Captain Cooperstown: Derek Jeter’s perfect goodbye

Derek Jeter retired after the 2014 season, but not before giving the fans at Yankee Stadium the best kind of farewell.

Josh Benjamin

Josh Benjamin

All good things must come to an end, and that includes Derek Jeter and his Hall of Fame career.

Even in the many, many years that the New York Yankees didn’t win the World Series under his watch, Derek Jeter’s retirement didn’t seem real. He defied age for so long that fans just kind of assumed he would play well into his forties. Even in 2012, his age-38 season, Jeter hit .316 and led the majors in hits while also finishing seventh in MVP voting.

That all came crashing down in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. After battling back to force extra innings and now trailing in the 12th inning, Jeter went to field Jhonny Peralta’s groundball, but fell down in agony. He was helped off the field and later diagnosed with a broken ankle. The Yankees lost the game and the series.

Derek Jeter HOF Series

Derek Jeter HOF Series

Setback after setback meant Derek Jeter played just 17 games in 2013. Without their captain, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993. Legends Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte retired at the end of the year. The Jeter Dynasty and everyone who helped build it were now in the rearview mirror.

It became fully official in February. Following the 2014 season, Derek Jeter would retire from baseball. Approaching age 40, it was time to walk away.

But not without an epic curtain call.

The Derek Jeter Farewell Tour

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No New York Yankees fan fondly remembers the 2014 season. It wasn’t just because Derek Jeter was retiring at the end. Homegrown favorite Robinson Cano demanded a 10-year deal in free agency and got his wish…from the Seattle Mariners. In response, New York overspent on guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran.

Instead of getting the Yankees back to the playoffs, it was more of the same. Underachieving. Underperforming. Disappointment.

In the middle of it all, whenever New York was on the road, Jeter would get his own little send-off for his final trip to this particular city. The gestures were nice, albeit semi-infuriating.

Think about it. “Hey, Derek, we know you’re retiring after this year and your team is underperforming and in danger of missing the playoffs two years in a row. Here’s some custom commemorative art to go with a donation to your charity!”

Things didn’t improve. The Yankees played .500 ball for most of the year and managed to stay in the race before being formally eliminated in September.

September 25, 2014. It was finally time and the fans had their tissues ready. Facing the Baltimore Orioles, Derek Jeter would play his final game in Yankee Stadium.

An instant classic

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Baltimore already had the AL East clinched, but still played hard. Just ask starter Hiroki Kuroda, who gave up back-to-back home runs to Nick Markakis and Alejandro De Aza to start the game.

But as the Orioles played well, so did the Yankees. New York got both runs back in the bottom of the first. Almost fittingly, Derek Jeter got it started when his double scored Brett Gardner. Jeter would later score when McCann reached on an error.

Later, the team would small-ball its way to a 5-2 lead in the seventh inning. It was looking like Derek Jeter would soon say goodbye to a sold out crowd in the Bronx, albeit in an anticlimactic manner.

Lucky for everyone involved, David Robertson blew the save in the ninth. Going into the bottom half, we were tied 5-5. Jeter was due up second.

An emotional goodbye

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Because ticket prices were through the roof, I sadly couldn’t witness the Yankee captain saying goodbye in person. I thus figured I’d watch his last game the same way I did Rivera’s, on my couch and sobbing into a large pepperoni from Ray’s Pizza.

Things changed when my parents invited my then-fianceé (now wife) and I over for dinner. Not one to turn down free food, we graciously accepted while establishing the game would be on.

And it was a really bittersweet moment too. Besides Derek Jeter, which New York Yankees shortstops had I known? Tony Fernandez, the switch-hitting journeyman who was his immediate predecessor. Diminutive and light-hitting Mike Gallego, who never stayed consistent enough to be a regular starter. Randy Velarde, the original super-utilityman who preceded Ben Zobrist by almost 20 years.

This wasn’t just the end of Derek Jeter the player, but practically mine and a bunch of other young fans’ childhoods. Our cool big brother/uncle was finally hanging them up to do something we’d never witnessed: live their life and not be a professional baseball player.

Jose Pirela singled to left off of Evan Meek to start the bottom of the ninth. Speedster Antoan Richardson pinch-ran and moved to second on Brett Gardner’s sacrifice bunt. Jeter’s 20-year career was about to come to a head, and we all began to get misty-eyed.

Derek Jeter does it his way

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“Now batting for the Yankees, number 2, Derek Jeter,” boomed the voice of the late, great Bob Sheppard over Yankee Stadium’s PA system. “Number 2.”

The chants of “DE-REK JE-TER” and the ensuing claps had been deafening all night. Just a couple of innings ago, with Jeter in the field, even the usually stoic captain appeared to hold back tears. He stepped into the batter’s box, Meek entered his windup, the game on the line.

86 miles per hour up in the zone, perfect for Jeter’s signature inside-out swing. He laced the ball through the hole on the right side as the crowd officially exploded.

“Base hit to right field!” shouted Michael Kay on the YES broadcast. “Here comes Richardson. Here’s the throw from Markakis. Richardson is safe! Derek Jeter ends his final game with a walk-off single! Derek Jeter, where fantasy becomes reality! Did you have any doubt?”

His teammates mobbed him at second base. I fell off my parents’ living room couch, sobbing in a crumpled heap while shouting, “He did it!” over and over again.

New York celebrates

The celebrations continued. Waiting at home plate were some key people from Derek Jeter’s past. Joe Torre, the Hall of Fame manager who guided Jeter through his early years and to four World Series rings. Pettitte and Rivera were joined by Tino Martinez, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams, proving the Core Four was really the Core Five or Six all along.

Even Gerald Williams was there, having stayed great friends with Jeter despite being traded midway through the 1996 season.

“You guys dressed up, huh?” Jeter joked, hugging the latter Williams. It was the last thing to do before doing what no one wanted: Derek Jeter saying goodbye. He took his lap around the field, tipping his cap and saluting the crowd as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” blasted.

A .310 lifetime batting average. 3,465 career hits, sixth all-time in MLB history. Five World Series rings. 14 All-Star selections. Even as he did his on-field interview after making his rounds, Jeter stayed humble, insisting he was only doing a job. He even congratulated Baltimore for making the playoffs before ending on a perfect note.

“What are you going to miss most about this uniform and this place?” asked YES correspondent Meredith Marakovits.

“Everything,” said Jeter. “But most of all, I’m going to miss the fans. They’re what made this special.”

A perfect finish to, in the opinions of some, a perfect career.

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