In the aftermath of 9/11, Derek Jeter gave New York a reason to smile
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
This was the type of moment Derek Jeter had dreamed about when he was a little kid playing baseball in the backyard of his childhood home in Kalamazoo, Mich.
It was Game 4 of the 2001 World Series. His team needed to win this crucial game to even the Series. Jeter's close friend and the team's first baseman, Tino Martinez, had hit a two-run home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game. Now, it was Jeter's turn to face Arizona Diamondbacks closer Byung-Hyun Kim for the second time that night. With two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning, Jeter knelt down and said a silent prayer. Then, he stepped to the plate.
Eight months before the 2001 World Series, Jeter walked into Legends Field in Tampa, Fla., for Spring Training with what must have been a feeling of invincibility. The 26-year-old All-Star had experienced a near-perfect career in the Majors to that point. Long gone were his struggles in the Minors. Since that time in the early '90s, he had earned his dream job -- shortstop of the New York Yankees -- and rode a wave of success unlike any other experienced in New York City in 50 years. In his first five full seasons in pinstripes, Jeter had taken home the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year Award and four World Series championships, including one against the crosstown-rival Mets in 2000.
And by no means was Jeter simply along for the ride. He was as important to that Yankees dynasty as any player. Whether it was his leadership role on those teams, his .349 batting average in 1999 or his MVP performance in the 2000 World Series, Jeter was rapidly ascending toward the pantheon of the greatest Yankees of all time.
"It's hard to compare how I felt going into Spring Training in 2001 with any other time in my life," Jeter said recently. "We really felt like we owned the city after beating the Mets in the World Series, and it just seemed like if we worked hard and didn't let up, we had a chance to keep winning championships."
Jeter had already captivated the Big Apple with a rare combination of talent, grit, looks, charisma and superstardom. By his sixth full season in the Bigs, Jeter had the swagger of Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath, and his accomplishments matched those of nearly every Yankee through the first part of their respective careers.
As the 2001 season began to take shape, Jeter and the Yankees picked up where they left off. By the beginning of September, Jeter was batting over .310, and his team was cruising. With a 13-game lead in the American League East and nine wins in their last 10 games, the Yankees prepared to take on the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 10 before rain sent both teams on their separate ways for the night.
Hours later, on the morning of Sept. 11, the world changed. Jeter was at home in his Manhattan apartment when two commercial airliners that had been hijacked by terrorists crashed into the Twin Towers, killing nearly 3,000 people.
"Heartbreaking," Jeter said, as he peered out the window of his downtown Tampa office a year-and-a-half after playing his final game in pinstripes. "You knew immediately that so many people were not going to make it. You knew that there were going to be so many children who would no longer have a mother or father around. Regardless of how much time passes, it's still heartbreaking."
Following the tragedy, baseball shut down for a week. For much of that time, Jeter remained in Manhattan.
"It was an eerie time," said Jeter, who visited Ground Zero, as well as a few New York City firehouses that had been decimated only days before. "When I think back on it, I remember how there were barely any cars on the roads. They weren't letting people on or off the island. There were people walking around in the middle of the streets, and it seemed like no one was saying anything to each other. It was almost like being on a movie set."
The Yankees resumed play on Sept. 18, hitting the road to take on the Chicago White Sox. For Jeter, the sense of determination that had long been part of his being had a larger scope.
"We felt as though it was our job to give New Yorkers something to distract them for a little while," Jeter said. "We knew that nothing we could do would make them forget what had happened, but we wanted to take their minds off of it for a little while."
After clinching the AL East on Sept. 25, Jeter and his teammates began to thrill their fans with a series of unforgettable October moments. In the AL Division Series against the Oakland Athletics, the Yankees climbed back from a 2-games-to-none deficit. Facing elimination in Game 3, Jeter squashed a potential Oakland rally and saved a run in the seventh inning with his now-famous "flip play," his incredible backhand toss to the dish to nab Jeremy Giambi. Combined with Jorge Posada's solo home run in the fifth and Mike Mussina's seven scoreless innings, Jeter's brilliant play led to a 1-0 win. The Yankees won the next two games, as well, setting up an AL Championship Series matchup against a Seattle Mariners team that had won an AL-record 116 regular season games.
"Seattle had all the talent in the world," Jeter said. "They were a great team. But we were playing for more than just the organization. We were playing for an entire city, and it was going to be tough to stop us at that point." It only took the Yankees five games to defeat the mighty Mariners and earn their fourth straight trip to the World Series.
The first two games of the Fall Classic proved to be a more difficult task. Before the Yankees could even take the field at home, the team had lost two games at Arizona.
When the Yankees returned to the Bronx for Game 3, a fan base filled with mixed emotions greeted them.
"That was the most tense atmosphere I can ever remember playing a baseball game in," Jeter said. "It seemed like our fans had never been so anxious to watch a World Series game, but there was also so much tension because of the heightened sense of security in the city and in the Stadium that night."
The sense of unrest was partly because of additional terrorist threats being widely reported. Additionally, President George W. Bush was at the Stadium for Game 3, and his presence enhanced the already-tight security measures in place.
"People felt like having President Bush in the Stadium made the Stadium less safe that night," Jeter said. "All I heard was that we were even more of a target because he was there. But I looked at it the other way. I felt like we were in the safest place in the world because the President was there, and there were so many people and organizations protecting the Stadium."
Moments before the sitting president of the United States took the mound for a ceremonial first pitch, he crossed paths with Jeter.
"I walked down to the batting cage, which at the old Stadium was all the way down by right field," Jeter recalled. "President Bush was in the cage, getting loose and warming up for the first pitch. I walked over to say hello to him, and I asked him if he was going to throw the pitch from the mound or from in front of it. He said, 'What do you think?' And I said, 'I think you should throw it from the mound.' And then when I was leaving the cage, I turned around and said, 'Don't bounce it because they'll boo you if you do.' That left an impression on him."
Bush took Jeter's advice, climbing up to the mound and throwing a strike.
"That's tough to do with a bulletproof vest on," Jeter said. "It stood for more than just a ceremonial first pitch. It represented the belief that we all had in our country. For him to do that was impressive."
The Yankees got back into the Series that night, defeating Arizona 2-1 behind seven strong innings from the team's ace, Roger Clemens, and two innings of no-hit relief from closer Mariano Rivera.
The Game 3 win set up a crucial Halloween night matchup. With Curt Schilling back on the mound for the Diamondbacks after cruising to a win in the Series opener, the Yankees had their work cut out for them. Schilling, pitching on three days' rest, delivered again, giving up just one run in seven innings for a second time.
With the game tied in the eighth, Arizona scored two runs off Yankees relievers, and as the clock crept closer to midnight, time seemed to be running out on the Yankees' World Series hopes.
With a 3-1 lead, Arizona Manager Bob Brenly turned to Byung-Hyun Kim, the team's closer, whose hard-throwing, sidearm delivery was daunting. In 98 regular-season innings, the Korean right-hander struck out 113 batters. Making the task even more difficult for Yankees hitters, none of them had never faced the 22-year-old.
Kim struck out the side in the eighth, silencing a once-rowdy and energetic crowd, and giving the Bronx faithful little hope that their team would be able to break through in the ninth.
Jeter led off the ninth, trying to catch Kim off guard by laying down a bunt on the first pitch. Jeter was able to get a bunt down the third-base line, but he was thrown out by third baseman Matt Williams.
"I can say this now," Jeter said. "For my entire career, I could never pick up the release point on sidearm pitchers. I just could never figure it out. That's why I tried to get on base with a bunt. I didn't think I would be able to get a hit off him if I was swinging, especially because I hadn't seen him before that night."
Paul O'Neill got the first hit off Kim, singling to left field with one out. Bernie Williams followed O'Neill, but he struck out. With the Yankees down to their final out, Tino Martinez came to the plate. The first baseman swung at the first pitch, blasting a home run into the bleachers in right-center field, tying the game and reigniting the crowd.
"It's hard for me to say whether the crowd was louder during Game 6 of the 1996 World Series or when Tino hit that home run," Jeter said. "But that was an incredible moment. With that team, we never felt that the game was over. When Tino hit that home run, it felt as though we were meant to win that World Series. I got caught up in the moment. I was as excited as the fans were. I felt like a fan in the stands when that ball landed. It was like an out-of-body experience for me and a bunch of other guys in our dugout."
Rivera came into the game for the 10th inning, and he kept it tied. But having already been on the mound for two innings the night before, it was anyone's bet whether he would be able to come back out in the 11th. He wouldn't need to.
Despite giving up the game-tying home run, Kim took the mound again in the bottom of the 10th. He got through the first two batters unharmed, getting Scott Brosius and Alfonso Soriano to fly out.
With two outs, Jeter had an opportunity to end the game that inning. When he came to the plate, the shortstop was 0-for-4 on the night and 1-for-15 in the Series. Jeter, who had been known as a great postseason player, hadn't fared much better in the ALCS, and Manager Joe Torre insisted that Jeter had not been 100 percent healthy since he had fallen head over heels into a camera well while making a catch in Game 5 of the ALDS.
"Everyone's got something wrong with them when you're that far into the postseason," Jeter said. "No one is at 100 percent in late October."
With the Stadium clock ticking closer toward midnight -- and Nov. 1 -- the ever-calm Jeter walked over to Torre in the dugout.
"I used to always hand my bat to Mr. T for good luck," Jeter said. "His contract ran out on Oct. 31, and so I handed him my bat and said, 'You can hold it for one last time because after this, I don't have to listen to you because you won't have a job.'"
At the stroke of midnight, Jeter fouled off Kim's first pitch, a slider on the inside part of the plate. After the pitch, a message was posted on the center-field scoreboard that read, "Attention fans: Welcome to November Baseball."
Seconds later, Kim threw the second November pitch in Major League Baseball history, a high fastball that Jeter could not catch up to.
"It seemed like the ball was going all over the place," Jeter said.
Jeter took the next pitch for a ball and then fouled off the next two pitches. Kim missed with his next two offerings, bringing the count full. Jeter sliced the next pitch, a fastball on the outside of the plate, down the right-field line into foul territory.
Before Kim could throw his ninth pitch to Jeter, the shortstop walked a few feet away from the batter's box. As Jeter took a few deep breaths, the Fox TV national broadcast zoomed in on a fan who had quickly penned a sign that read "Mr. November."
Yankees fans already had a Mr. October in Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, and now they were hoping to anoint a November hero.
When Jeter stepped back into the box, he noticed that Kim, who had been pitching from the wind-up during the entire at-bat, was now about to throw a pitch from the stretch. Jeter stepped his left foot out of the batter's box, pausing the at-bat.
"He was taking a long time to throw that pitch," Jeter said.
By the time he got to home plate, the entire team was waiting. Filled with adrenaline, Jeter jumped into the air and landed in the scrum of players. Jeter, who later admitted that he nearly broke his foot when he landed and played the rest of the World Series with an injured heel, pointed to his parents, seated amongst the frenzied crowd, as he walked off the field.
"That was everything I had dreamed of as a baseball player," Jeter said. "Part of the dream is that you're in the backyard and you hit a home run to win a World Series game. That's what every kid dreams about, and I did it."
The Yankees lost the World Series in Arizona four nights later, but not before they won Game 5 at Yankee Stadium in similarly dramatic fashion -- a Brosius two-run homer tied the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Alfonso Soriano won it with an RBI single in the 12th.
All these years later, Jeter will still lament how close his team was to winning the whole thing in 2001, but he's also mindful of the importance of his heroic home run.
"People still come up to me and tell me where they were when I hit that home run, especially New Yorkers," Jeter said. "Even if it was for a few seconds, I think it made a lot of people who were going through the toughest time in their lives smile."
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Commemorative Home Run Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.