NEW YORK — Tomorrow, he said. Ask me tomorrow.
That was Derek Jeter's repetitive response on Wednesday afternoon when reporters tried to get him to address what it would feel like when he played the final home game of his Hall of Fame career at Yankee Stadium against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday. What would he think? How would he feel? How would it all end?
Tomorrow. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.
He would betray no emotion, allow for no sentimentality. For a player always criticized for his defense, the 40-year-old Jeter has always had a first-rate defense mechanism. It has at times made him seem aloof, if not unfeeling, and seemed to create a barrier between himself and the fans and media who desperately wanted to know the real him.
When tomorrow finally arrived, Jeter gave everyone, especially the sellout crowd of 48,613, a glimpse at the player they have come to love and revere and the man he almost never let them see. He smoked the night's biggest hit (of course), an opposite-field single (of course) in the bottom of the ninth that won the game for the Yankees, 6-5 (of course).
And then he came as close as he ever has to letting his guard down in public. His beaming smile and his exultant reaction as Antoan Richardson slid home with the winning run was straight out of a Giuliani Era-October night, but the next several minutes were something new. He warmly embraced his teammates and ex-teammates -- which included the rest of the Core Four, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera -- and his family on the field, took several curtain calls from the adoring fans, then walked out to shortstop, which he had just played for the last time, and knelt down to say a prayer.
With the Yankee Stadium speakers blasting Frank Sinatra's "My Way," he rose, and, in an ending topped only by the one he had delivered with his bat moments before, doffed his cap and walked off the field for the last time, just as the final notes echoed throughout the ballpark.
Later, when he could finally be asked what “tomorrow" had been like, Jeter was perhaps more honest and open than he had been at any point in his 20 major league seasons. The first question, on the field, was about what he thought when he went to the plate for the last time: "Don't cry he said."
Later, in the press conference, he said, “I don't know how I played tonight. These last few weeks have been very difficult. It's gotten more and more difficult as we got to today."
And: "I think I've done a pretty good job of controlling my emotions. I have them. I try to hide them."
And: "Sometimes I have to trick myself, convince myself, whether it's pain [or whatever], that I don't have it. Today I wasn't able to do it. I was almost thinking to myself, ‘[Manager] Joe [Girardi], get me out of here before I do something to cost us this game."
And: “At times [the season] has been difficult because you feel like you're watching your own funeral."
And: “This was above and beyond everything I've ever dreamed of. I've had a dream since I was four or five years old, and part of that dream is over now."
And: “Look, I have emotions. I just think I have a pretty good poker face."
Not on this day. The game was only one inning old, but already the weight of the day was taking its toll on the evening's honored guest. He had almost broken down in his car that afternoon on his drive to the stadium. He had turned away to conceal his emotions before the game when his teammates presented him with a painting — the original version of the recent cover of The New Yorker that featured him — and a watch in the clubhouse. He forgot his elbow guard when he went to the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first. And he spent the early innings looking around the place that had been his home for the past six seasons, and, in a sense, for the last two decades, and fighting back tears.
He betrayed no emotion outwardly, especially not when he lashed an RBI double off the left-centerfield wall in his first at-bat. But when he returned to his position at shortstop in the top of the second, so did his nerves. Please don't hit the ball to me, he thought as a new round of haunting “De-rek-Je-ter" chants filled the cool evening air. New York third baseman Chase Headley looked over and saw the always-stoic Yankees captain on the verge of being overcome.
“Hey," he said. “You can't leave."
It was meant as a nod to something Jeter often says in batting practice when a player hits a ball off the wall. Headley had hoped it would break his teammate's tension and elicit a laugh. Jeter could only smirk.
Jeter, of course, is leaving. After 1,391 games, 5,517 at-bats and 1,727 hits, he played his last game at Yankee Stadium and made sure it was one neither he nor anyone else would ever forget. All night he was at the center of the action. There was his double in the first inning, a fine play ranging to his left — take note, haters — that started a replay-approved double play in third, and a fielder's choice that, coupled with an error, plated two runs to give New York a 4-2 lead in the seventh.
The margin was 5-2 in the top of the ninth when Jeter jogged out to his position one last time. If a plan existed to remove him before the third out, none of the rest of the Yankees were aware of it. Closer David Robertson came in and, with one out, yielded a two-run homer to Baltimore's Adam Jones that trimmed the gap to 5-4. With two out, Steve Pearce launched another home run to tie the score.
Robertson avoided further damage and as the Yankees trudged off the field, their teammates in the dugout immediately noticed something else: Jeter was due up third in the bottom of the ninth.
“Everybody's finishing each other's sentences, saying, ‘Here's what's going to happen,'" said backup infielder Brendan Ryan. “'[DH Jose] Pirela's going to get a hit, [Brett] Gardner's going to bunt him over and Jeter's going to walk them off."
Pirela did indeed get a hit, lacing a single to left field. Richardson came into pinch-run, and Gardner did indeed bunt him over. Jeter then lashed at the first pitch from reliever Evan Meek, ripping it into right field where Baltimore's Nick Markakis, blessed with one of the game's best arms, came up throwing.
“I think we would have had to charge the outfield if he threw him out," said Headley later.
He didn't. Richardson was safe, and the same players who had predicted what would happen then bolted out of the dugout to mob Jeter between first and second. It was a moment that immediately took its place among the most memorable of Jeter's career, on par with any of the Dives, Flips and October — and November — heroics that have been the touchstones of his Hall of Fame resume.
When Jeter's career officially comes to an end this weekend in Boston — he'll DH at least once, but offered no specifics on how many games he'd play — those are the moments that will echo far beyond his statistics and the overheated debate that always surrounded them.
“Luck gravitates toward certain people," Ryan said when asked how it could be that one player would always find himself in the middle of such situations. “There's a reason those moments find certain people. I don't think it's coincidental that it keeps happening for him."
It won't happen anymore, not for Jeter and maybe not for anyone else. No other player of his generation has provided so many signature moments, and it would be foolish to expect a player in future generations to have as many.
Despite what Headley told him, and despite the outpouring of love from the fans and the respect from his opponents -- even the Orioles stayed in the dugout and applauded after he had just beaten them -- Jeter is leaving. Not because he can't play anymore, he said Thursday night, but because he doesn't want to. There are only yesterdays now for Jeter in the Bronx. But the memories of them will fill an awful lot of tomorrows.