Friday, September 26, 2014

Derek Jeter: An unscripted career

For the last 20 years, there has been one constant at Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter. Winning wouldn’t have happened without him, and classic moments would have been fewer had he never donned pinstripes. Each poignant event in Jeter’s illustrious career has seemingly been penned by an author hell-bent on making Jeter the hero.

But you can’t predict baseball, right? The game can change without notice. And in Jeter’s final at-bat, in his final game at Yankee Stadium, he added one more completely unscripted moment to a career filled with heroics.

Had Yankees' manager Joe Girardi interfered by removing Jeter from the game early Thursday night, it would have been a scripted moment. Of course it would have been stirring and memorable, but maybe a letdown compared to what eventually ensued. Girardi knows that Jeter is all about being in the right place at the right time and most importantly succeeded when the lights shone brightest on one of the best players to roam Yankee Stadium, or play the great game of baseball.

Did Girardi know that David Robertson was going to cough up a three-run lead? I doubt it, but he was not about to pull a player who above all things hated missing games. Jeter always felt that if he was on the field he gave the Yankees a chance to win. To win games was the ultimate goal, and if he could be a part of it well that was just fine.

Jeter’s unscripted life in baseball began as a teenager, where he dreamed of being a New York Yankee. Jeter played shortstop. The Yankees needed one. He landed in front of them in the first round of the amateur draft in 1992 and they took a chance on Jeter, a skinny kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan. His dream was now a reality and he would not let the opportunity go to waste.

Jeter took the team over in 1996, which ended with a Rookie of the Year Award and a World Series Championship. No one wrote about the chances of that happening. Who writes about a young fan being in exactly the right spot for a Jeter fly ball to be removed from the Stadium in a playoff game? Perfectly unscripted.

Then came the World Series three-peat, at a time when dynasties in baseball were all but forgotten, Jeter helped craft a legendary tale of sheer dominance in the sport. During those three seasons, Jeter was incredible.

No one scripts those types of numbers. That’s talent, hard work and confidence all in one.

Classic moments don’t always end with a fairytale conclusion, making them all the more unscripted. The flip play. Hitting the first postseason home run in November – to win the game! Those instances marked Jeter as a man who comes up huge in the biggest moments, but the perfect story would have ended in a World Series title. Not all Jeter memories ended with a ring.

But the fight to add to the collection of titles never stopped for Jeter. The Yankees mantra to win the World Series each season in no way weighed Jeter down; it only fueled his own desire for victory. This wasn’t about playing hard in the just the postseason; it was about grinding each and every inning, every single play. The jump-throw in the hole. The inside-out swing. The perfectly executed bunt. Falling into the stands for a foul ball, leaping into them for another. Catch made. Out secured. It seemed that each time the Yankees needed a big play Jeter was there. Again, chalk it up to hard work, hustle and determination. The Jeter way, and perfectly unscripted.

Who writes about the star being doubted at 34-years-old, knowing he is going to turn it around? Jeter had a lackluster 2008 season, the first in which the Yankees failed to reach the postseason in his career to that point. Jeter quieted the naysayers who couldn’t resist claims he was on the downward spiral heading into the 2009 season. The result – 212 hits, 107 runs, .871 OPS – a ring for the thumb.

Jeter followed that final World Series title with a season and half of mediocre play and THIS TIME he was done. He needed to hang them up. The story was going to end here with Jeter being washed up just like every other heroic player eventually falters.


Jeter came back from an injury which took 18 games from him and went on a tear. On July 9, 2011 he came to the plate with 2,999 hits and faced David Price, one of the best pitchers in Major League Baseball and promptly deposited his 3,000th hit into the left field seats. Oh, and he went 5-for-5 that day. Unscripted, naturally.

Jeter didn’t stop hitting the ball that season and followed it up with an MLB leading 216 hits in 2012. Each hit adding to the legend. Each hit unscripted.

The Yankees reached the American League Championship Series that season and Jeter was doing his thing, slashing .364/.391/.500. Unfortunately, he fell and broke his ankle during the ALCS and the Yankees were swept by the Detroit Tigers. He missed much of the 2013 season. The Yankees missed the playoffs. This was not a storyteller’s finish.

On February 12, 2014, the only scripted moment of Derek Jeter’s career happened. He announced his retirement. He was hanging them up. The daily grind was finally taking a toll. He would leave the game on his terms. Confident enough in his abilities, he wanted to give it one last go-around. One last chance to get a ring for the other hand. The storybook ending was in sight.

Instead, the Yankees were torched by injuries and letdown by their entire offense for much of the season. Jeter, had moments where it looked like his retirement was a good idea. A 0-for-28 slump before the last homestand of his career pulled Jeter’s numbers down to completely unscripted levels. The Captain was looking old at the plate. His time was coming to an end and it wouldn’t be pretty.

But the fans at Yankee Stadium seemed to rejuvenate Jeter. He put together four straight multihit games as the homestand began. He went .353/.371/.559 in his last eight games at the Stadium; including four doubles and a homer. They accounted for more than 20 percent of his extra-base hits for the entire season. Unscripted.

The final home game, after the Baltimore Orioles quieted the crown down with back-to-back homers to open the game, Derek takes control. He roped an RBI double off the left field wall to score the Yankees first run. He came around to score the tying run.

The Yankees took a comfortable 5-2 lead as Kuroda settled down lasting eight innings. Girardi kept Jeter on the field. He would let things play out. Jeter’s tribute would come after the game in Girardi’s mind. Jeter would not want to leave the field in the middle of a game. There was one more unscripted moment to come.

Robertson, he of 38 saves in 42 chances, took the mound and allowed the O’s to tie to the game. Just like that, the story of a final Yankee win for Jeter in New York was in peril. Or was it?

With the score knotted at five, rookie outfielder Jose Pirela started the inning with a single. Speedster Antoan Richardson replaced him and moved to second on Brett Gardner’s sacrifice bunt.

Up came Jeter. The crowd chanted his name the entire game. They were as loud as any World Series game. DEREK JETER! DEREK JETER! DEREK JETER!

First pitch from Orioles' right-hander Evan Meek is an 86 mph changeup that Jeter promptly sends into right field. Richardson rounded third, the throw from Nick Markakis was late and the Yankees won. Jeter did it again, in a perfectly unscripted moment. The last one of his storied career in home pinstripes.

Jeter’s jubilance was like every other big win for the Yankees. Just like the kid in ’96 and the elder statesman in ’09 the only thing that was scripted was the desire of a champion. Witnessing that craving for a win will be sorely missed.

Thank you Derek for everything you’ve done for the Yankees, the game of baseball and for young children all over the world who needed a role model. You proved that writing a script doesn’t happen in baseball. The game can’t be predicted. But it can be molded; by practice, dedication and the will to win.

Photos courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Stats retrieved via Baseball-Reference.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance sports writer and sports media strategist. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In.