Mike Thalblum, the longtime visiting clubhouse manager at O.co Coliseum, tells the story he’ll always remember about Derek Jeter like this:
The Yankees were in Oakland for a regular-season game and “kicking the A’s butts.” In the later innings, Yankees manager Joe Torre took Jeter and outfielder Gary Sheffield out of the game, with Sheffield’s presence meaning it was sometime during the 2004-06 seasons – quite possibly May 14, 2005, when the Yankees beat the A’s 15-6 and Jeter and Sheffield exited in the sixth and seventh innings.
While the game was still going, Thalblum recalled, Jeter and Sheffield ducked into the clubhouse – but didn’t stay long. “They couldn’t have been up here but 10, 15 seconds. They took off their jerseys and put a fleece on and went back down,” Thalblum said.
“A lot of times, guys stay up here when they’re out of the game. So I asked (Jeter) later on, how come you went back down so fast?” Thalblum said. “He said, ‘You know what, Mike, I’m going to go root the guys on that root me on every single day.’ That left a lasting impression.”
Perhaps the best way to understand Jeter’s surefire Hall of Fame career after he retires, as he has said he’ll do after this season, will be by the impression left. And the Yankees’ only regular-season Bay Area visit of Jeter’s farewell season this weekend allowed for a glimpse of that.
The A’s, like other American League teams the Yankees have played on the road this season, will hold a brief pregame tribute to Jeter before today’s game. But the signs of appreciation were already appearing Friday – in some cases literally. As Yankee players came onto the field for pregame stretch, fans packed the railing along the visiting dugout and right-field line five to six deep, many in pinstripes and Yankees hats.
“My husband said I’m not a cheater if I get a kiss from Derek Jeter,” read one sign.
Said another: “What the ‘flip’ are we going to do without our Captain?”
At 5 p.m. Jeter held a brief session with reporters in the visiting dugout, after which he climbed the steps to the field, eliciting a flurry of cries for his attention and autograph. “I gotta stretch, guys,” Jeter called over his shoulder. “Sorry!”
The reception has hardly changed from the early stages of Jeter’s 20 seasons in the major leagues, all with the Yankees, said A’s hitting coach Chili Davis. Davis played his last two seasons (1998-99) in New York, with the Yankees winning two World Series – their second and third with Jeter, who debuted in 1995, as their full-time shortstop.
“I was fortunate not only to play with him, but I got to hang out with him,” Davis said. “A lot of times I kind of felt like I was his protector. We’d go out and he would just get swarmed with people. Eventually you’d have to just say, ‘Hey, back off, we’re trying to have lunch here.’ But he was on his way.”
As Jeter was announced for his first at-bat Friday, he was met with mostly applause from a sellout crowd at the Coliseum, some standing and clapping. With Brett Gardner on first base following a leadoff single, Jeter squared as if to bunt on the first pitch from A’s right-hander Sonny Gray and pulled the bat back for ball one. On the next pitch, he lined a fastball to left field for a single, the 3,378th hit of his major-league career.
‘The Flip’ is iconic
Nearly 13 years earlier, one of the iconic moments of that career occurred around the very home plate area where Jeter stood Friday night. In what’s now known as “The Flip,” in Game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series, Jeter ran all the way from shortstop to the first-base line to corral Shane Spencer’s overthrow from right field and flip the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged out Jeremy Giambi to preserve a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning.
The Yankees, down 2-0 in the series at the time, won the game by that score and went on to win the series en route to reaching the World Series. Alfonso Soriano, then one of the cutoff men overthrown by Spencer and now a Yankees outfielder, said this week that play was “the big key of the series.”
“I think after that play, we had more motivation to win the series,” Soriano said. Asked if it’s the defining play of Jeter’s career, though, Soriano said: “No. He’s had too many moments. It’s not the only one. It’s one of many.”
“(It) was a big play at the time,” Jeter said Friday, “(But) I don’t necessarily know if it was a turning point (in the series).” He said it’s probably the highlight from his career he sees played the most, but he doesn’t marvel at the replays – mostly because, despite widespread disbelief, Jeter insists: “I was where I was supposed to be. I’m not supposed to throw it home, but it’s where I was supposed to be.”
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said the Yankees practice that relay in spring training, sending the second and first basemen out as primary cutoff men on a ball into the right-field corner and instructing the shortstop “to kind of drift to wait to see where the play’s going to develop.”
In this case, it developed just up the first-base line from home plate. After Giambi singled off Mike Mussina with two outs, Terrence Long lined a ball down the right-field line into the corner.
“My first reaction was, ‘Awesome, we’ve got the tying run coming in,’ ” said then-A’s right-hander Tim Hudson, now with the Giants. “You figure you’re going to score on a double.”
Spencer tracked the ball down, but he overthrew both Soriano and first baseman Tino Martinez. Jeter, coming across the pitcher’s mound, snagged the ball and made an option-style flip to Posada in time to get Giambi, who famously did not slide.
“I think if he slides it makes it a tougher call for the umpire to call him out,” Hudson said. “But it’s hard to say if he would’ve been safe or out.”
Jeter was asked Friday if he thought Giambi would have been safe had he slid – Posada just did touch Giambi with a swipe tag to the back of the leg – and said: “Maybe. We’ll never know. I’m glad he didn’t.”
“I’m still waiting on Jeremy to slide,” Hudson said. “Every time I see the replay I’m like, ‘Slide, Jeremy, slide!’ But he never does.”
Hudson said he has mostly put the loss behind him.
“But that year, that series, it stung for a long time, because I felt like we had a lot going on as a club that year,” Hudson said. “I think if it would’ve gone our way, it could have done some things for the A’s. I felt like we had a chance to win it all that year if we’d gotten past the Yankees. And who knows, maybe if we (had), maybe none of us would’ve gotten traded. Maybe we’d still be in Oakland. Didn’t happen, though.”
While some might call it Jeter’s signature play, Girardi said, “To me it was just Derek being Derek He’s always been a very smart player, a heads-up player.” And A’s manager Bob Melvin said the play showed Jeter’s “point guard qualities, where he’s just always in the right place at the right time.”
Melvin was Jeter’s teammate briefly at Triple-A Columbus in the mid-90s.
“He did whatever it took to win,” Melvin said. “He wasn’t hitting 600-foot home runs in batting practice. He wasn’t showing an arm like Andre Dawson. But he did everything right.”
A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson said that as a young player he noted how Jeter seemed to have the respect of teammates and opponents alike, “and as a young kid you definitely looked at that and said, hey, that’s something to pay attention to.”
As of last week, Jeter and Donaldson were leading their respective positions in voting for the All-Star Game. If that holds, they would form the left side of the A.L. starting infield. Asked what that would mean to him, Donaldson said: “What do you think? It could be his last year in the big leagues, and having that opportunity would be amazing.”
He’s not playing out string
Despite the ceremonies like today’s, Jeter has balked at the idea of his last season being a farewell tour.
“It’s kind of odd to try to be sentimental when we have almost 100 games left in the season,” he said. “Our goal is to try to win games and try to improve every day. I’m trying to enjoy it, but I haven’t gotten emotional or anything like that.”
Not emotional, perhaps, but Jeter said he’s more appreciative of simply being on the field this season after sitting out most of 2013because of injuries. Some, particularly those who’ve decried Jeter’s declining production or defensive range in recent years, may have thought the shortstop had reached the end then. He opted for one more season.
“I’m enjoying coming out here and getting a chance to compete,” Jeter said. “At the same time, you’ve got to try to help your team win, so it’s juggling. But I’ve always enjoyed playing. But after missing last year, I enjoy it a lot more.”
Davis said the way Jeter plays has not changed since he was in his mid-20s, still adding layers to a storied career and playfully referring to the veteran Davis as “old man.”
“He played hard every day. Every day,” Davis said. “I think that’s probably the one thing that stands out with me, besides him being a real good player, is he runs everything out.
“You wished that if you had a team of 12 or 13 position players, that all 12 or 13 played the game like he did. I’m not talking about talent, but just the way they go out to play the game, to compete. I’ve got nothing negative to say about him. And I never will.”