By Ernie Palladino
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It still sticks with us after all these years, the play on which Derek Jeter placed his signature on a Hall of Fame career.
It wasn’t that horrible ALCS night in the Bronx two years ago when, flat on the infield, the shortstop’s magical run ostensibly ended. We want to forget about that.
Instead, let us remember the 2001 ALDS against Oakland. Game 3, two outs in the seventh, Yanks up 1-0 with Jeremy Giambi on first. It is on Mike Mussina’s next batter, Terrence Long, where everything Jeter was and will remain in our memories came to the forefront.
Long slashed a hard grounder past Tino Martinez at first, the ball rolling around a bit in the right-field corner as Shane Spencer went to retrieve it. Giambi, a rather slow baserunner, was waved around third and headed home as Spencer’s throw missed both cutoff man Alfonso Soriano and Martinez by a mile.
The A’s should have tied the game right then and there. Any other team with any other player would not have had a shot at Giambi, even with his lead-footed running ability. But here comes No. 2, instinctively racing across the infield from shortstop, crossing the first-base line to corral the errant throw and flipping — not rearing back and throwing, mind you, but flipping — the ball 20 feet as his momentum carried him AWAY from the play, to Jorge Posada. The catcher swiped Giambi on the right foot a hair before it slammed down on the plate.
As in any good storybook, the play produced a happy ending. Sort of. The Yanks won that game, won the ALCS and went on to a great, but losing, World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks in seven games. Though Jeter didn’t hit well, he did provide a highlight in Game 4 with his post-midnight walk-off homer as Oct. 31 turned into Nov. 1.
The reactions to the flip play ranged from amazement to disbelief, which is kind of what Jeter was all about, anyway. Always Derek-on-the-spot, be it diving into the third-base stands for a key catch or hitting a clutch home run. As Joe Torre once said of him and rallies, “He’s either starting it, ending it or he’s in the middle of it.”
This is how Jeter will be remembered five years from the end of this 2014 season, when the doors of Cooperstown swing wide for him, probably with a big sign on the front door telling him, “One Chair, No Waiting.”
Was he the fastest shortstop in history? Probably not. A lot of what he did in the field, like that flip play, came not from pure athleticism but instinct.
Was he the Babe Ruth of shortstops? No. We must remember that, PEDs or not, Alex Rodriguez amassed 345 of his 654 homers at shortstop before the Yankees switched him to third base in 2004. That’s more than Jeter’s 256, and no matter what he does in his final season, he won’t approach Rodriguez’s number.
Yet, there are all those hits — more than 3,000 of them — that he compiled to become the franchise leader. There were the clutch performances at bat, even if Jeffrey Maier did lend a hand in triggering that legacy in 1996 with a well-placed touch. There were the seamless double plays in the field.
There was the respect that came with the captainship he wore so proudly, ever mindful of trodding in the prodigious footsteps of Lou Gehrig and Thurman Munson before him.
He was above reproach, as a captain should be.
His announcement Wednesday that he would make 2014 his final season came unexpectedly, but not surprisingly. He is getting old. The broken ankle that night in Detroit started the decline of old age. At some point, the greatest instincts and the greatest drive won’t overcome the ravages of Father Time and injury. It has just gotten too hard to get back.
It is time.
So Jeter heads into a final season that may or may not see him complete it in one piece. It doesn’t matter. His legacy was set in stone a long time ago. That one, defining play in Oakland, long those many years ago, told us all we needed to know about No. 2.
It’s not time to say farewell yet. But when he comes off the field after that last out, no matter what part of the season it occurs, we can smile.
We saw the best.
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