing powerfully down at and through the ball, with his hands almost grazing his belt. His right knee drops and twists, and the swing, opening now, carries his body into a golf-like lift and turn that sweetly frees him while he watches the diminishing dot of the ball headed toward the right corner. What! You can’t hit like that—nobody can! Do it again, Derek.
It’s sobering to think that in just a few weeks Derek Jeter won’t be doing any of this anymore, and will be reduced to picturing himself in action, just the way the rest of us do. On the other hand, he’s never complained, and he’s been so good at baseball that he’ll probably be really good at this part of it too.