The thing to remember about Derek Jeter’s final home game — the context we’ll have to fight hard to maintain as years of watching the triumphant replay of his game-winning hit gradually whitewash the season that preceded the single — is how unlikely it was to end well.
The day before Jeter’s last appearance in pinstripes, the Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention, ensuring that Jeter’s last home game would be his first without hopes for a postseason berth. “I care about only one thing: winning,” Jeter would say after the game, notching his record 4,563rd selfless statement. By Jeter’s definition of the word, though — when he says “winning,” it’s always followed by an unspoken “the World Series” — that wish was out of reach before the game began. It was the Yankees’ opponents, the Orioles, who had an October ahead of them, thanks to their first AL East title since Jeter’s second full season.
And then there was the weather: drizzle throughout the day, with a forecast for rain from first pitch until 11 p.m. Even if they got the game in — far from a certainty, without playoff implications to consider1 — it seemed likely there would be rain delays, wet ponchos, and a chill that would keep the crowd quiet. Could even a dry audience get loud at the end of baseball’s longest good-bye? Jeter, after all, had been feted for a full season — had even gotten his own day — and it seemed as if there were no new compliments to pay. Cheer long enough, and you lose your voice; listen long enough, and the noise becomes numbing. There had been breathless praise and scathing criticism, claims he was the consummate leader, and accusations he was selfish and sabotaging the team. Both the approbation and the backlash blended into a Derek Jeter drone we were more than ready to retire. Between the Yankees’ position in the standings and the .253/.301/.309 line with which Jeter entered the day, the whole season had been a rebuke to the concept of a storybook ending.
My Orioles-loving editor insists that Baltimore’s quest for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs matters.
The game began the same way. The rain never arrived, but hard-hitting Baltimore split the skies to start the first with back-to-back homers by Nick Markakis and Alejandro De Aza. Despite a game-time temperature of 61 degrees, starter Hiroki Kuroda was sweating before he recorded an out. As the Yankees fell behind, the ads behind home plate plugged the Pinstripe Bowl and New York City FC, as if confirming the fears that without Jeter, other sports would push baseball further from center stage.
Kuroda, however, escaped the inning without further damage, and Brett Gardner led off the bottom of the first with a single. Orioles starter Kevin Gausman, perhaps (I’m projecting) unnerved by the crowd’s vocal response to Jeter’s first plate appearance, missed the strike zone with his next three pitches. After a 3-0 take and a pickoff attempt, Gausman gave Jeter a 95 mph gift that was intended for the outside corner but drifted back toward the sweet spot, where the Captain’s slowing bat accelerated. Jeter so often hits grounders and goes the other way that it’s jarring to see him square one to left, corkscrewing like Snoopy to propel the ball in the air. This time, the ball bounced high off the left-field wall, plating Gardner. A few feet farther and it would’ve been out, but Jeter homers have been scarce this season, so the fans didn’t get greedy: A double would do. Jeter then advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on a grounder from Brian McCann. Tie game.
In the second, Jeter made a throwing error, then hit a weak grounder to third. In the fifth, he struck out swinging. There was the declining Captain we knew. The game picked up steam and sped toward a conclusion: The first two innings took more than an hour, but after De Aza’s dinger, Kuroda (possibly in his final outing as a Yankee, not that anyone noticed) allowed only one more hit (with no walks) in his eight innings, and Gausman and reliever T.J. McFarland avoided trouble through the sixth.
The seventh was a different story: a passed ball on a third strike; a walk; a bunt single. Bases loaded. Gardner grounded into a forceout at home, and Buck Showalter went to righty Ryan Webb. With the bases still loaded, Jeter hit a broken-bat grounder to short so softly that J.J. Hardy had to rush to try to get one out at second. Instead, he threw the ball into right field for a fielder’s choice, an E-6, and a two-run Yankees lead. A McCann sac fly extended the lead to three.
Jeter has an almost perfectly chant-able name: two syllables in his first name and two syllables in his last, with both first syllables emphasized. Once started, “DE-rek JE-ter” almost sustains itself. And the chants were nearly constant, subsiding only when Jeter was hidden from view or when questionable calls or pickoff attempts demanded detours into boos. When the chants grew the loudest and longest, Jeter blinked a lot.
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The top of the ninth was the sort of easy-save situation that causes sabermetricians to complain about the closer role. Down three with three outs to go, the Orioles had only a 3.2 percent chance to win, based on how often teams have recovered from that deficit in the past. Robertson allowed a leadoff walk to Markakis, recovered to catch De Aza looking with a cutter, and then surrendered a tomahawked homer to Adam Jones. One-run game. Again Robertson seemed to straighten himself out, whiffing Nelson Cruz with a knuckle curve. But that brought up Steve Pearce, the castoff turned team MVP, who went deep to tie the game. After a mound conference and an inning-ending Hardy fly out, Robertson stormed up the tunnel, angry at himself for costing Jeter what would have been a happy but unexceptional ending. Soon after, he’d say, “I’m glad it happened.”
Jose Pirela — his Yankees career less than 10 days old — singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth. Joe Girardi replaced him with pinch runner Antoan Richardson, then called for a bunt, which Gardner got down. That left the manager with another choice to make: Give Richardson the green light or flash the stop sign? Richardson was 5-for-5 as a base stealer in September and 26-for-27 in Scranton before his promotion. A steal of third would have given Jeter a shot to win the game without a hit, but Girardi opted against it: “I shut Antoan down when he got to second base, and I said, ‘Go do your thing.’”
An 86 mph changeup from Evan Meek made Girardi’s decision look smart. It was on or just off the outside corner, and Jeter (say it with me) punched it through the right side for a single.
The whole play happened in less than seven seconds, just enough time to realize that after all it took to get to that point — an improbable blown save, a leadoff single and a successful bunt, a serendipitous batting order — the outcome still wasn’t assured. With one out, Richardson wasn’t running on contact. The ball was hit hard, and Markakis — second among major league right fielders with 11 assists this season — was playing shallow in anticipation of just such a single. In violation of unwritten press box rules, someone yelped, “GO!” as Richardson rounded third. Most others remained silent, but whether out of nostalgia, the wish to see a good story, or just the jaded sportswriter’s eternal desire to get the game over with and go home, they felt the same sentiment (judging by their smiles). Run, Richardson, whoever you are. Goddammit, GO.
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The throw was late, albeit barely, and catcher Caleb Joseph bobbled the ball. Richardson was safe, and in the strictest sense of the word (82 wins!), the Yankees were winners for the 22nd consecutive season, the second-longest streak in MLB history. Not a bad climax for a meaningless game with a much-diminished star.
We don’t need numbers and acronyms to know what Jeter’s home exit meant — we can tell from the way it warmed our farewell-tour-hardened hearts — but numbers and acronyms help us put great games into perspective. One of the tools we can use to quantify the impact a player had on a given game is Win Probability Added, or WPA, which measures the fluctuation in a team’s odds of victory from play to play, then credits or debits the differences to the players who produced them. A WPA of 1.0 would indicate that a player contributed a win’s worth of value by himself; the higher the WPA, the greater the positive impact. Because it’s context-sensitive, WPA is the perfect story stat: Its values correspond to our excitement.
Jeter’s contributions to his final home game were worth .610 WPA — the highest single-game WPA of his career, easily topping a 2006 game in which he hit a three-run homer with two outs in the eighth to turn a 6-7 deficit into a 9-7 win (which was worth .536 WPA). Statistically speaking, Jeter genuinely saved his best for last. And not just his best, but anyone’s: Baseball-Reference’s WPA data is complete through 1974 and mostly complete through the 1950s, and in that time, no player has had a higher WPA in his final game or his final home game than Jeter. Nor has any other player with 300 or more career games had his best one (by WPA) last.
Where does the walk-off Bronx good-bye rank among Jeter’s most memorable moments? Behind the Mr. November homer. Behind being on Seinfeld. Probably behind The Flip, and maybe a couple of other playoff feats. But The Dive? The 3,000th-hit homer? The Single tops those with mystique to spare. And who could have guessed, as the video board bombarded us with tributes to those career highlights, that we were about to witness one more?
As the Yankees celebrated, Joe Torre, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte appeared, gazing at the scrum and smiling serenely like Anakin, Obi-Wan, and Yoda at the end of Return of the Jedi. This time, though, the Evil Empire won.
When he arrived at the Stadium, Jeter deferred every question about his emotional state until the end of the game, pointing out, logically enough, that he couldn’t tell us how he’d feel during the game until the game had begun. When it was over, he answered everything frankly, for once not deflecting the questions with “I’m happy I could help the team.”
Initially unable to collect his thoughts, Jeter joked, “Write what you want, put my name at the bottom of it.” But that’s what we’d been doing for years: parsing his platitudes in search of the person inside. This time, he opened up on his own.
“I think I’ve done a pretty good job controlling my emotions throughout the course of my career,” he said. “I have them. I try to hide them. I try to trick myself and convince myself that I’m not feeling those particular emotions. Whether it’s nerves, whether I’m injured, pain, I just try to trick myself that I don’t have it. Today I wasn’t able to do it.”
Jeter cried on the drive to the Stadium, he said. He made multiple trips to the bathroom to cry during the game. And the tears nearly overtook him multiple times on the field.
“There were a couple times I almost lost it,” Jeter said. “First inning I was saying, ‘Please don’t hit it to me.’ Last inning, same thing. I don’t know how many times in my career I’ve said, ‘Please don’t hit it to me,’ but that seemed to be what was going on over and over in my mind, because I really thought I was going to break down.”
After the game, Girardi revealed that the pregame plan had been for the team to tell Jeter to take a lap around the field, then trot out Torre and his former teammates and have Jeter walk off the field with them. Reality was much more satisfying than the script.
“No, no, no, no, no, no,” Jeter said, when asked if he could have imagined a better ending. “No. I wouldn’t have believed it myself. … I was happy with a broken bat and the runs scoring … I was happy with that being the ending. But I’ll take this one.” So will we (although Jeter plans to DH in Boston this weekend, out of respect for the temporarily toothless Yankees–Red Sox rivalry).
In his Jeter career retrospective, Jonah Keri wrote that the shortstop’s 20 seasons had “one common and career-defining thread: Jeter’s polarizing nature.” On Thursday, though, there was no need to be cynical — no need to balance out the over-veneration with a crack about his Gold Gloves or a whispered memento mori. Jeter doesn’t need the reminders, either of his flaws as a player (“I’m sure some of you in here, as you’ve pointed out, don’t think I can play anymore”) or his impending athletic demise (“You almost feel as though you’re watching your own funeral”). We were the ones who needed that single to cut through the defensive debates, the farewell fatigue, and the snark about intangibles, and remind us what mattered most: how great it could be to watch him hit, and how much we’ll miss it.
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