Hitting a baseball is incredibly difficult. Fielding a baseball can be even more difficult. You try to remain alert on the field pitch after pitch, never knowing if and when the ball will be scalded your way. You have no way to physically shake off the nervousness as you do in football with a hard hit or in basketball with its non-stop dashes up and down court. To be a ballplayer you have to master exacting skills with a temperment to match. To be a great ballplayer you have to do this consistently, methodically, and especially when it counts the most.
To be a transcendent ballplayer you have to be a great ballplayer and, in your own unique way, capture and enhance the essence of the game.
The game. You start out as a little kid, dreaming, putting a new and stiff mitt underneath your pillow at night to break it in as you sleep, copying the batting stance of your favorite player, collecting baseball cards of mortal men you deem heroes, being enveloped by that special mix of dirt and clay in the infield, the pure joy of running the bases or solidly lining one into center. We really want to win, but somehow just playing the game is special unto itself.
Derek Jeter is the best shortsop that ever played the game. The numbers guys will point to his 3000 plus hits, his 300 plus batting average, an astounding seven trips to the World Series and an even more astounding five world championships. But what is most telling is how he ended his career at Yankee Stadium.
The game meant nothing. And because of that the game meant everything, everything that the game’s about. The art, the drama, the purpose unto itself. The playing of the game. That was enough. It’s always been enough.
Jeter escaped the emotion enough of this stage of his life ending for a solid double in the first, driving in a run. But it was a shaky night thereafter. An error, a strikeout and a weakly hit ball that came at the right time in the right situation to drive in another run. It was the type of game that we purists love. It mirrored life. There are no masterpieces. We plug along trying to do our best and sometimes we get rewarded. But more times than not there’s a step forward and then a step or two back. We’re never quite sure if we’re progressing or falling behind.
Thanks to over-managing when a starting pitcher on fire just has to be replaced by the closer, the Yankees blew a 3-run lead over the Orioles in tne ninth. But this is why baseball is baseball. Derek Jeter who was fighting back tears and raw nerves the entire game, like no other game he has ever been in, was now thrust into the situation of being remembered for this last at bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied. Stripped of any importance in the standings and being his final appearance at Yankee Stadium, this was all about him. And since he has always been all about the game, this final at bat was all about baseball.