Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 7, 2014

Time To Honor The Captain

Sunday is a lovely late summer’s day. The air is dry and comfortable and a soft breeze pushes the stray puffy cloud across a robin’s egg sky. Later this afternoon the Yankees and Royals will play the last of a three game set at the big Stadium in the Bronx. It’s a meaningful game for both squads. The Royals, seeking a return to the playoffs after a nearly three-decade long absence, cling to a 2 game lead over the Tigers in the AL Central. For the Yankees the situation is more desperate. New York is on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs are concerned. With the Orioles holding a commanding lead in the AL East, the Yankees will take the field 4 ½ games behind the Mariners for the second American League Wild Card slot, with Detroit and Cleveland in equal or better position in the chase to catch Seattle.

The game will start half an hour later than scheduled, and once it gets underway it will serve as an unpleasant reminder to the more than 48,000 in attendance of the flaws of this group of Bronx Bombers. Simply put, this year’s offense falls far short of meriting the Yankees’ long-time nickname. For the second time in three days the home squad will be shut out. Friday night New York managed just three hits off Kansas City starter James Shields. Michael Pineda surrendered an unearned run to become a hard-luck 1-0 loser, something he should be accustomed to by now. In his last nine starts the Yankees have supported Pineda with just 16 runs scored. Under the bright sunshine and blue sky of Sunday Yankee hitters will fare no better, managing but four hits, all singles, off Kansas City pitching. It’s not as if the Royals will light up New York starter Shane Greene. He will lack the command that Pineda displayed Friday night, walking the first batter on four pitches and throwing only one clean frame in five innings. But in the end Greene will yield but two unearned runs in five innings, and New York’s bullpen will hold Kansas City the rest of the way. But since the Yankees will not score at all, the two Kansas City runs will be plenty.

By the time we all head for the exits the home team will actually have outscored the visitors 6-5 in the series. But with New York condensing all of its offense into the middle contest late Saturday afternoon, Kansas City leaves with the series win and we Yankee fans are left clinging to a frail hope that if technically not extinguished has grown distressingly slim. We fans are not fools. While we will of course grasp that slender reed of hope as hard as we can, we realize that for the second straight season it will almost surely be an early winter in the Bronx.

That likelihood makes the day’s ceremony all the more poignant. For as much as we hunger for the playoffs we have not lined up outside on Babe Ruth Plaza long before the gates opened just for a ballgame. We do not make our way to our seats well in advance of the first pitch so we can watch the grounds crew ready the field. No, we are here today to pay tribute to the first among our many heroes. It is the moment that we knew would come since he announced back in the first days of Spring Training that this season would be his last. Today we honor the captain. It’s Derek Jeter Day at the Stadium.

With 27 championships, the annual Old Timers’ Day, and Monument Park out beyond the center field wall filled with 18 retired numbers and nearly three dozen plaques honoring generations of players, owners, broadcasters and even a long-time public address announcer, the Yankees know how to put on a tribute, and today is no exception. In foul ground along both base lines a logo featuring Jeter’s number two has been painted on the turf. For the remainder of the season the players will wear a patch with the same logo on their uniforms. Atop the Stadium’s famous white frieze, thirty flagpoles normally fly banners for all major league clubs, arranged each day in the order of each division’s standings. Today, and for whatever is left of Jeter’s final campaign, the team pennants have also been replaced by flags sporting the number two logo.

On the field the ceremony begins with the introduction of Jeter’s grandmother. It was during summers at her New Jersey home that Derek the boy first dreamt of playing shortstop in a pinstriped uniform. Jeter’s parents and sister follow, and then Commissioner-elect Rob Manfred takes his place in the chairs arranged across the infield. Next come an array of the captain’s fellow players. One or two never wore pinstripes, but are players with whom Jeter developed close friendships over twenty years in the majors. Most of course were teammates, and while we in the stands cheer them all, we reserve our loudest and longest ovations for our favorites. The roar is deafening for Hideki Matsui, hero of the 2009 World Series, and equally so for former manager Joe Torre and career saves leader Mariano Rivera.

There are also some surprise special guests. Here is Cal Ripken Jr., who preceded Jeter as the face of not just a franchise but the entire game. Here is Jeter’s childhood hero Dave Winfield; and here is NBA legend Michael Jordan, another figure who transcended his sport. They are all joined by a long line of young people who have benefited from the work of Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation. The cheers are redoubled and echo across the field during the playing of a video that in its few minutes can only begin to touch the highlights of our hero’s career; the flip play, the diving catch into the stands, the first pitch home run in Game 4 of the 2000 World Series, the homer to left for his 3,000th hit.

Then at last it is Jeter’s turn to speak, and for a time we simply will not let him. The rhythmic chant of “Der-ek Je-ter” that has been a part of the Bleacher Creatures’ 1st inning roll call for two decades now pours down from every section. Finally he begins by thanking the Steinbrenner family and its late patriarch “for giving me the opportunity to play my entire career for the only organization I’ve ever wanted to play for.” He recognizes his teammates both past and present, and acknowledges how fortunate he has been. “I’ve had the greatest job in the world. I got a chance to be the shortstop for the New York Yankees, and there’s only one of those.” Finally he thanks all of us who have paid to watch him play, saying that whatever joy he has provided us, “it can’t compare to what you’ve brought me.” Then, even as the cheers begin anew, in typical Jeter fashion he adds, “We’ve got a game to play.”

That game goes as too many have gone for this season’s Yankees. At one point I spy a fan in the distance holding a sign that reads “Don’t be sad it’s over. Be glad it happened.” We Yankees fans are both of course, but all fans of the Great Game should be glad for the career of Derek Jeter, filled with equal measures of greatness, class, and determination. Even on a day when the Yankees lost, after a ceremony that might easily have been distracting, the identity of the player who got New York’s first hit came as no surprise. Of course he was wearing number two.

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Responses

  1. Every time I see that flip play, I get excited… it’s baseball perfection.

    • Indeed it is Alicia, which makes it a fitting symbol for DJ’s entire career.


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