James Earl Jones, in the classic movie “Field of Dreams,” described the game of baseball this way:
“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.”
Last Thursday night, we were reminded about what is good in baseball, sports, role models and America’s past time.
I have long been a proud Yankee hater. One of my favorite pastimes is rooting against the Evil Empire, the Pinstripes, the 27-time World Series champions and all of the overpaid free agents stolen from needier teams — like my Cleveland Indians — fully aware that my sporting “hatred” for them is pure jealousy (the Indians’ last World Series win was 1948, 35 years before my birth).
But last Thursday night, I found myself hanging onto the corner of my couch watching every pitch of the Yankees-Orioles game, Derek Jeter’s final performance at Yankee Stadium — a place where he had started as shortstop for the last 20 years. With Bob Costas, one of baseball’s iconic voices, calling the game, the occasion was a socially relevant, personally significant spectacle that the game of baseball seldom provides today.
In truth, the game itself seemed to be a mere backdrop for which we could all appreciate the future Hall of Fame athlete one final time: a victory lap, and not just one for the litany of accomplishments — No. 6 in all-time hits, No. 9 in all-time runs, 14 All-Star appearances, 5 Gold Gloves, 5 World Series championships — but a victory lap made by the rare celebrity athlete who never let us down.
For years, athletes have been whittling away at the seemingly impenetrable ideal to where we anointed them, our nostalgia for the carefree fun of our collective childhoods. Today it seems strange to think there was ever a time when NCAA football and men’s basketball were considered “pure.” Baseball has battled a decade-long war with steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Golf’s most indestructible champion crumbled in front of the world like a house of cards. Most recently, America’s most popular league, the NFL, has been tarnished by a rash of domestic violence incidents. The notion of athletes as role models has never been so absurd.
However, this was all part of the drama unfolding last Thursday night. For 12 years, Jeter, “The Captain” of the most celebrated franchise in sports, wore the badge of what we envision for our idols. He went about his job every day like the role model we imagine for the next generation of fans. Through the most turbulent couple of decades in baseball history, Jeter was an unwavering pillar of class and integrity in the way he played on the field, treated his teammates and opponents, and conducted himself with the media and his fans.
As for the “backdrop” that provided the setting for the final page of this chapter in baseball? It turned out to be something only Hollywood could write.
In the top of the ninth inning, Jeter’s Yankees led 5–2. The stage was set. With one out and a man on first base, a ground ball to shortstop would let Jeter end it his way — a double play. But that ending would be better suited for a Pixar film than a classic. Instead, the Orioles knocked out two home runs to tie the game, putting the celebration on hold and potentially spoiling the perfect ending. Except, due up third in the bottom half of the inning was the star of the show — The Captain.
After a lead-off single and a sacrifice bunt, we all got to hear for one final time, “Number Two” called to the plate. With only a base hit needed to win, was there any question how he would respond? On the first pitch, Jeter slapped a ground ball to the opposite field, scoring the winning run and leaping into the arms of his teammates — as I leapt off the couch.
As someone who cannot remember a single instance in which I had ever cheered for him, I found myself doing it too, in a moment of undeniable honesty, as I watched Jeter say goodbye by celebrating like he was back in Little League — not merely rooting for him, but absorbing every last moment of one man who “reminded us all of what once was good, and that could be ?again.”