Derek Jeter hits game winner in home finale

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Moments unspooled on the gargantuan video board between innings all night, Derek Jeter as he so often appeared: Larger than life.

From heroic World Series homers to the triumphant dive into the stands to Frank Sinatra singing “My Way” as Jeter thanked the fans to the Flip Play—oh my goodness, the Flip Play.

On the field below, dwarfed by history, brittle with age, Jeter took several deep breaths. He shuffled his feet in the dirt. More deep breaths.

Cameras flashed. Signs waved. Eternal youth was taking a called third strike and Derek Sanderson Jeter would never again stand in this dirt, on this field, wearing Yankee pinstripes.

More deep breaths.

“I don’t know how I played,” he would say later, after sending new Yankee Stadium into orbit one last time. Game-winning hit in his final home game, 6-5 on the scoreboard, an unfathomable ending to an unbelievable career.

“I tried to be calm, cool and collected with you guys. The last few weeks, it’s been more and more difficult,” he would admit.

“A couple of times, I almost lost it. In the first inning, I was saying, ‘Please don’t hit it to me.’ I was saying that in the ninth inning. I don’t know how many times in my career I’ve said that. I really thought I was going to break down.

“And then the next thing I know, they tied it.”

This was Jeter as we’ve never seen him. A postgame mess, drained of the emotion he kept perfectly bottled, like a most expensive bottle of wine, for the past 20 years.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what to say.

“Write what you want, and put my name at the bottom of it.”

Gods do not answer letters, as John Updike famously wrote of Ted Williams. But Derek Jeter sure answers Moments.

Driving himself to work, as usual, he took his regular, mid-afternoon route to the ballpark with a couple of small changes because of heavy traffic.

He arrived in the clubhouse at 3:41 in a crisp navy suit as the rain fell steadily outside. He surveyed the media crush awaiting to record the evening and warned, “It’s going to be a while” before he had anything to say pre-game. Then, as is his custom, he scooped up his workout clothes and disappeared into the back to pull on the home pinstripes one last time.

After tonight, he would only see Yankee Stadium as a civilian.

At 3:59 p.m., Joe Girardi stepped through the door from the back of the clubhouse and leaned through the media throng to peek toward Jeter’s locker. Nobody home. Girardi, whose intent was to huddle with Jeter regarding how the two would handle these final few hours, last few days, U-turned.

Finally, at 4:11, Jeter emerged again more worried about the rain than the weekend in Boston. Speculation swirled: Would he play in Boston? Some seven hours later, thunderous cheers and chants still echoing, he delivered his answer: He will not play shortstop in Boston.

“I’ve played my last game at shortstop,” he declared. “I want to take something special from Yankee Stadium, and the view from shortstop tonight, that’s what I want to take.

Packed house, standing ovations, Yankees hanging on the dugout railing all night, craning for better views, the drama, the magic…yeah, there will be no better view than that.

What could possibly be more special?

Toward 5:15, rain falling, no batting practice on the field, the Yankees convened for a brief meeting. In the privacy of their clubhouse, they presented their Captain with a painting, the original artwork of the recent, instant-classic New Yorker magazine cover and a watch. A timepiece for a timeless icon.

“I almost started crying driving here today,” Jeter would say. “I was by myself in my car, and I could have lost it and nobody would have known. Then, my teammates presented me with something before the game and I almost lost it then. I had to turn around.”

That was only the start, though some of the waterworks were surprisingly redirected. As if scripted, the rain that was supposed to hang around until at least 8 p.m. or so was gone by game time. Updike’s Gods may not answer letters, but what Almighty Being would dare rain on Jeter’s final Yankee Stadium appearance?

Especially on Sept. 25, the 46th anniversary to the day—Sept. 25, 1968—of Mickey Mantle’s final game in the old Yankee Stadium before retiring. They sure do legends right around here.

So a season-high crowd of 48,613 stuffed themselves into every possible nook and cranny of this place, watching their Mantle, their Joe DiMaggio, their Babe Ruth say his farewell. Though the cheering was deafening when Jeter galloped out to his position a few moments after 7, perhaps the most touching sentiment was voiced silently by one of the sign-wielding fans:

I Want to Thank the Good Lord for Making Derek Jeter a Yankee.

Amen to that, especially when Jeter drilled an RBI double against Orioles starter Kevin Gausman in the bottom of the first and then scored the tying run to quickly erase an early 2-0 Baltimore lead. The true believers in the Jeter Legend immediately moved to high alert, and it was deafening in the ballpark.

But time has been working against Jeter for quite some time, and the man who once made things look so easy (even though they never were) mostly has looked overmatched lately. These past two months have been more negotiating with Father Time than revisiting past glories.

And so it was that he bounced into a fielder’s choice in the second inning, and Gausman blew a 97 mph heater past him for strike three in the fifth. Hey, the guy is 40, and oftentimes now he looks it, and the between-inning blasts of career highlights on the video board all evening emphasized it.

Now it was the seventh inning, 9:31 p.m., bases loaded, one out, tie game, and Jeter sent a bouncer toward shortstop, broken bat, and J.J. Hardy threw away the throw to second. The Yankees went ahead 4-2 on the play and even Jeter figured, whoa. That’s enough.

Then there was more. David Robertson, one of the game’s best closers, blew a 5-2 lead in the ninth. Adam Jones’ two-run homer with one out pulled the Birds to within 5-4, and now all eyes were on the Yankees dugout, and Girardi.

The expectation was that he would send Brendan Ryan out to replace Jeter at some point in the ninth, bringing Jeter off to one more thunderous ovation. Goodbye, Sinatra, “My Way,” the whole deal.

The Stadium was deafening. Chants of DE-REK JE-TER! And YANK-EE CAP-TAIN! swirled around the park. At shortstop, more deep breaths. He bit his lip. He looked like a river just before the dam bursts.

But at 5-4, even with two out…and then Steve Pearce smashed a homer to make it 5-5, and what kind of rude behavior was this from Baltimore on Jeter’s night?

Jeter was due up third in the bottom of the ninth.

Captain Clutch, who admitted at some points during this night he actually was thinking the unthinkable.

“I was almost thinking, Joe, get me out of here before I do something to cost us this game,” he said.

Jose Pirela led off the bottom of the ninth with a single. Brett Gardner dropped a perfect sacrifice bunt to move pinch runner Antoan Richardson to second.

Up stepped Jeter.

First row behind the home-plate screen, his father, Charles, his mother, Dot, his sister, Sharlee, and her son, Jalen, had moved down from one of the suites.

First pitch, walk-off single, changeup, the classic inside-out swing, shoot the ball to right field and the place went bananas one more time. Dot was crying as the Yankees mobbed her son near second base, and suddenly, Joe Torre, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada appeared as if by apparition and New York, New York, I want to wake up in a city that has had DE-REK JE-TER(!!) as its shortstop and king of the hill for two decades.

“They’re chanting your name,” he said as Thursday night came close to bleeding into Friday morning. “I don’t know of too many other occupations where that’s possible.

“The fans are chanting, ‘Thank you Derek’ and I’m thinking, “What are you thanking me for? I’m just trying to do my job.

“You dream of playing baseball when you grow up, and it’s a little different playing in your backyard vs. playing in Yankee Stadium as far as fans being as vocal and as energetic as they’ve been for 20 years.”

As the adulation poured over him, he took two solo trips back to the shortstop position that next year will become someone else’s, tipped his cap and once kneeled in the shallow left-field grass.

“I wanted to take one last view from shortstop,” he said. “I was trying to take my last view in the top of the ninth…”

Then the Orioles got in the way.

“I say a little prayer before every game,” Jeter said, explaining that he was basically saying “Thank you” while kneeling in that grass. “This is basically all I’ve ever wanted to do, and not too many people ever get a chance to do it. It’s above and beyond what I ever thought.

“I’ve lived the dream since I was four or five years old. Part of the dream is over now.”

He talked about his Farewell Tour, the gifts, the sentiments and said at times it was like watching his own funeral. Which, he conceded, in a way it was, because his baseball career was coming to an end.

Someone asked him, the whole Sinatra “My Way” thing, what does that mean to you, to hear people say you did it your way?

“I know there are a lot of people who have had more talent than I do throughout the course of my career,” he said. “I can honestly say I don’t think anyone played harder. I don’t. Maybe just as hard.

“Every day, I went out and had respect for the game. I did it here in New York, which is not easy to do.”

I’ve watched Derek Jeter up close for those 20 years. I was there in Oakland for the Flip Play in 2001, there in the Bronx in those awful days after 9/11 when he advised President George W. Bush on how to throw out a first pitch and then blasted that 10th-inning, game-winning home run against Byung-Hyun Kim and the Diamondbacks. Old Yankee Stadium literally shook, it was so loud.

I was in the Bronx when a young Jeter homered thanks to, ahem, a 12-year-old kid named Jeffrey Maier’s interference against these Orioles in 1996, in Queens for his leadoff homer in Game 4 of the 2000 Subway Series that swung the momentum, and I was in Boston and the Bronx for every one of the 2003 and 2004 ALCS games. And in the desert when the Diamondbacks stunned the Yanks in 2001. The highs, the lows…I have never seen Jeter as emotional as he was by the end of Thursday.

Seriously. In his wildest dreams, could he have ever come up with this?

“No, no, no, no, no,” he said. “Ah, no.

“I wouldn’t believe it myself. I was happy with the broken bat, when the run scored, I was happy with that ending.

“But I’ll take this one.”

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