Friday, 26 September 2014

One Last Jeter Footprint in the Yankee Stadium Dirt

A fitting farewell.

Just after 6.45 pm ET on Thursday evening, a rainbow arched over a crimson sky above the Bronx, New York. It was a parting gift from the baseball gods; Derek Jeter's final wish, to play his final home game without a deluge, granted with aplomb.

Ten minutes later, Jeter, smothered in those hallowed, heavy pinstripes and sporting that illustrious, iconic cap, mustered enough strength to hold his emotions at bay and sprint from the first base dugout. He charged towards the most coveted quadrant of dirt anywhere in sports: between second and third base at Yankee Stadium, the Captain's Field of Dreams.

As fans, we were granted a rare insight into the sweet banality of the game, with television cameras trained solely on Derek as his teammates whirled the ball about the infield in pre-game preparation. The quintessential shortstop scooped a few ground balls, uncorked a few throws, among the last of a storied career spanning two decades and innumerable peaks of drama.

Throughout this marathon farewell tour of platitudes and gifts and eulogies and tokens, Jeter has remained stoic, reserved, almost distant. He's been thoughtful and focused, taking it all in stride with clarity of thought and trademark poise. However, on this night, this wholly extraordinary night, he seemed to open up, drop the facade, and soak it all in. With his team finally eliminated from postseason contention, Derek could take centre stage without feeling selfish.

Whilst fielding those pre-game ground balls, he was more animated than usual. He looked up and scanned the seating bowl ensconcing him. He took a moment to admire the sacrosanct frieze and to gaze once more into the bleachers. He took long, exaggerated breaths, kicked at the sleek turf and teetered on the brink of tears. Right there, prior to this first meaningless home game of his life, the magnitude of the moment finally felt authentic, to Derek and to the watching masses. It was really happening. In a matter of hours, he would ride into the night, never again to don the home whites of his beloved team.

Bald Vinny, leading his right field Bleacher Creatures, initated one final Roll Call, with 48,613 lending their tongues to the lusty pronouncement of “DE-REK JEE-TER!”
Amid the cacophony, Nick Markakis, Baltimore's leadoff man, lofted a most unwelcome home run into the second deck in right field, reminding all in attendance that an actual game was to be played; reminding all watching of an often torturous season for a Yankee club toiling in the Orioles' wake. When Alejandro De Aza followed with a long ball of his own, a little air was let out of The House That Derek Built, on this night crammed with melancholic patrons and bathed in a persistent susurrus of history.

In the bottom of the first, Brett Gardner kick-started the New York revival with a single, bringing Jeter to the plate for the 12,594th time. He took three straight balls from Kevin Gausman, before the big righty hit the outside corner with a fastball. Then, after a throw to check on Gardner at first, Derek got one he liked, lashing a fat 95-mph fastball out on a line towards left-centre field. The ball streamed through the wet air, propelled by a bellowing, howling, disbelieving crowd willing it to get up, get big, get out. I thought it was gone. 

At the last conceivable moment, the ball dived, glancing with a satisfying rip off the outfield wall for a long double that scored Gardner and sent Jeter humming past the immortal Tony Gwynn on that particular all-time list.

Pandemonium.

When an 0-1 pitch from Gausman to Brian McCann got away from Oriole catcher Caleb Joseph, Jeter, ever conscious of the finer details, advanced to third, inspired by a rolling wave of enthusiasm and good will pouring forth from the grandstand. McCann grounded into a shift yet reached on a Kelly Johnson error, with Jeter sprinting home to score the 1,923rd run of his career. Even in the waning hours, Derek was still compiling, still adding on, still hitting and scoring and making people cheer, regardless of the standings.

In the second, Jeter even provided grist for his critics, committing a throwing error on a Johnson grounder. However, on the very next play, he charged hard to field a slow roller behind the mound and, with customary panache, fired a dart to first to nab the runner, Jimmy Paredes. Baseball is a game of failure and it's greatest exponents are those able to dust themselves down and react in a humble, fierce and resilient manner. Of that, Derek Jeter was the past master.

Following early nerves, Gausman and Hiroki Kuroda, perhaps hurling his last ever game on American soil, settled into an absorbing duel, trading zeroes through six-and-a-half innings which included, among other things, a Jeter ground out to short and a Jeter strike out evoking a guttural groan from a gathered metropolis. At times, in the quieter moments, one could literally feel the flailing embers of ones childhood drift away. It was a happy moment, it was a sad moment. It was drenched in pathos.

In the seventh, New York loaded the bases for Derek Jeter. How fitting. This felt like The Moment. Derek, attempting to keep his emotions in check and the script on track, didn't launch a titanic grand slam. Rather, he again grounded to short, where JJ Hardy, among the potential winter replacements for The Captain, threw away the ball, allowing two runs to score, gifting the Yankees a 4-2 lead and granting Jeter another RBI. McCann added a further run with a sacrifice fly, providing New York a 5-2 lead with which to advance to the top of the ninth inning. Derek Jeter's final inning at home.

David Robertson, perhaps feeling the tension emanating from thousands upon thousands of fans chanting, barking and yearning, lost Markakis to a leadoff walk before striking out De Aza. Then, as the roar of “THANK YOU CAP-TAIN!” grew louder, Adam Jones, immune to pressure, golfed a two-run dinger into the left field seats. 5-4, Yankees. Interesting.

Robertson struck out Nelson Cruz swinging, bringing the end ever nearer. One out remained. However, these party-pooping Orioles could not be restricted, and Steve Pearce launched a missile of his own, tying the game and receiving only a cursory glance over the shoulder from an exhausted Jeter, resting on his haunches at short. He knew it was gone. He knew he would have to rise one last time to one last New York occasion. He knew.

Jose Pirela began the Yankee ninth with a sharp single to left field, with Joe Girardi bringing in Antoan Richardson to pinch-run. Richardson, I'm proud to inform, represented Great Britain in the last World Baseball Classic qualifiers. He would soon scamper his way into the record books. 

Gardner bunted the speedster over to second, setting the scene, forming the moment, passing the baton.

For the last time in history, the cashmere voice of Bob Sheppard cut through the New York night. Now batting for the Yankees. Number two, Derek Jeter. Number two. From a crouched position near the Yankee dugout, Derek sprang into life, shot into action, strode to the plate. A shattering applause settled to a respectful, almost mournful hush. Jeter fiddled with the navy guard on his left elbow; dug into the batters box with slow and deliberate care; and fiddled with the brim of his cap. He spun the bat once, twice, thrice, and settled into that familiar old pose. The legs were a little stiffer than in 1995, the posture a little robotic, but the heart and soul were still there.

So was that sweet, scything swing. 

On a plump outside breaking ball from Oriole reliever Evan Meek, Derek unleashed a smooth but violent, inside-out hack, the like of which has propelled him into the annals of immortality alongside Pete Rose, Stan Musial, Tris Speaker and the like. The ball, steered by the force of a thousand New York hearts, grew wings, fluttering past a diving Pearce and rolling into right field. The yell of agreement from Yankee Stadium was immediate. Markakis came up throwing, as all around eyes bulged with kinetic pride. Richardson, the doting Brit, came hurtling around third to score in a blaze of his own excursion Cue delirium, tears and candid overtones of Sinatra.

In his final ever plate appearance at Yankee Stadium, Derek Jeter came through in the grandest way possible. In his final ever plate appearance as a shortstop, Derek Jeter, ever the commander of time, rolled back the clock. In his final ever plate appearance wearing those fabled pinstriped, Derek Jeter won the game. So typically, classically, quintessentially Jeter.

For that one moment of mass jubilation, Derek was a kid again, thrashing about the diamond with fire and life and energy. He was free.

How fitting that it should all unfold exactly forty-eight years to the day that Mickey Mantle played his final Yankee Stadium game; exactly ninety-six years to the day that Phil Rizzuto was born. In his final act on familiar ground, Derek Jeter, the princely Yankee Icon of our generation, once again proved worthy of his place in that hallowed lineage.

He did it, and he did it right. There cannot be anything more to say.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Bidding Adieu to an American Icon

A lifetime Yankee.

One could spend all day writing about Derek Jeter.

In most every way, he's the perfect subject on which to pontificate, about which to wax lyrical, and with which to craft fine melodic lines of poetry.

He's a princely icon; a glistening role model; a once in a lifetime gift to those prone to hyperbole.

For two decades, Jeter has been the brightest star in the world's preeminent metropolis, New York nurturing within its breast a deep love for him as for Sinatra, Monroe and Lennon in times of yore.

Derek only ever dreamed of playing shortstop for the Yankees, that most fabled franchise in all of sports; only ever dreamed of roaming the diamond made sacrosanct by his heroes and his inspirations.

In typical rectitude, he didn't bargain on becoming perhaps the most noble man ever to turn his hand to the game of baseball.

But that he became, with awe-inspiring poise and aching mastery of politeness, respect and class.

From Day One, he appeared preordained for the role, with frosty blue eyes, smouldering good looks and an intangible, implacable, largely ineffable aura of supremacy.

He was the modern steward of Yankee Greatness, the heir apparent to Yankee Mystique, the incumbent guardian of the illustrious, interlocking NY, his name etched with gothic majesty alongside that of Ruth, Gehrig and Di Maggio; Maris, Mantle and Berra; Ford, Mattingly and Jackson.

He wore upon his back a defiant, proud and elegant number two, so sensationally evocative when set against a backdrop of pristine pinstripes and cast below the white frieze of Yankee Stadium, his playground, his stage, his amphitheatre.

He bestrode the baseball annals, churning hit after opposite-field hit with that sweet, scything swing, until only five privileged men had more in all eternity: guys named Speaker, Musial, Aaron, Cobb and Rose.

A lifetime Yankee, Jeter spent his childhood dreaming about that organisation, before proceeding to play more games for it than anybody else who ever laced a pair of cleats. He ventured to bat for his beloved team on more than 12,000 occasions and, while wearing that heritage-drenched uniform, never once carried himself with anything less than tranquil humility.

He won five World Series rings, enough to encrust an entire hand with diamonds and rubies and emerald stones. He played in fourteen All-Star Games, won five Gold Gloves, and was the 1996 Rookie of the Year.

For more than a decade, he was Yankee Captain, an honour bestowed only upon the finest luminaries of club lore.

Derek scored more runs, the definitive object of baseball, than Gehrig; drew more walks than Hornsby; and, quite possibly, was the greatest shortstop to ever roam the earth.

He was far more than a mere ballplayer, far more than an eternal great.

He was a bridge from the era of Tony Gwynn to that of Mike Trout, a certifiable relic of baseball's past and present.

He was regal, lithe, grace personified. He was opulent, resplendent, youthful charm immortalised. He was a beguiling monument, shimmering like some grand ice sculpture, to the power and permanence of America's Dream.

Indeed, to an entire generation, Derek Jeter stood forth as the very hub of Americana, surviving two Presidents and growing to know a third; rivaling Beckham and Woods and James in endorsing more products than any athlete of the contemporary realm; and selling more merchandise than anybody ever affiliated with Major League Baseball.

He was to modern baseball what Michelangelo was to architecture. He was to the New York Yankees what King was to horror. He was to my generation what Ali was to my father's.

He was unlike anything I'd ever seen, nor anything I'll see again.

He was Derek Jeter, and it was a pleasure to inhabit his epoch.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Get Well Soon, Giancarlo

Giancarlo on a happier day.

Baseball woke a darker place on Friday.

It's defining star, Giancarlo Stanton, lay in a Wisconsin hospital, nursing a plethora of injuries which horrified the watching masses and likely robbed his Miami Marlins of a postseason opportunity.

The mighty slugger, so adored throughout the game, was unintentionally struck in the face by an 88-mph fastball from Brewers starter Mike Friers in the fifth inning on Thursday, leading to a quite horrifying delay at Miller Park.

A clutch of medical personnel attended to Giancarlo, who, seeping blood from his mouth, was loaded onto a cart and ferried to a specialist care facility nearby. A slew of examinations, including X-rays and CT scans, revealed multiple facial fractures and dental damage, in addition to lacerations requiring stitches.

The baseball world let out a collective gasp, distraught at the prospect of losing for the year one of it's finest and most exciting heroes in a truly gruesome manner.

I discovered the deeply disturbing news early on Friday, when surfing for baseball news as is routine. I woke with a particular spring in my step, giddy pennant fever gripping my mind and stirring tremendous anticipation. Like any other day, I checked with boundless enthusiasm exactly how Giancarlo had performed overnight, hoping to read the box score or watch another of his titanic home runs with wide eyes of wonder.

Nobody could be prepared for the horror that lay in waiting.

I shuddered watching the clip. A pang of deep regret. A paroxysm of gloomy despair. An immovable, unshakable, impenetrable feeling of frustration and sorrow and whole heaps of empathy. Just why did it have to be so?

Stanton, easily the most enthralling player to emerge in many years, looked to have finally cracked the code in 2014, avoiding injuries to stay on the field and unleash with vociferous intent his behemoth talent. At the time of the freak accident, he possessed a .287/.395/.554 slash line with 37 home runs, 30 doubles, 94 walks and 105 RBI. In an age of offensive famine, these numbers are simply stupefying; numbers of a worthy Most Valuable Player.

It's been a pure and simple delight to watch Giancarlo Stanton perform this season. The guy is a dream, a treasure to be cherished, a marvel to behold. At the age of 24, he already has 154 career home runs and 399 RBI, accomplishments which capture unequivocally the attention and love of baseball fans, that most history-appreciative, record-chasing of species. I follow and support and root for Giancarlo with equal fervour as for my own Chicago Cubs. He's that rare player capable of putting on a sufficient show of strength and drama as to demand such attention, like Barry Bonds, Vladimir Guerrero, and Manny Ramirez before him.

Giancarlo Stanton hearkens back to a golden era of baseball and, in a quite inspirational way, stands, alongside Mike Trout, as the game's only bridge to future prosperity. Those two young megastars will lead baseball for the next decade and are capable of finally propelling it back to the astounding heights we all once knew.

Thus, to see Stanton hurt in a serious way, amid his most remarkable season to date, is jolting to everybody involved.

I've been unable to shake the large and heavy displeasure all morning, worrying about his short-term pain and long-term fate. Will Stanton require surgery? How will this impact his confidence, poise and vision at the plate moving forward? Has my generation just witnessed it's own gut-wrenching “Tony Conigliaro” moment? All these stupid, frenzied, unsubstantiated, yet well-intended, questions zip through my mind.

I've spent plenty of time shaking my head, sighing loudly and staring vacantly into the distance, pondering why it had to end like this. Now, whenever I daydream about baseball, there will be a blockade to the fantasy, because Giancarlo is down and likely out for the rest of a season that looked so promising.

Ultimately, this sorry episode serves to illustrate two great truisms of baseball. Firstly, it's a dangerous and unforgiving game capable, rather like life itself, of shooting you down in full flight; and, secondly, it remains the undisputed king of inciting emotion, inviting sentiment, and igniting the sweet caring passion of humanity.

Get well soon, Giancarlo. We need you.