On Sunday night, No. 2 made history as the New York Yankees retired Derek Jeter’s iconic jersey number in a ceremony held before the team’s game against the visiting Houston Astros.
NEW YORK – The Stadium was thick with nostalgia, a This-Is-Your-Life journey on the Jumbotron scoreboard that reminded Yankees fans why they fell in love with Derek Jeter in 1996 and never stopped. The crowd was on its feet throughout – everyone was woozy from the sensory overload, hearing and seeing the Captain’s finest moments in high def.
The first base hit, the ALCS-changing home run against the Orioles in ’96, the Subway Series HR against the Mets, his 3,000th hit, on and on the images kept rolling, bringing you back to the best days of the Yankees’ dynasty. The ceremony was perfectly accessorized by congratulatory messages from A-listers like Joe Namath, Mark Messier, Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Adam Jones and Don Mattingly.
As love-ins go, this one was tough to beat.
It would’ve be enough to overwhelm even the stoic Jeter. He admitted, “I might’ve gotten emotional” had he not been in Monument Park while the rest of the Stadium was getting swept away in that time tunnel. Probably just as well: the Captain was never one for tears. Even in retirement he would’ve had a hard time explaining that he’d become a bit of a softy.
Still, it was easy to see how deeply Jeter was affected by the evening’s events, and how attached he still is to the Yankees. Waving away questions about his attempt to buy the Marlins with Jeb Bush, Jeter said, “Tonight, this is about the Yankees.”
Minutes earlier on the field, Jeter took the microphone from Michael Kay and looked at the tens of thousands who’d come to honor him. It’s been almost three years since the Captain has stood before a crowd this big and it generated a nostalgic rush of its own. Until 2014 Jeter had spent his adult life proving how tough and confident he was, what leadership meant and making it possible for the Yankees to run through the American League like it was theirs.
And it was happening all over again on Sunday night, except those who’d accompanied him during that golden-era run were in suits, not uniforms, greyer and fleshier around the middle. Joe Torre, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte were there to remind everyone what the place used to feel like and how fast the years have flown by.
The former Yankees spoke with one voice when asked why Jeter was so special. Any Yankees fan already knew the answers by heart.
“If you ever needed a big hit, especially in the postseason, those were hard bat-bats, big at-bats,” Pettitte told reporters. “I never saw anyone who handled that pressure like Derek time after time, again and again.”
“Derek is the greatest Yankee of our generation,” Martinez said, before recalling what Jeter’s home run did to the Yankees – and Mets – leading off Game 4 of the 2000 World Series.
“First pitch, first swing,” Tino said, shaking his head. “We knew were going to win. We knew that game was over.”
PHOTOS: Yankees retire Jeter’s No. 2
Torre went on to repeat another axiom of Jeter’s enduring talent – being greater than the sum of his parts. Other Yankees were bigger and stronger, many were faster and more athletic, and no one ever said Jeter was the Bombers’ best defender. Yet, Jeter’s talents manifested in subtle ways, usually under the radar and invisible to the box score.
It usually dawned on newcomers after 2-3 months of joining the Yankees, when a player would sidle up to Torre and say, as he recalled, “I always realized (Jeter) was a good player, but I never realized he was this good.”
It’s the unquantifiable that made Jeter unique – beloved by the fans but dismissed by those who cling to advanced metrics. To them, Jeter was a creation of New York hype, but those who knew the shortstop best told you Jeter had the ability to make others around him play at a higher level. And there’s no software for that.
It sure turned Jeter into a hero at the Stadium, though, especially on Sunday. This was more than a ceremony to retire his No. 2, it was a farewell to an era. This was the final sacrament of the captain’s legacy, having a plaque that will join other Yankees legends in centerfield. Fittingly, the Stadium was filled with the sounds of Springsteen’s “Glory Days” in the run-up to the ceremony, and as he was riding in from centerfield, Jeter was serenaded by Sinatra belting out “My Way.”
It made everything else about the night feel small and ordinary. The current Yankees watched as bit players. The Astros were in their dugout, too, every one of them on their feet, applauding as Jeter was introduced. Jeter spoke for only five minutes, but he could’ve had the floor forever. No one in the ballpark wanted to let go.
So what’s next? Jeter actually laughed when asked the impending birth of his first child; wife Hannah Jeter (Davis) is due “very soon” he said. But as for fatherhood himself, the former Yankee said, “I’m unprepared.”
The line got a laugh in the press conference, but Jeter’s most powerful message was saved for the moment he said goodbye to the crowd. As usual, Jeter came up big when it counted most.
“Family is forever,” the captain said. “And I’m eternally grateful that I’ll be part of the Yankee family forever.”
Klapisch writes for The (Bergen County, N.J.) Record