It’s the same ballpark where Babe Ruth played his rookie season in 1914. It’s the same hardball theater where Ted Williams homered on his final big league swing, Sept. 28, 1960. It’s where Mickey Mantle made his last out on the same date in 1968.
And on Sunday, it’s where Derek Sanderson Jeter will finish a 20-year major league career that defined a game and an era.
Cities, teams, ballparks, legends, dates. Everything connects in baseball. Degrees of separation are minimal. Ruth played with Lefty Gomez, who played with Early Wynn, who played with Tommy John, who played with Don Mattingly, who played with . . . Jeter.
And Teddy Ballgame played with Ike Delock, who played with Yaz, who played with Wade Boggs, who played with . . . Jeter.
Jeter played his penultimate baseball game Saturday, going 1 for 2, on a sun-splashed afternoon at the intersection of Yawkey Way and Van Ness Street. Serving as a designated hitter in a dreadful 10-4, over-and-out, Yankees loss to Sox scrubs, the captain had an infield single before he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fifth inning.
It was his 153rd game at Fenway; if he plays Sunday, no Yankee in history will have played more. Since his first game here on July 15, 1996, he’s been the hardest Yankee to hate; the hardest not to respect. Yesterday, it was all love.
Outgoing commissioner Bud Selig, who first saw Fenway in 1949, was among the 37,147 who watched Saturday’s nationally televised matchup of traditional rivals who are not going to the playoffs this year. Selig was in the infancy of his commissionership when Jeter first batted in the majors in 1995. The national pastime was still reeling over the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, and was on the cusp of a full-blown steroid scandal when Jeter arrived out of central casting, via Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1995. For the next two decades, Jeter anchored the most demanding position for the most important big league team in our largest city as the Yankees returned to championship form and baseball regained prestige and popularity.
“You know how I feel about the history of the sport,’’ Selig said before Saturday’s game. “He [Jeter] is the face of our sport, and that face transcended everything else.’’
Bouquets have been tossed at Jeter’s cleats since late February when he arrived for spring training and announced that this would be his final season. The season-long farewell tour reached its crescendo Thursday night at Yankee Stadium when Jeter delivered the winning hit on a first-pitch single to right in the ninth inning. That would have been the end for most ballplayers (Williams did not make the Sox’ final trip to New York after hitting his Fenway blast in 1960), but a teary-eyed Jeter said he would make the trip to Boston and play in the final games as a sign of respect to the rivalry and Red Sox fans.
There were some long faces in the ancient yard Friday when Jeter took a well-deserved night off and stayed in the dugout while fans chanted his name in the late innings.
“It’s the first time he ever asked for a day off,’’ said Yankees manager Joe Girardi (Girardi would not commit to Jeter playing Sunday, but when Jeter was asked after Saturday’s game if he would play, the captain answered, “Yup!’’).
Jeter was physically and emotionally spent after Thursday’s night-for-the-ages in the House That Jeter Built. But he was back at work Saturday, penciled into his traditional No. 2 spot in the batting order. Performing as a DH enabled Jeter to honor his commitment to the Red Sox and their fans while holding on to his final moments at shortstop in the Bronx.
Jeter’s next-to-last game wasn’t much of a contest. Hundreds (thousands?) of New Yorkers are here this weekend, and the Fenway stands were peppered with Jeter jerseys and other Yankees garb when the gates opened at 11:35 a.m. There was no batting practice for either team, so the Jeter junkies didn’t get their fix until he popped out of the dugout to get loose in the on-deck circle as Ichiro Suzuki stepped in to face Sox righthander Joe Kelly just after 1 p.m.
Jeter’s first at-bat was a three-pitch strikeout. He whiffed on a 99-mile-per-hour heater.
‘[Jeter] is the face of our sport, and that face transcended everything else.’Bud Selig, Commissioner of baseball
The rag-tag Yankees trailed the last-place Sox prospects, 9-0, when Jeter came to bat again in the third inning. This time he chopped a 0-and-1 pitch off the plate and it bounced about 100 feet in the air before coming down in the glove of rookie third baseman Garin Cecchini. Jeter already was across first base when Cecchini corralled the baseball. Nice imagery there. Jeter never expected bonus points for merely playing the game the right way, but not every superstar runs hard on a meaningless chopper in the 161st game of the year with his team trailing, 9-0.
After Brian McCann lined out to end the inning, Jeter came off the field and tipped his helmet as he approached the third base dugout. He watched the rest of the game with teammates from the top step of the dugout, but was hit for by Francisco Cervelli in the middle of the rout.
It all ends on Sunday. Jeter will walk to the Fenway batter’s box, carrying the same model bat (Louisville Slugger, P72, 34 inches, 32 ounces) he has used for 20 big league seasons and a record 158 postseason games.
He probably won’t homer in his final big league at-bat. He might strike out or he might pop up. But he will bring dignity and class to the final game of the worst Yankees season in 22 years. He will play the game the way it is supposed to be played. And in the Yankees dugout, there will be some faceless young guys who’ll someday say they played with Derek Jeter, who played with Mattingly, who played with John, who played with Wynn, who played with Gomez, who played with
. . . Babe Ruth.