Why Derek Jeter’s Career-Ending Walk-Off Single, Which Didn’t Mean Anything, Meant Everything

Last Thursday marked the end to a 20-year marriage between Yankee Stadium and New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter — while illustrating the fundamentally unifying role sports can play in day-to-day life.

The final column in the last home box score of the sure-fire Hall-of-Famer will melodramatically read: “single, RF, RBI.” It will be accompanied by a miniature baseball field, in which a straight line runs from home plate to shallow right field. It will be most coldly read as the last at-bat of the 162nd game of the season, the result of which having no post-season implications on either team involved. In short, the at-bat, by just about every single measure, meant absolutely nothing.

That at-bat, however, means everything.

“Der-ek Je-ter, duh duh, duhduhduh. Der-ek Je-ter, duh duh, duhduhduh.” The crowd roared. The scoreboard read Baltimore 5, New York 5. An incredible circumstance: with a runner on second base in the bottom of the ninth inning, Jeter had a chance to end his home career with a game-winning hit. Though extraordinary, it may be the only fitting ending for one who is widely known as “Captain Clutch.”

CRACK. Before the crowd could try to wrap their heads around the situation and prepare themselves for Jeter’s last ever — LAST EVER — at-bat at Yankee Stadium, Jeter had struck the first pitch — a rare act for the 14-time All-Star — and finished his career in the Bronx by shooting a ball into right field, past a diving first baseman.

The ball took a sharp bounce about five feet in front of the outfield grass and skipped into right field. The crowd erupted, yet simultaneously held their breath in utter angst: the right fielder had a play. It was the paradoxical time warp in which one has just won everything in a matter of seconds, yet there is a slivering possibility that that everything could be taken away in, once again, just a matter of seconds. It’s the type of experience that takes years from one’s life. It’s why grown men watch other grown men in tight pants throw, swing, and run. It’s why plump old men by season tickets, and stay through every single ninth inning for their home team that remains locked in the cellar year in and year out. It is, in fact, what people precisely mean when they say, “for the love of the game.” It’s the feeling that advertisers have tried to package and sell for decades and decades. But it can only be felt, not described.

The play seemed to have taken 10 minutes. The lanky southpaw right fielder charged, pitter-pated his feet, scooped the ball, and, in a fluent yet unsettling, catapult-like motion — as all left-handers do — launched the ball to home. The small, cowhide-covered yarn ball now contained so much life, so much potential, and thus so much power — a power that could deflate the entire crowd, a power that could very well crush an ending no one would dare script. The ball took one long skip, and beat the runner to the plate — with cheers and a heavy anticipation still hanging in the air.

The ball bounced into the catcher’s chest and disappeared for a few seconds. The Bronx was still. Like a cat escaping the capture of an over-anxious child, the ball snuck through the space between the catcher’s left elbow and torso, skipping to the backstop, dyeing with every bounce. With the death of the ball, the home plate umpire viciously extended his arms laterally, signaling that the incoming runner sliding-head first was safe.

The Yankees had won. Jeter had done it, had done it again — if only words could do it justice.

In a sort of sea of emotion, the crowd erupted, again. But the crowd was not alone: Jeter stood halfway between first and second base, both arms locked and erected straight into the air. He had discarded the calm and collected attitude he had built in over 20 years in the Yankee organization. The thin 6’3 41-year-old seemed like a colossal giant, with all of the Bronx beneath him.

Under the giant stirred a crowd of children jumping and shouting, yet unable to truly fathom why they jumped and shouted so; a crowd of weeping grown men, who really could not believe what they had witnessed; a TV audience of millions in their living rooms who were either erupting in dismay, or covering their mouth in disbelief. For these fans, this 11 o’clock lazy line drive will sneak its way into tomorrow, the following day, next month — it will hold them over until next season. It will make tomorrow’s early morning bearable for the factory worker; the late afternoon exam less dreadful for the fifth-year senior; it will make for all of the discussion at the middle school lunch table.

It will have facilitated a human bond that cuts across age, class, race, and gender lines — indeed, the ultimate accomplishment sports can achieve.

This is how the five-time World Series champion should be remembered: not by an articulate post-game speech, nor by a 500-foot bomb to center field, nor by his Nike shoe deal — but by sending the Bronx, and many others, into a collective, harmonious, inspiring uproar on a cool night in late August over the 162nd game of a season that, for Jeter, was otherwise utterly forgettable.

 

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