THESE KINDS OF NIGHTS were made for Derek Jeter, who never has experienced one nervous moment in all his charmed and dreamy life.
Jeter turned this Division Series around with his backup, backhanded flip in Game 3. Then, before a packed and rocking house in baseball's cathedral, and the Yankees' whole year on the line, Jeter made sure the Yankees kept driving for five rings.
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It was a unique night, yet predictable in ways. Folks did what they do. George Steinbrenner fretted nervously over Brian Cashman's shoulder. Mike Stanton got key outs, Mariano Rivera got the final outs. And Jeter stole the show. At 27, as young as the brash and ringless A's stars, Jeter did everything in his power to keep the Yankees going.
The Yankee Stadium crowd, known to appreciate the team first, still singled out Jeter. He is the best player on the best team, and that doesn't even say how good he is. Jeter may not be the most talented player today. The scouts say it is his buddy/sparring partner Alex Rodriguez. Yet Jeter is the most unique, and the most clutch, and there is nothing more important in October than that.
The crowd chanted "Der-ek Jet-er, Der-ek Jet-er" after Jeter vaulted into the stands to nab Terrence Long's foul pop-up in the eighth inning.
"Der-ek Jet-er. Der-ek Jet-er." The chants grew louder and longer.
Jeter makes plays that make everyone notice. Reggie Jackson, who earned his Mr. October tag, marveled recently at how clutch Jeter is. Someone asked him whether Jeter is as clutch as he was, and Jackson, without hesitating, said Jeter is that clutch.
Baseball's biggest stage was set for a special night. And Jeter made it his night.
Jeter clinched this series with a string of big plays in Game 5. On the final big play, he wound up rump-first in the expensive seats, risking bones for the ball. "In the postseason," Jeter said calmly, "you take every out you can get."
The crowd, on edge all night, went wild, rightfully hailing him as the savior. They came back from two games down, then came back from two runs down in Game 5, giving themselves a chance at their fifth ring in a championship run that will not end.
Steinbrenner, teary-eyed for what his team did in New York's hardest year, sounded as if he were talking about his own child when he spoke of Jeter. "I have never seen anyone dominate in any sport ... football ... basketball ... baseball ... dominate the way he did this series," Steinbrenner said.
By the sixth inning Jeter had a single, a double and a sacrifice fly and had broken Pete Rose's all-time postseason record for hits. He has 87. You don't need the Psychic Hotline to know he'll have more.
Joe Torre paid Jeter the biggest compliment one baseball man can pay another. "He thinks cool in very hot situations." Torre said he saw "that look in his eye" from day one. Jeter homered his first game his rookie year.
The Yankees have dispensed thrills for six straight seasons, but other times they did things more easily. This was the first do-or-die postseason home game in this wonderful era of Torre, Bernie Williams, Jeter and the rest.
The crowd rocked baseball's place. Yogi was back in the house. And Rizzuto, too. Lisa Beamer, whose husband, Todd Beamer, was one of the ones from United Flight 93 who foiled the hijacking evildoers, received the loudest ovation. Daniel Rodriguez, a New York City policeman, sang the national anthem. New York had goose bumps.
When Rivera whiffed Eric Byrnes for the final out of the 5-3 victory, Torre and Mayor Rudy Giuliani walked out to the field together, and Torre hugged Rivera. Steinbrenner hugged Doc Gooden in Cashman's box, then he stood and cheered. "There's been so much emotion," Steinbrenner said. "I feel great for New York."
Momentum accompanied the Yankees onto the field as they endeavored to lengthen their decent season, and their wonderful dynasty. The A's had youth on their side, though not much else. If Roger Clemens is not the biggest intimidator in the sport, then the Bronx baseball cathedral is.
Everyone hailed the Yankees, who became the first team to lose the first two games at home and still win a five-game playoff series. Three days before, they looked as over as could be. But now they appeared poised to advance with a chance to add to their collective legacy.
"It seems like every time our backs are against the wall, we play our best," Jeter said. "We don't get tired of winning."
Jeter is the diamond of a core group that likes October better than the preceding months. Jeter, Orlando Hernandez, Stanton and Rivera never have a bad October moment. Jeter and Rivera are the perfect tag team. Rivera is the one who ensures all Jeter's good work is not wasted.