A great baseball player is a guy you want at the plate with a runner on third base and less than two outs. You want this guy at the plate because he will do what it takes to get the run home. He will not strike out and he will not pop up. He will get the runner home.
Let the record show that Derek Jeter was a great player to the end. Even at 40. Even hitting .256. Even on the worst Yankees team in 22 years.
Jeter bowed out of the big leagues Sunday afternoon at Fenway — not with a titanic blast over the Green Monster, not with a walkoff single with Sinatra crooning into the October night sky — but with a third-inning RBI chop single to third base on a 1-and-2 pitch.
He did what he always did. He came to bat with a runner on third and less than two outs in the third inning of Game 162 at Fenway and he managed to get his bat on the ball and get the run home. He did his job.
“I knew that was my last at-bat,” Jeter said after the Yankees’ 9-5 win. “I was trying to get a hit. I was just happy I ended my career with a hit . . . I gave everything I had physically and everything I had mentally. Now it’s time to step back.’’
And so, he was gone. Yankees manager Joe Girardi sent Brian McCann in to pinch run. Derek Sanderson Jeter hugged a bunch of folks, tipped his cap to the sellout crowd, and disappeared into the Yankees’ dugout at 2:26 p.m. The Yankees led, 3-0.
The end of Jeter’s 20-year career was somewhat anticlimactic in the wake of Thursday night’s magical moment when Jeter banged home the winning run in the bottom of the ninth in his final game in the Bronx. He did not play in Friday’s series opener in Boston but served as DH at Fenway Saturday and Sunday, telling the world that he was doing it out of respect to the Red Sox rivalry and Boston baseball fans.
The love was shared at Fenway all weekend. New Yorkers came to Boston by the thousands for an otherwise meaningless season-ending series, and Jeter was toasted throughout the three-day festival.
The Fenway gates were still closed and the park was predominantly empty when Jeter first popped out of the third base dugout for his final batting practice Sunday. The first person he saw around the cage was Hall of Fame scribe and former Globie Peter Gammons, who was at Fenway on the same date 54 years earlier for Ted Williams’s final game.
The ballpark doors opened while the Yankees were hitting, and a stream of folks wearing Jeter jerseys and other Yankees garb quickly filled the lower boxes to watch their Bronx god take his final BP hacks. When his group was done hitting, Jeter did what he always did: He picked up the stray baseballs at the back of the cage. Sox rookie Rusney Castillo came over for a brief meeting with the Yankees captain.
The half-hour pregame ceremony was another Dr. Charles Steinberg spectacular. It was above all, respectful. The Sox blundered last year with a tad too much good-natured mockery of Mariano Rivera, so this time it was all about respect.
Things got off to a nice start with a boffo video presentation to Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.’’ It was a gloves-off movie trailer with vivid footage of Bucky Dent, Fisk-Munson brawls, Aaron Boone, Dave Roberts, David Ortiz, and of course, the Great Bambino. Fans of both teams had a chance to relive the triumphs and tragedies of the 100-plus-year war.
After the video, the Green Monster scoreboard was filled in, letter by letter, until it read, “With Respect 2 Derek Jeter.’’ When the message was complete, Jeter trotted out to his shortstop position as the sound system played the theme from “The Natural.’’
Then, from the Red Sox dugout, came the parade of Boston greats, most of them captains. One by one, Carl Yastrzemski, Rico Petrocelli, Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, Luis Tiant, Tim Wakefield, Jason Varitek, Bobby Orr, Troy Brown, and Paul Pierce went out to welcome Jeter. Next was Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield, who was one of Jeter’s first minor league instructors. Then the entire Sox roster. Then came a presentation of a check for $22,222.22 (signed by Red Sox chairman Tom Werner) to Jeter’s Turn 2 Foundation.
With everyone gathered around Jeter, the Sox featured a video presentation of Jeter submitting to the Ice Bucket Challenge in the Yankees clubhouse. This led to an emotional appearance by former Boston College baseball captain Pete Frates, who was stricken with ALS two years ago. A North Shore native, Frates homered at Fenway against Harvard when he was MVP of the Baseball Beanpot in 2006. The brave BC captain came across the infield, alone, in his wheelchair and was greeted by Jeter.
Local recording artist Michelle Brooks Thompson performed Aretha Franklin’s iconic “Respect’’ and tried to get Jeter to show off some dance moves, but the Captain never does anything that might make him look foolish. Jeter gave her a respectful hug.
That was it. The Sox took the field to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” (a Yankee Stadium tradition) and it was game on.
Jeter came to bat in the top of the first and lined an 0-and-1 Clay Buchholz pitch to Sox shortstop Jemile Weeks. No doubt Yaz was long past the Kowloon by then.
Then came the third inning. Jeter’s final inning. After a booming triple by bookend oldie Ichiro Suzuki, Jeter worked the count to 1 and 2 and did what he’s always done. He put the bat on the ball. He got the run home.
And he tipped his cap. This was one god who did indeed answer letters.