Could it get any better than this?
The setting for the baseball game between the Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays was ideal—84 degrees and sunny for a Saturday afternoon in the Bronx, just before baseball’s All-Star Break.
But this wasn’t an ordinary Saturday. A Yankees legend was on the verge of history.
Derek Jeter entered the day with 2,998 career hits. He had done so in a way that was rather un-Jeterian and had some thinking the end of his career was approaching rapidly.
Jeter was hitting .257 with a puny .649 OPS entering the day. An injury in mid-June forced him to miss three weeks and he was 4-for-18 since his return.
“It looked like his career was dwindling to a quiet end,” said ESPN.com’s Yankees beat writer, Andrew Marchand.
This was not the same Jeter of whom Sports Illustrated’s Joe Sheehan said “(He) displayed just about every skill a player could have at one time or another. He hit home runs, drew walks, hit for a high average and had a tremendous throwing arm. He did just about everything you could do.”
But if Jeter established one thing in his career with the Yankees, it was a sense for the dramatic. From the game-tying home run in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles to his leadoff homer in Game 4 of the Subway Series against the Mets in 2000, to the “Flip Play” and the “Mr. November” walk-off home run in the 2001 postseason to the amazing fly-into-the-stands catch against the Red Sox in 2004, Jeter thrived in being the man of the moment.
The man pitching to him that day posed a challenge. Rays starter David Price had a 95-MPH fastball, the pitch that Jeter hasn’t been able to catch up to for much of the season.
Jeter was not the type to shy away from a challenge.
“Every at-bat, he was competing his ass off,” said former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling.
“You were never cheated watching Derek Jeter,” said ESPN SportsCenter anchor Kevin Connors, who covered Jeter as a New York sports reporter.
And yet Jeter was hiding something. The normally unflappable Jeter was feeling the pressure.
That wasn’t supposed to be. Jeter was always the Yankees player who took the pressure off his teammates.
“The night of the first round (in 2005), I’m sitting in the dugout a few minutes before introductions like I’m nervous,” said his former teammate, Aaron Small. “He comes by and says ‘What’s up man? You nervous? This is the big time. We’re just playing a little kid’s game. Just relax.”
Jeter led off the bottom of the first expecting fastballs and got them, eight as a matter of fact. He fouled off two, but timed the last one right and grounded it into left field for a hit, one that put him one away from 3,000.
By the time Jeter came up again, it was the third inning and the Yankees trailed 1-0 with one out and no one on base. He worked the count to 2-1 and fouled off a changeup. He took another slider to run the count full.
Price tried another fastball- 95.4 MPH- and that didn’t work. Jeter fouled it off. Price tried a changeup, and Jeter fouled that one away too.
Price decided to try something new. It’s not easy to get out someone you’ll call “One of the all-time great players In the history of the game” when the game is over. He went to his curveball.
This one Jeter timed. And he timed it just right.
“I didn’t want to hit a slow roller to third base it have It replayed forever” he’d say afterwards.
Instead, he hit a fly ball into the left field stands for a home run.
“Three thousand, with an exclamation point!” yelled Yankees TV play-by-play man Michael Kay.
Yankee Stadium erupted. Even the Rays paid tribute. First baseman Casey Kotchman tipped his cap to Jeter as he rounded the bases.
“I felt like it was the right thing to do,” Kotchman said afterwards.
The game stopped for five minutes as the Yankees players came onto the field to congratulate their captain, who became the first Yankees player to reach the 3,000-hit mark.
Meanwhile, in the stands, the ball was caught by a young fan named Christian Lopez, who was sitting in Section 236. It is typical in this day and age for fans to auction historic baseballs, but Lopez decided to give the ball to Jeter. The Yankees rewarded that by allowing Lopez to personally give the ball to Jeter, and gave him tickets to every remaining game that season.
But that came afterwards. There was still a game to play and this one was a toss-up. Jeter got a hit in the fifth as part of a two-run Yankees rally and another in the sixth, but was left stranded at second base.
The Yankees led by a run in the eighth inning, but the Rays tied it when Jeter’s former teammate, Johnny Damon tripled, and Ben Zobrist singled him in. Yankees reliever David Robertson kept the game tied into the bottom of the eighth.
Jeter was due up third in the Yankees half of the eighth and the Yankees set the table in front of him. Eduardo Nunez doubled and Brett Gardner bunted him to third base.
It would have been easy for Rays manager Joe Maddon to walk Jeter. But with solid-swinging Curtis Granderson on deck, he declined. He also thought about doing something extreme and playing a five-man infield, stationing a man behind second base to cut off that gap in his defense. But since it was the eighth inning and not the ninth, Maddon didn’t have the guts to try that bold a move.
As it turned out, Maddon had the right idea.
On a 1-2 pitch from Joel Peralta, Jeter hit a ground ball right up the middle, scoring Nunez with the go-ahead run. That proved to be the winning run when Mariano Rivera got the final three outs.
“I’m pretty happy with how things went today,” Jeter said in typically modest fashion.
“He went above and beyond,” Maddon said of Jeter afterwards.
Jeter went above and beyond the rest of the season as well. And then beyond that.
In 2012 he led the American League in hits and batted .316. The old Jeter was back, though eventually father time caught up to him in the form of a freak injury suffered in the ALCS that didn’t heal easily.
Still, Jeter had one more amazing moment in him. In his final regular-season game at Yankee Stadium in 2014, his walk-off hit against the Baltimore Orioles plated the winning run. It’s as if it was meant to be.
“Everything is perfect for that guy,” Marchand said. “He’s not perfect, but his career is as close to perfect as you could have.”
Derek Jeter in 2011
Through 7/8 After
BA .257 .338
OPS .649 .843
Hits 72 90
Games 66 65
Most Hits, Yankees History
Derek Jeter 3,465
Lou Gehrig 2,721
Babe Ruth 2,518
Mickey Mantle 2,415