There was a moment Sunday night when it felt as if Yankee Stadium had been transported 20 years to the past. There was Bernie Williams, smiling wide, and Mariano Rivera, trotting onto the field to “Enter Sandman.” Jorge Posada bantered with Tino Martinez, and Joe Torre addressed the media one more time to talk about his captain.
And when the captain took the diamond — wearing a blue suit instead of blue pinstripes — you half expected him to run out to shortstop. Sure, Derek Jeter is 42 years old, but certainly he must have one more flip in him. You know the play: range to his right, backhand the ball, jump and throw across his body; Martinez could make the pick at first.
But that’s how it goes when the Yankees honor their history, as they did Sunday when they retired the number of the final member of their Core Four. Everything old feels new again, and even Jeter, who’s been retired from baseball since 2014, was in midseason form. He didn’t get too emotional — other than a few exuberant moments in his career, he was never the type — and he kept his speech short. He spoke a lot about Yankee tradition, and tipped his hat to George Steinbrenner.
“I played here in New York for 20 years,” he said in front of the crowd. “I learned that time flies and memories fade, but family is forever, and I’ll be eternally grateful to be a part of the Yankee family.”
The Yankee family descended en masse, with appearances from multiple members of the dynasty World Series teams, the scout who discovered Jeter, along with the thousands of fans who packed the Stadium in the second game of a doubleheader, all there to fete Jeter. His will be the final single-digit number to be retired by the Yankees, one through nine now all represented in Monument Park. Torre spoke of him as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, while Andy Pettitte and Rivera marveled at his near-mythic drive to win.
“He was just the complete package, and there were a whole lot more things he could bring to the table, not just in the field of play,” Pettitte said. “If you ever needed a big hit in a situation and especially in the postseason . . . Derek was the absolute best at handling those at-bats like I’ve never seen anyone handle them before. He’s the greatest clutch hitter that I’ve ever seen.”
The 14-time All-Star and five-time Golden Glove winner has five World Series rings; his 3,465 hits are tops in team history, and he leads the franchise in several other categories, including at-bats and stolen bases. On Sunday, the Yankees gave him another ring — a “milestone” World Series-type ring with his No. 2 in diamonds. The Astros’ Carlos Beltran awarded him a new “Monument Park” blazer. And then there was the plaque, engraved with the name “Derek Sanderson Jeter.” After it was unveiled, Jeter, along with his wife, Hannah, who is expecting the couple’s first child, began laughing.
“We were laughing because when Bernie had his, he had the big mole, and when Jorge had his, he had the big ears; Andy had the big nose,” Jeter said. “So I was happy with mine.”
Unsurprisingly, his former teammates and managers heaped praise on Jeter. Torre, Pettitte and Martinez seemed to agree that he was never the most breathtaking player on the field, and all three agreed that it didn’t much matter.
“He was a dream for a manager to manage,” Torre said. “He wasn’t the most talented player, but for some reason you wanted the ball hit to him or at the plate” in the most important moments.
Those accomplishments earned the respect of athletes from various sports, some of whom taped scoreboard segments celebrating Jeter. Before the ceremony, there were laudatory words from Joe Namath and Bryce Harper; Mark Messier sent his regards, and Hideki Matsui, who came to the ceremony, taped a message in Japanese. The Astros in the opposing dugout stood on the top step, and Marlins manager Don Mattingly also taped a congratulatory message.
“It’s a special day,” Jeter said. “Even now, what do you say? Your number is retired by the Yankees? It’s hard to believe.”
And though he was never one to obsess about the past, the night’s festivities required a bit of introspection. Those Nineties teams are lauded as some of the best ever, and by now, enough time has passed that its members recognize the scope of the achievement.
“We never looked back at anything we had accomplished and it was always like, what’s next, what’s next, what’s next, and eventually there’s nothing next because you’re retired,” Jeter said. “We all had those same mindsets and I think that’s why we had success . . . Looking back, it was a special time, a special period in Yankee history.”
And one that very officially came to a close Sunday. The current Yankees have plenty of promise, but there’s no denying this could have been the last time Jeter and Williams and Rivera and Posada and Martinez and Pettitte and Torre are on the field together.
“It’s the end of an era,” Posada said. “He’s it. He’s the last one.”