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NEW YORK – The New York Yankees exist to make gods, to turn humans superhuman by virtue of their defining characteristics, real or imagined. Babe Ruth was the larger-than-life caricature, Lou Gehrig the classy figure felled by tragedy, Mickey Mantle the purest talent possible, Joe DiMaggio the essence of gracefulness, Yogi Berra the human malaprop. They live on in Monument Park, the center field homage at Yankee Stadium, to which people travel from around the world, as though on Hajj, to pay respects.
Derek Jeter arrived here with the No. 2 on his back, anointed before he'd taken a single swing with a single-digit number, which only Yankees greats wear. Before long, his sobriquet was clear: Derek Jeter, the epitome of clutch, the sort of legend that grew in his salad days and waned as the vagaries of time took with it most of his game.
This is the curse of being a Yankee, the counterbalance to the deification: godding up a player brings the expectation of mystical behavior, like Derek Jeter in his final night at Yankee Stadium walking to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning of a tie game that should've never reached that point, with a runner on second base, a cutter on the outside corner at 86 mph and enough bat speed still to shoot it to right field, everything he stands for fulfilled in one moment with the inside-out swing we've seen a million times, or maybe it just feels that way.
It was the sort of moment we'll see a million times again, which is fine, because for the romantic and cynic alike it was undeniable: journeyman Antoan Richardson steaming around third base and sliding in at home, Jeter turning toward an onrushing mob of teammates, the soundtrack a crowd in the throes of apoplexy. All night long, Jeter held back tears, retreating to the bathroom in between innings to compose himself. At times during the game, he stood at shortstop hoping the ball wouldn't come to him. All those years tamping down emotions, pretending like they didn't exist, because if he didn't project stoicism the other 24 men in his clubhouse would worry. He couldn't help that others godded him up; it became a character he needed to play.
For 20 years, Jeter didn't just survive New York; he owned it. He was the modern athlete, the one with a fistful of championship rings, a handsome face, an untouchable list of conquests, a reverence due to the Yankees' mythmaking machine but one he never took for granted by turning petulant. The greatest thing anyone can say about Derek Jeter is that New York never broke him. Two decades as the biggest athlete in the biggest city takes a remarkable amount of discipline, a real-life fixer with the skills of Winston Wolf, or both.
He broke, or at least broke down, Thursday afternoon, on his drive to the ballpark. Jeter said he almost started crying. "I was by myself," he said, "so I could've lost it, and then no one would have seen it." The season, Jeter said, had been difficult. "You almost feel as though you're watching your own funeral," he said. "What I mean by that is people telling you great things and showing highlights and reflecting. I understand that my baseball career is over with, and people are giving you well wishes, like you're about to die." And then he was going to walk into a stadium where 48,613 people would chant his name in the classic New York style – De-rek Je-ter, clap, clap, clap-clap-clap; repeat ad infinitum – and videos were going to show and the whole night would be an over-the-top tribute, like the previous two Derek Jeter tribute nights were, like the gauche marketing of Derek Jeter's last season was, like every maudlin emotion on which the Yankees could play would be.
Baseball does cheese better than every other sport because it sees itself as lyrical and poetic and representative of life, and Jeter – the one at whom commercials depicted Red Sox and Mets tipping their caps even though others may have chosen to flip their birds – embodies this. He was considering his night, the chants, the cheers, the everything, and he said, with all sincerity: "I don't know too many other occupations where that's possible. And then the fans are chanting, 'Thank you, Derek.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'What are you thanking me for? I'm just trying to do my job.' Really, they're the ones I want to thank. They're the ones that have made this special."
It's easy to sneer at the whole production, like Keith Olbermann did to great fanfare from those tired of Jeterfest 2014 and wrath from those who just want an athlete to love. That is a lot to ask for these days, incidentally, especially in a sport that produces stars like blighted plants bear fruit. Jeter's excellence – an unquestioned greatness, for those who might think otherwise – is dwarfed by his stardom. And it breeds the sentiment that pervades when the Gatorade ad that depicts a man-of-the-people Jeter rings hollow.
In the concourse, such talk was either "jealousy" (Nicole Vitulli, 23, Bronx), "stupid" (George Nackley, 60, Scranton, Pa.) or "ridiculous" (Jerry Epshteyn, 33, Brooklyn).
"No real Yankee fan cares about Derek Jeter's range," Epshteyn said. "We don't come here to watch his range, or his footwork. We come to watch Captain Clutch. Who do you want hitting second on the Yankees? Chase Headley? We're not here for range."
"We're here," said his friend, Roman Bernstein, "for bottom of the ninth, two outs."
Bernstein said this in the fifth inning, more than an hour before the bottom of the ninth, one out, with Jeter coming up. He said this not knowing that the last time Jeter stroked a walk-off hit was June 8, 2007, and it was a bases-loaded doinker to second base. He said this because that's the Jeter he wants to remember, and if it is a perfect image of someone who actively does so little to tarnish it, there is no harm in that.
The moments Jeter gave Bernstein and Epshteyn and Nackley and Vitulli and tens of thousands of others in the Bronx and millions of others everywhere else matter far more than his WAR. "I feel like my youth ends tonight," Bernstein said. Right by him walked a 47-year-old named Chuck Marrone, who carried his 6-year-old son, Antonio, on his shoulders. It wasn't just Bernstein's generation, which grew up watching Jeter, that wanted a final peek. Fathers gave sons the chance to say they once saw him. Chuck wore a No. 2 Jeter jersey. So did Antonio.
"Look what Jeter did for baseball," Marrone said, and what he did was … well, that's the thing about Jeter. He stroked 3,000 hits. He did the backhand flip to nab Jeremy Giambi. He dove into the stands. He had these iconic moments, yes, ones that make for wonderful between-innings video clips. Any real transcendence ends there.
Fans projected onto Jeter those archetypal feelings that to this day, even as he's limped toward the end of his career, symbolize him. "I'm not even a die-hard Yankees fan," admitted Marrone. "I'm just here for Jeter."
He was here for the ninth and its afterglow. Pitcher Evan Meek slumping off the mound as the Yankees, 13 games behind Baltimore, celebrated like they'd won a postseason game. The scoreboard flashing Yankees 6, Orioles 5. Jeter hugging Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Joe Torre and so many more, the last light of the Yankees dynasty burning out, the last god the Yankees were able to manufacture smote.
He'll finish his career with three games in Boston as the designated hitter, because he wanted to take with him from Yankee Stadium the snapshot of shortstop in the place he loved most. Perhaps the greatest swan song in baseball history came there, when Ted Williams homered in his final at-bat. Williams refused to acknowledge the crowd, birthing John Updike's famous line: "Gods do not answer letters."
Nearly 54 years to the day of Williams' last game, Derek Jeter took off his cap and stepped over the first-base line. He walked and spun and waved, cut a trail around the basepaths, to second, and then toward shortstop, and back toward first base, pirouetting and moving like a pro. The final syllable of "My Way" strained through the speakers as he walked back over the first-base line. Jeter hugged his mom, then his dad. At the top of the dugout steps, he and Torre embraced. Jeter descended the steps into the tunnel toward the clubhouse. He walked through double doors, high-fived two security guards and disappeared at 10:33 p.m. ET.
For one night, gods did answer letters.