Twenty years from now, when I look back on my trip to Fenway Park this past Sunday , there will be details of the endcap to Derek Jeter’s twenty year career that I might not remember. Perhaps I will not remember the beaming teenage kid in pinstripes boasting his sign through aisles of the stadium that read “DEREK JETER: A NEW YORK LEGAND”. Hopefully I will forget about the peculiar characters lining the streets after the game, begging to buy used tickets for five dollars in order to flip them in memorabilia packages on EBay.
On an 86 degree NFL Sunday in late September, it felt more like a mid-summer afternoon tailored for baseball, America’s pastime. By the end of the day, baseball felt just like that—a past time. The end of a career that defined all that was good about modern baseball was coupled with an end to an era.
“One Mississippi, two Mississippi…” a pair of college-aged Yankees buffs sitting behind me would count in between each Clay Buchholz delivery typically reaching nine or ten before the lanky Red Sox hurler would begin his wind-up. Save for when Jeter stepped up to the plate, much of the banter coming from these two college buddies surrounded baseball’s dreadful pace of action or their fantasy football teams.
The 162nd game on schedule itself was a throwaway matchup between two lineups that were arguably a pair of the worst featured in three hundred meetings between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox spanning Jeter’s illustrious career.
The game was preceded by a lengthy, thoughtful pregame ceremony that saw the rival ball clubs sharing a level of camaraderie they never had before. Jeter, a name part of the baseball lexicon universally known to demand respect, proved to be more of a unifying force than just a relic of an aging sport.
A touching ceremony, no doubt, was complete with appearances by Boston sports heroes; Pete Frates, who currently suffers from ALS and began the ice bucket challenge; and a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” all in a showing of appreciation for Jeter. I am afraid that just like the spelling whiz with the “DEREK JETER: A NEW YORK LEGAND” sign, the ceremony may fade from memory someday.
What will stick is an eerie feeling. This eerie feeling is one that makes me feel like this was more than an end to a career, an era, and a season-long, nationwide circus commemorating a man that wanted nothing more than to go about his business as usual.
Perhaps Uncle Frank knew I would feel this way when he shelled out a premium price for my cousin and me to be there to experience the Jeter farewell. The general public will remember Jeter’s storybook walk-off single in his final game at Yankee Stadium. I will remember a bizarre afternoon in which Fenway Park felt more of a home to the Yankees captain than its beloved Boston Red Sox or to the game of baseball.
Chants of “Der-ek Jet-er” echoed louder than any chants of “let’s go Red Sox” over the past handful of tumultuous months in Boston. When exhortations of “let’s go Yankees” gained steam, they went unchallenged and carried on for a while. An overwhelming assemblage of pinstripes plastered sections ordinarily splashed with a majority reds and blues. Even those in red and blue were there for the same purpose: to clap, yell, and chant for Jeter. A Fenway Park crowd that was more enthralled by a Bernie Williams rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” than the ritual playing of “Sweet Caroline” was a strange spectacle indeed.
Despite the barrage of cameras and cellphones snapping at Jeter in any moment he was visible, witnessing the goodbye celebration felt like being warped into some ancient time when baseball was still considered the purest of American endeavors.
In the third inning, Jeter approached the plate for his final career at-bat. Ichiro Suzuki had just hit a gapping two-run triple that could have easily been the first inside-the-park homerun I would ever witness in person. Instead, the stars aligned for one last strange, quirky Jeter moment.
There was no textbook inside-out, opposite field base hit. Instead, a lavish chop, the baseball taking a solitary bounce before suspending 20 feet in the air, third baseman Garin Cecchini awkwardly stabbing at its descent.
Suspended in one last “Jeterian” moment of baseball irony was the ugliest of RBI infield singles ever to end a career. Substituted for by a pinch runner, Jeter shook Buchholz’s hand in a moment of uncanny defiance before exiting the field to the roar of a capacity Bostonian crowd. Long after his exit from the game, “Der-ek Jet-er” chants erupted from the stands every couple of innings.
The season-long media frenzy that followed him was sickening, but there was a reason for it. Those who denounce Jeter’s career as overrated are correct. He is statistically overvalued, but that is exactly the point. In a game where every conceivable action can be traced as stat, a single player’s character was esteemed more important by an entire generation. Jeter was not the face of baseball. He managed to outgrow the limits of the game itself.
Jeter became something greater than baseball over the past two decades, therefore he was not baseball. Baseball will go on without him, missing an intangible force it enjoyed for twenty years. However, this past Sunday, no one was there to see baseball. Everyone was there to bid adieu to a figure more important than the institution he was a part of.
My Red Sox-purist uncle once had his nose broken by a Jose Canseco foul ball. He has been to innumerable games at Fenway before, but he was not there for baseball this time, sitting next to me in Loge Box 151 on the third base line. Neither was I, nor my cousin in the seat to the right of me.
On the right of my cousin sat a creep who ate three hot dogs and had seemingly never been to a baseball game in his life. That was okay, though. No one was there to say hello to a final September afternoon of Red Sox baseball, or Yankees baseball for that matter. Everyone was there to send off the one man who embodied everything baseball was ever supposed to be and might never be again. Everyone was there to say goodbye to Derek Jeter.