RE2PECT for a “Nothing Game”

I’m not quite ready to let go of Derek Jeter just yet.

He played his last game in pinstripes last night at Yankee Stadium. He also played his last game at short stop. In an interview after last night’s game he said he wanted his view of the field and the stadium from the vantage point of between 2nd and 3rd to be the last one of his career. He’s sure he’ll appear “in some capacity” in the final series of the season in Boston starting tonight, but not short stop. I’m thinking maybe a DH, or perhaps a dramatic late inning pitch hitting situation? For all intents and purposes, we can just about close the book on Derek Jeter’s career. Whatever happens in Boston this weekend in the “away greys” will surely be a footnote compared to the thrilling final chapter that we saw last night.

Twenty seasons. Damn you, Derek Jeter. You made me not hate the Yankees for almost two decades, and I hated myself on the inside a bit because of my conflicted feelings.

I’m a tried and true (some may say tired and true) Toronto Blue Jays fan. I think the best way to love baseball is to choose a team, (it doesn’t matter what team, actually) and just stay faithful to them year after year, learning the players personalities and idiosyncracies, discovering the evolution of the rivalries, and find the fun, human aspect that all teams, even losing teams (maybe even especially losing teams) have. And so generally speaking, the worst enemies of your own team will be the other teams in your division. So in my case, we’re talking about the Red Sox, Orioles, Rays and of course, the fucking New York Yankees. In the 1980’s, I was one of the worst Yankees haterz. (I seem to think of 1988 as the year that I sort of “awoke” to baseball and followed the Jays for the whole year. There were certainly highlights before that. The “worst to first” season of 1985, especially. But if I had to draw a line between a time when I casually liked baseball and when it got under my skin, I’d have to say 1988.) I still remember the hate, the sheer HATE I felt for Dave Winfield when he was a Yankee, and all the weird emotions when he signed with the Blue Jays. I tried to like him, but I just couldn’t. How could he be anything but a Yankee once he was a Yankee?

The fact that the Jays won back to back World Series in 1992 and 1993 took the sting out of the rivalry for a while, and the Atlanta Braves quickly became my worst hated team in all of baseball, and they still remain not even worth mentioning.
Then we had 1994, the strike year. No post season. No chance for the Blue Jays to win 3 World Series in a row (also no chance for our other Canadian team, the Montreal Expos, to make the post season despite leading their division at the time the stadium doors were shackled.)

So in a way when we all came back to baseball, it was a different feeling, like someone had hit the reset button on the hard drive, and now there were these new young guys on the Yankees that weren’t actually total assholes. You had Andy Pettite, a soft-spoken pitcher with a killer fast ball being caught by Jorge Posada, a kind of goofy but lovable and (more importantly) reliable catcher, some relief pitcher that eventually became the Yankees closer, the last player to wear 42 on a regular basis, the Sandman, Mr. Mariano Rivera, (my mom’s favourite player. She was always a secret Yankees fan and I think was happy that her son was showing signs of softening) and some kid from Kalamazoo called Derek Jeter. Derek Jeter? How do you even pronounce that name? It looks like it should be “JETTER” or something. What’s his deal? These four dudes went on to become the “Core Four” who lead the Yankees to 4 World Series wins in 5 years in the late 1990’s and were reunited on the team in 2009 when they won again. A year or so after the arrival and consolidation of the Core Four, the Yankees hired Joe Torre as their manager, and my loyalties were further divided. Joe Torre had a wonderfully calm, unflappable quality to him that I really really liked. Damn it, why couldn’t the Jays hire someone like that? Instead we had some weird dude who tried to inspire his players by making up shit about being in the Viet Nam war. Seriously. And during all that time, Derek Jeter played short stop for the Yankees.

Something weird started to happen to me on the inside in the late 1990’s. I began to not mind if the Yankees were on the top of the American League East. I started to really admire and (god help me) respect how Joe Torre ran this team in the toughest sports city in the world under the more demanding management in major league baseball. Even the ancillary players like Scott Brosius and Paul O’Neill were fun to watch and holy fuck was I becoming a closeted Yankees fan? I mean, I still loved the Blue Jays, I would tune into Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth as much as I could, and cheer on Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, and that saucy gypsy Raul Mondesi, but the Yankees just seemed to be more interesting to follow those days. Something about the way Jeter carried himself made me really admire and look up to him. Sure, he may have had his share of tabloidy stories about “dates with the ladies”, but was there ever even a hint of trouble with steroids? Never. And we’re talking about the juiced era of the mid ’90s to the mid ’00s. That’s remarkable in itself, and something to remember.

I made a compromise to myself that I would always pull for the Jays first during the regular season, but once the Jays were eliminated, I could  cheer guilt-free for the Yankees in the Post Season. I told myself I wasn’t cheering for the Yankees because they were the Yankees,  I was pulling for Joe Torre and Derek Jeter who just happened to be employed by the Yankees. If they were with the Houston Astros, it would be no different. (Except that if they were with the Houston Astros, who would give a fuck?) Remember when Andy Pettitte went to the Astros for those 3 seasons? Nah, me neither.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to see the “core four” in action in person. I’ve seen Pettitte pitch to Posada in New York in 2007, Mariano close out a game in Toronto in 2002, and in addition to seeing Jeter in both those games, I most recently seeing him play in Minneapolis in 2008 and this past July on his farewell tour. On this last trip, I even got seats along the third base side (against my natural inclination to sit along the first base line, right Jamie?) so that we would have good views of Jeter in the field.

I have been known to wear Yankees caps from time to time, and I even have the odd t-shirt, bought for me by my Mom, who is always hoping I’ll fully convert. She’s the worst.

So, in recent years, the “core four” became the “key three”, and in 2008 Joe Torre went to the Dodgers before taking a desk job with MLB. Posada retired after the 2011 season, and Rivera and Pettitte went last year. In Mariano’s last appearance at Yankee Stadium, Joe Girardi was going to pull Rivera before the end of the game. It wasn’t so much that he needed to go, game wise, but it would give the fans an in game moment to honour him one last time. At the last minute, instead of going out himself to get him, Girardi sent Pettitte and Jeter out to the mound to send him off. It was a sweet and genuine moment that I think baseball fans will be talking about 50 years from now. It brought Mariano to tears on the mound, and I know I shed a few myself that night. After that, only Jeter remained. Jeter. Number 2. The last of the group that made me doubt my loyalties to the Jays, and now he was about to play his last game at home.

I’m not much of a stats guy. I love baseball, but when people start throwing numbers around like “On Base Percentage” and “RISP” (real talk: I don’t actually know what the RISP stat is), my eyes glaze over. I’m sure if you are interested in Jeter’s career stats, there are other places you can find them.

The only stat that I’ll mention here is the number of games in which Jeter played where the Yankees were mathematically eliminated from the post season. In other words, the number of “nothing games” that most teams play at the end of each season. In twenty seasons, before last night, that number was “1”. One! That means that of all the games that Jeter ever played in, aside from one, the Yankees either had a fighting chance to make the playoffs, had clinched a playoff spot, or were in the playoffs. Isn’t that a bit astounding?

I say “before last night”, because the Yankees were eliminated from the wild card race on Wednesday this week, so that number has now doubled to 2 (and will be 5 when you count the upcoming Boston series starting tonight). So no storybook ending for the Yankees this year, and last night’s game meant nothing, statistically speaking. The Baltimore Orioles have clinched first place in the American League East and were only looking to pad their numbers going into the post season.

A nothing game.

But you’d never know it.

My daughter and I tuned into the game last night (because: history!) and Yankee Stadium was packed. The energy in that place was unreal. The Yankees were out, but you’d never know it. Even after the Orioles first two batters hit back to back home runs in the top of the first (ruining Jeter’s final “roll call” from the bleacher creatures), you could still see the fire in Jeter’s eyes. His first at bat resulted in an RBI double and he eventually came around to score, tying the game at 2. The Yankees went ahead 5-2 but the Orioles made a game of it and tied it 5-5. It all came down to the bottom of the 9th. You can’t make this stuff up. Anything can happen in Baseball. With one on, Jeter hit a nice solid reliable clutch single into right field, (his signature specialty), causing the winning run to come home. His arms were raised above his head somewhere between first and second, like we’ve seen him do so many times in the post season over the past 20 years. It’s over. The Yankees win. And this is what makes baseball great: you know who is managing the Orioles? Buck Showalter. Buck Showalter used to manager the Yankees in the mid ’90s and he was Jeter’s first major league manager, so how appropriate, how “full circle”-esque is it to have Jeter’s first manager present and active in his last game, albeit for the other team? If this was fiction, you’d say, “come ON.”

And who was waiting for him once the initial cheering and jumping around eased off? Four guys: Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and my beloved Joe Torre. The core four and the manager that led them, reunited on the field one last time.

The game meant nothing, but this moment was everything.

Did I mention I fucking love baseball?



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