Thank You, Captain

Derek Jeter has made his last appearance as a professional baseball player.
Derek Jeter has made his last appearance as a professional baseball player.

Derek Jeter stepped into the batters box one more time. Ichiro Suzuki was on third, having just hit a two-RBI triple, and Jeter desperately wanted to get the run home. Jeter looked into the eyes of Clay Buchholz, the opposing pitcher.

Buchholz offered a fastball. Jeter swung.

One high Baltimore chop later and Jeter was standing on first, an infield single and an RBI to his credit. His manager, Joe Girardi, tried to get his attention, gesticulating, “What do you want to do? Is that it? Is that it?”

Jeter nodded his head, a nod that was barely perceptible to anyone. But Girardi went to fetch Brian McCann to pinch-run. And just like that, Jeter’s final appearance in a big league uniform–the only uniform he had worn throughout his career–was over. One small nod finished off a storybook career, a career that will land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame with either a unanimous or near-unanimous vote in five short years.

And the 36,879 in attendance, many of them Yankees fans who had invaded Boston just for this occasion, can count themselves as some of the lucky ones. They had just witnessed the last Jeter Moment ever.

Of course, many people know about these Jeter Moments, from the Flip Play to the dive into the stands to his one and only grand slam against the Cubs. In this era, many more have probably watched them on TV. But only a select few–only the 50,000 or so who were actually there–can say that they saw a Jeter Moment in person.

I can count myself among the lucky ones, too. I was in attendance for a Jeter Moment.

July 28, 2013. It was Hideki Matsui retirement day, overcast and rainy, a dreary day for baseball. I was there to see Matsui live, and for the Matsui bobblehead that was that day’s promotional item. Everyone coming to the ballpark knew, however, that it was also Jeter’s second return from the disabled list that year after breaking his ankle in the previous postseason.

Matsui entered on a golf cart and waved right at my section. He signed his retirement papers, threw out the first pitch, and then it was time to play ball. In the bottom of the first, Jeter was, of course, the second batter up.

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First pitch he sees from Matt Moore, he hits into the Yankee bullpen. The place goes nuts.

To this day, that moment was the loudest I have ever been to at the new Yankee Stadium. (The videos online do not do the crowd justice.) It was probably the loudest i have ever screamed at a baseball game. That home run wasn’t just any home run. Every single one of the 47.714 in attendance seriously believed that the Captain was back to save the season. It was a “did you miss me” home run to a crowd that sorely missed him. It gave us hope that, even as badly as the team had played up to that point, Jeter would lead us back to the World Series.

It turned out that none of that would come true. Jeter would be hobbled by injuries for the rest of the season, and that home run off Matt Moore would turn out to be the second-to-last he would ever hit at home. But no matter. Even for one day, our hero was here, doing what he did best.

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Most players struggle to have even one of these kinds of moments, but Derek Jeter, despite never being the best player in baseball, has a whole slew of them. And because of this, and the fact that he plays the game the right way and says the right things, he has endeared himself to not just Yankees fans but to baseball fans the world over.

I’ve been a Yankees fan since 2000 but only seriously started following the team in 2005. I’ll admit that Jeter was never my favorite player growing up. It wasn’t that I disliked him; no, I was just more interested in the players who stood out more. Alex Rodriguez, one of the best home run hitters in the league, as the third baseman. Johnny Damon, who joined the Yankees to spurn the Red Sox for not making a serious effort to retain him. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte returning to the team after stints in Houston. The acquisitions of CC Sabathia, who I once considered on par with Johan Santana, and Mark Teixeira, and of course Mo. Jeter, to me, was always just there.

And that’s really the beauty of his career, that he was always just there. Jeter came in right in the middle of the Steroid Era of Baseball, but never once felt tempted to artificially enhance his body. What he lacked in talent, he made up for with effort. Not once did Jeter get on the wrong side of the fans or the media. You never heard him saying that his manager favored his white players over his black players. (When asked about Jeter, whose father is black, this player said that Jeter could get away with it because he “ain’t all the way black.”) You never heard him complain about injuries affecting his performance. And you never heard about messy divorces, feuds with other players, or fights with organized baseball about supposed drug use.

But not only was he just there, he did what he did well. Up until his playing time post-broken ankle, every Yankee fan in the universe knew that if Jeter was up at the plate in a high-leverage situation, he could–no,would–come through. (He’s nicknamed Captain Clutch for a reason.) He was never the best hitter, or the fastest runner, and was not even close to being the best defensive shortstop in the league, but he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

Jeter’s departure, of course, leaves the team with many questions. Who will be the next shortstop? Troy Tulowitzki has made no secret of his desire to succeed Jeter, but he is injury prone and commands more money than the Yankees might want to part ways with. Who will be the next captain? McCann, although he has only been with the team for one year, seems like a natural candidate, since he must lead the team any by virtue of being the catcher–the most important of all the positions, not only calling pitch sequences but also setting up and directing the defense.

Who will be the next great Yankee?

Will it be Michael Pineda, the prodigy who can never seem to avoid the injury bug? Will it be Masahiro Tanaka, the Japanese phenom whose future is in doubt because of a partially torn UCL? Will it be Gritty Gutty Brett Gardner ((c) Pinstripe Alley)? Will it be David Robertson, now the longest tenured homegrown Yankee, who could return and be able to stand beside Mariano Rivera as not just his hand-picked successor but also as one of the great Yankee closers? Or will it be a free agent signing or a Minor League callup?

These are the questions that will occupy us next year. Just as we were able to survive a year without Mo, we will be able to survive a year without Jeter. The Yankees will move on, and just as Jeter followed in the steps of Don Mattingly as the face of the Yankees, someone else will step up to lead. For now, though, we can only cry that it is over, smile that it happened, and cheer in appreciation of what Jeter has given us for the past 20 years.

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So long, Captain, and thanks for all the fish.

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