NEW YORK -- The ball marked J-1 for authentication purposes had just landed in the leftfield bleachers, the man who hit it had just touched home plate -- wrapped up in a bear hug by one of his best friends -- and the crowd that witnessed it was busy rocking Yankee Stadium with the kind of roar usually reserved for chilly October nights. David Price didn't know quite what to do. The Tampa Bay Rays pitcher had just surrendered Derek Jeter's 3,000th career hit, as well as his team's tenuous 1-0 lead and now he would forever be the answer to a trivia question and he wasn't particularly happy about any of it. Still, Price did the right thing, ceding the stage to his conqueror and wandered toward the visitor's dugout where he was met by fellow Rays pitcher James Shields.
"Don't worry," Shields told him. "That was a bomb."
Normally, yielding a mammoth home run to a man who hadn't hit a ball over the fence in this ballpark in more than a year would be nothing to joke about, but Price laughed. He needed to have the mood lightened, and the same could be said for his sport. In a baseball season that has been consumed by negative news -- a fan nearly beaten to death in Los Angeles, two more dying from injuries suffered at the ballpark, scandal in Los Angeles and New York, a slew of injured superstars and a former superstar failing yet another drug test -- this was something and someone worth celebrating and a reminder that for all the ways in which what goes on around baseball can be disappointing or troubling, the thrill of what happens between the lines will always outweigh it.
The Rays, to their great credit, recognized this. If, as Roy Campanella once said, you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play this man's game, then on Saturday, the Rays, as much as the Yankees, couldn't help but show the little boy in them when what might have gone down as just another game in the middle of a long season became transformed into something they would never forget.
As Jeter rounded first base, Rays first baseman Casey Kotchmann instinctively and spontaneously doffed his cap in a measure of respect. In centerfield, B.J. Upton, who so idolized Jeter as a boy that he wears his No. 2, didn't know whether to cheer or be upset. And in the dugout, Johnny Damon, who may himself reach this milestone one day, looked as though he had to fight the urge to join the scrum of Yankees surrounding Jeter at home plate before finally leading the Rays out in front of the dugout to salute him.
"It was a privilege to see it in person," said Kotchman. "I thought I'd have a chance to shake his hand and give him a hug after a single but I didn't get to do that. I thought this was the right thing to do."
"I am proud of our guys," Rays manager Joe Maddon said after his team had lost 5-4. "I don't think other teams would have reacted the way we reacted today and still played well."
Upton, who later congratulated Jeter during the game, said of Jeter, "He was my guy growing up, the guy I looked up to. When he hit it I was caught in between. I didn't know whether to clap or not. When I got on second base [in the sixth inning] I congratulated him."
It was a sentiment shared by everyone in the Rays clubhouse and undoubtedly echoed throughout the sport. Before the game was over, the Twitter-sphere was alive with suggestions -- hopes, even -- that Jeter, who has said he'll skip the All-Star Game to rest his sore calf that had landed him on the DL and delayed his chase for 3,000, would show up in Phoenix on Tuesday so the sport can honor him. Jeter is so resistant to showing off that he would almost surely demur, but it would be an appropriate gesture on MLB's part. No other active player has been so great for so long while embodying all of the characteristics -- hard-work, sacrifice, selflessness, dedication -- that baseball hopes it brings out in all its players.
That is not to say that Jeter is without his detractors, some of whom recoil at just the sort of fawning adulation that has been accompanying Jeter since his rookie season of 1996. Perhaps no player in baseball history has been as scrutinized as Jeter, and certainly no first-ballot Hall of Famer has ever had to endure as much criticism for his play. This year, even his fellow players began piling on; Jeter was voted the third-most overrated player in the game by his fellow big leaguers, according to a Sports Illustrated poll.
Saturday, though, Jeter reminded everyone what an excellent player he was, and can still be. He posted just the third five-hit game of his Hall of Fame career, scored two runs and drove in two, including the game-winner when he bounced a single up the middle to score Eduardo Nunez, perhaps his heir apparent as Yankees shortstop, in the eighth inning.
"Two hits would have been fine," said Maddon. "Five hits and to drive in the winning run is a little much."
In a season in which Jeter has had more than his share of seeing-eye singles, most of Jeter's hits on Saturday were of the vintage variety; slashing line drives, like his fifth-inning double to left or his sixth-inning single to right. Then, of course, there was the home run. It was just his third of the season and yet it was a no-doubter, perhaps the longest balls he's ever hit in this Stadium (the Yankees don't track home runs distances but he had never hit one farther than 411 feet since this ballpark opened in 2009). It came on the eighth pitch of his at-bat, after he had fouled off both a 95-mph fastball and an 84-mph slider. Price resorted to a curveball, perhaps his least-effective pitch, to finally put the pesky Jeter away. Instead, Jeter got ahead of the pitch and crushed it into the bleachers, and into history.
When he surpassed Lou Gehrig as the team's all-time hits leader in September 2009, Jeter said he had struggled to enjoy his accomplishments as they happened, consumed as he was with maintaining his success rather than reveling in it. In the almost two years since, it doesn't seem he's gotten much better, but on Saturday he came as close as he ever has to breaking character in the middle of a game. He could barely suppress a smile as the ball vanished into the stands and he bounded out of the dugout with great energy to acknowledge the cheering crowd, a far cry from two years ago when he admitted feeling out of place accepting such hosannas for an individual accomplishment while there was a game going on.
"To be honest with you I was pretty relieved," Jeter said. ""I've been lying for a long time, telling you [reporters] there was no pressure. There was a lot of pressure to do it here. But I felt a lot of pressure to do it here while we're at home. So I have been lying to you for quite some time."
It will be interesting to see whether Jeter's terrific afternoon of hitting -- he raised his average 13 points -- becomes the start of a second-half rally to his usual statistical heights or whether it is merely a tease, a brief glimpse at what he was rather than what he will be again. For the Yankees who have had to publicly confront the fact that their franchise player is in decline, for the fans who have endlessly debated just how good Jeter is and was, that is a problem for tomorrow. Today, said Jeter, "was one of those special days."
For him. And for the game.