He was hurt. Seriously hurt. You could see the wince of pain, although if you had ever watched him play, even if it was only a single play, you knew he hated the slightest leakage of such vulnerability.
His left ankle had fractured Saturday night on a routine throw. You cannot walk on a fractured ankle. Yet he was determined to do so, not in some wounded warrior I’m-Ready-For-My-Close-Up routine like the great mug-artist Brett Favre, but because this was simply the way an athlete was supposed to do it, play your hardest and hustle as if you were always one step away from the bus rides in the moonshine backwaters of the minors. In other words walk to the dugout by yourself and not get carted off with the support of others like some helpless child.
But Derek Jeter couldn’t do it, his pride, always as strong as it was always so silent, succumbing to mortality. It was the first time I could ever remember Derek Jeter not doing what he wanted in the diamond of baseball where he played shortstop for the New York Yankees, not overcoming whatever obstacle had to be overcome no matter how great the adversity.
The Moneyball wonks would have argued differently of course. Spinning their spider weave of numbers and algorithms, the little baseball Einsteins would have shown that he had lost a step of speed, that his range at shortstop had become slower than a tortoise, that he no longer hit the power-alley gaps in right center with that classic inside-out swing. It was all fine analysis, all good, except it said so little about him.
There is no one like Derek Jeter, his intrinsic presence so much more than just numbers, and his numbers were pretty damn good this season despite the chorus of naysayers who for some time have said he was finished. He hit .316 and led the American League both in hits and at-bats at the age of 38 in his 18th season. His career batting average is .313 with 3,304 hits, five Golden Gloves, and an equal number of World Series rings. Perhaps most remarkable of all in the age of transience, he has only played for one team.
He has always competed with white-heat intensity. But there has always been the smile of an eternal boy. Which always made me feel he would forever be eternal in the game of baseball; its most enduring and essential player even though he has become increasingly bypassed over the years, not talked about as much, not appreciated as much, strangely forgotten in some ways.
When I saw him get hurt in the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers last Saturday, I felt something I almost never feel in sports anymore, an actual emotion beyond the anger of scandal and excess. I felt genuine sadness that this may be it for the classiest person in all of sports, an injury that no matter the strength of your will poses a difficult recovery. It seems increasingly likely he will need surgery.
I felt sadness that the game might be in danger of losing a player it could not afford to lose, the last stand of purity, of playing baseball because you honor it and covet and believe in it as a part of your soul.
Before the payroll of the Yankees became more profligate than ever and the Alex Rodriguez deal was consummated, I was a fanatic devotee of the Bombers. I remember the chatter among fans in 1996 that this 22-year-old kid with the perfect baseball name of Derek Jeter from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was something special. Of course, Ron Bloomberg was supposed to have been something special for the Yankees. So I took it all with a measure of protectiveness.
But he produced. He produced right away. He won the American League Rookie of the Year in 1996, and the Yankees won the World Series for the first time in 18 years. And even in those beginnings there was something unique about him, a throwback to the old days when class counted, but also a personality that seemed entirely entwined in the game, his muse, his music, his reason to be.
He was guarded off the field, at least in interviews, his responses straight from the book of empty baseball aphorisms that players memorize like a preacher memorizing the Bible. He praised his teammates. He never drew attention to his accomplishments. It was all rather bland. Yet the humility never seemed like a contrivance.
For all the muted presence there was an underlying impishness to him, a man who understood that for all the money and sins of steroids, baseball was still that boys’ game. He never turned his back on fans, in particular kids. Sometimes in the on-deck circle in the early years, he would turn and playfully ask for advice, whether he should swing at the first pitch. In the later years when he went up to the plate, he always gave a big hello to the catcher and asked for mercy, that he was an old man of the game now who could use one right down the pipe.
When I think of the greatest plays in baseball, I call up the usual suspects—the Carlton Fisk home run in 1975 for the Boston Red Sox in the sixth game of the World Series in extra innings to beat the Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, Reggie Jackson’s three-homer night for the Yankees against the Los Dodgers in the 1977 World Series, the Kirk Gibson home run for the Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 World Series against the Oakland A’s and a seemingly unbeatable Dennis Eckersley.
But two of my favorite plays involve Derek Jeter, none of them game-winning World Series homers, yet each of them indelible because of the very refusal to quit no matter how lopsided the odds.
The first occurred in the third game of the American League Division Series in 2001 with the Yankees down two games to zero to the Oakland A’s and facing elimination with another loss. The score was 1-0 in favor of the Yankees in the bottom of the seventh when Jeremy Giambi singled with two outs. Then Terrence Long hit a shot down the right field line and Giambi was waved home. The throw by Yankee outfielder Shane Spencer went literally berserk. Jeter sensed it. He moved up the first base line, caught it on one bounce, and in the same motion flipped it backhand 20 feet to catcher Jose Posada for the tag. It is still a mystery of life as to how he knew to be positioned in the perfect place.
The Yankees went on to win the series against the A’s and advance to the World Series. Of all the tens of thousands of plays I have seen in baseball, it is my favorite.
The second occurred on a foul ball that went into the stands behind third base against the Boston Red Sox in 2004. Jeter chased for it madly, maniacally, refusing to let anything act as an impediment. He dove for the ball, smashing his jaw against one of the seats, his neck snapping up and down. Somehow he got up with the only injury a laceration in his chin.
Of course he made the catch.
I don’t watch baseball as much as I used to. I don’t watch any sport as much as I used to. It is the culture of sports that intrigues me, not the day-to-day play that, except for occasional punctuations, has become a swampland of mediocrity and monotony.
Derek Jeter is one of the few inspirations left to me, perhaps the only one. If any other player said he would return next season, I would dismiss it. A fractured ankle at the age of 38 is often a career killer. But not for Derek Jeter.
I believe him when he says he will be back.
Because I must. Because the game of baseball will not be the same without him—what class there is left, gone for good.