Derek Jeter, in the final at-bat of his illustrious career, busted it down the line after pounding the ball off the plate for an RBI infield single.Photo: AP
The ball smashed into the plate and arced high in the air. Word was Derek Jeter’s hamstring was aching. But there was no reason to hold back now.
Part of the Jeter aura is that he always treated these 90 feet as precious terrain to be run with metronomic zeal. Also, it already had been pre-programmed this would be his final at-bat. So he was certainly not going to trot the last 30 yards of his career.
John Farrell had ordered his infield in with a runner on third. Since this was the third inning of a meaningless game, the Boston manager seemed to be trying to abet a Jeter hit as much as cut off a run. But being positioned forward did not help Garin Cecchini — being 25 feet tall might have worked. The rookie third baseman waited anxiously, then leaped as if jumping center in a basketball game, trying to bare-hand it as the ball obeyed gravity. But the ball trickled off his hand, Jeter zoomed through the base.
As applause swamped old Fenway Park — as the cats and dogs of sports, Yankee and Red Sox fans agreed on something — Joe Girardi rose to the top step trying to make eye contact with an icon. The Yankee skipper put his palms out in a, “what do you want?” pose. Nothing. The plan was just two at-bats, but Girardi did not want to make a mistake here with finality at hand.
So he waved his hand across his throat, a gesture that asked, “Has retirement officially begun?” This time Jeter noticed and with the barest of nods one of the greatest athletic careers ever was over.
Brian McCann, who had lost a 40-yard race to Mark Teixeira before the game to determine the slowest Yankee, became a trivia answer — the man who pinch ran to end Jeter’s career. The two men hugged. Jeter stopped at the mound to exchange pleasantries with Clay Buchholz before he was swallowed by his teammates near the visiting bench, all the while the Red Sox from the top step of the dugout and the sellout at Fenway saluted their most honored of bitter rivals.
“I don’t know how many people could unite this crowd,” Girardi said.
No. 2 was the one.
In his last act, Jeter logged his 11,195th at-bat, 3,465th hit and 1,311th RBI. But, as always with Jeter, numbers were just part of the reason why there had been such pageantry and appreciation up to and through this final baseball moment.
It was about all the proletariat stuff — like running those 90 feet with meaning time after time. His last two hits, almost fittingly, came on choppers he had to beat out. He finished with 453 infield singles. “I had no ego when it came to hits,” he said.
But, of course, there was more. Jeter had perhaps the greatest number of highlight moments any player has ever produced. With those events small and large, Jeter became a daily part of two decades of summers, a fixture in the lives of a city and the chronology of a sport. You can’t write the story of New York now without him, nor the story of baseball.
“Fun,” Jeter said in summing up his career. “I had a blast. I got a chance to do the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do.”
He did his thing in such a way that opponents admired him, wanted to emulate him, eulogized Jeter in life as a player who mastered the art of competition, but not at the disrespect of his rivals. Boston’s young shortstop Xander Bogaerts wears No. 2 because of Jeter and was heartbroken he could not play in Sunday’s finale because his hamstrings were just too pained. And, even here in the belly of Yankee-hating territory, Jeter’s every move was treated with regal re2pect.
He was not debased by the steroid age, the TMZ-ing of media, the human churn that could be New York. Jeter, instead, won praise by rising above it during the 7,062 days between his first game (May 29, 1995) and running through first base (Sept. 28, 2014). He clocked 20 years of grace, dignity, professionalism, base hits, championships, honor, honors, magic, All-Star Games, and mastery of moments tiny and gigantic — from pedestrian to parades, from coping with pain to soaking in champagne, from Rookie of the Year to face of the game, from February through October.
“I am ready for this to be the end,” Jeter said.
And so it is now. He ran through first base — safe, of course — and into the rest of his life.