In 1998, Derek Jeter had his first of eight 200-plus-hit seasons, batted .324, was chosen for his first All-Star Game, and received his second World Series ring. He was an integral part of one of the greatest teams in Major League history, one that set a record of 125 wins for the year, including a sweep of the Padres in the Series.
As Frank Sinatra once sang, “It was a very good year.”
But to further quote Ol’Blue Eyes, “Now the days grow short/I’m in the autumn of the year,” which well describes the final campaign of an astonishing career that began with Jeter’s Rookie of the Year season, in 1996.
Through it all, Yankees radio announcer John Sterling has called every one of Jeter’s pirouetting throws from the hole, every one of his base hits, every ball and strike the wide-eyed shortstop has watched smack into the catcher’s glove. Sterling, who coined the phrase “Jeterian swing” to describe Jeter’s taut cut to drive pitches to the opposite field, was always happy to belt out “El Capitán!” whenever Jeter went deep.
This sound collage, titled “Empire,” revisits the stellar 1998 season, when the Core Four – Jeter, Rivera, Andy Pettitte, and Jorge Posada – were in their prime and John Sterling called every one of their 114 regular-season wins, and 11 more in the playoffs. It was created back in the analog days of 1999 on a Sony dual-tape-deck boombox. Listeners will notice that some of Sterling’s calls have been repeated – life interfered at times with taping the final pitch of every game. That said, even diehard fans may have forgotten a few other highlights from that phenomenal year, which Sterling and his then sidekick Michael Kay have fun with before Sterling’s shaking, bellowing, game-closing calls. And similar to the Voice‘s old Pazz and Jop numbering system, we are pretty sure there are 125 of them. Pretty sure.
George Steinbrenner named Jeter captain of the team in 2003, and while the Yankees have had success since then, it doesn’t come close to the record of the first half of No. 2’s career. One major shortcoming of the Jeter-led Yanks was thrown into high contrast during his last days playing at Yankee Stadium: In the first game of the final homestand, the Bombers won in the ninth with a single, a stolen base, a sac bunt (on a 3-2 count, no less), and then a hard grounder through Toronto’s drawn-in infield, a rare case of the Yankees playing small ball. Sterling catches a lot of flak for being a homer, but anyone who has tuned in over the past decade has heard him bemoan the Yankees’ inability to advance runners and get timely hits with men on base. One wishes the Jeter-helmed Yanks had manufactured a few more runs during El Capitán’s reign. (If there were a stat for payroll divided by hits with runners in scoring position, no Yankee fan of the past 10 years would want to see that gruesome number.)
But then, of course, came the storybook ending of Jeter’s final home game, an evening that began with a rainbow over Yankee Stadium and ended with a single, a sac bunt, and the Captain’s walk-off base hit.
“The only thing I’ve ever wanted to be was the shortstop of the New York Yankees.” http://t.co/FbhQOIj2cF pic.twitter.com/RDrqDpIhEC
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) September 29, 2014
Add to that five World Series rings. Fourteen All-Star appearances. Five Gold Gloves. A home run for his 3,000th hit (3,465 total, 6th on the all-time list). MVP of the first (and, so far, only) Bronx-Queens Subway World Series. And you have to love (O.K., or not) the Flip, the Dive, and, as if to confirm that Jeter was headed for a charmed baseball life, that fly out turned into a homer by fan Jeffrey Maier in the shortstop’s first year of postseason play. It has been one of the diamond’s most dazzling careers—call it “Jeterian bling.”
And, certainly, one of the most radiant memories is that of “Mr. November,” from the extended 2001 season. Which raises a hypothetical question for Yankee fans about the Jeter era: How many of those five World Series rings – if you’d somehow gotten hold of that glittering fistful yourself – how many of those baubles would you give up to have won it all in 2001, post 9-11, instead of having to witness Mariano Rivera get beaten, in that rare way that was his curse, with a blooper just over the infield?
Me, I’d still want that first one in ’96, sealed by third baseman Charlie Hayes’s ecstatic grin as he caught that foul pop and set off nearly two decades’ worth of pent-up pandemonium in the old stadium.
And beating the Mets in 2000 was sweet (if emotionally exhausting).
And the record of 125 wins sparkles like champagne.
But the other two – Atlanta again (yawn)? The Phillies? What would you give to have won it all while the city was still reeling? What could have better signaled that we were recovering than a Yankees world championship? (And truth be told – that year? I’d have been happy to see the Mets win it, so long as a team from the Big Apple could say to the haters, “We’re still standing.”)
We could’ve used it, to help us heal.
But hey: Welcome to New York.
It’s a helluva town, as Jay-Z and Alicia Keys reminded us with “Empire State of Mind” before the second game of the 2009 Series (after the Yanks had lost the opener to Philadelphia): “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothing’ you can’t do/Now you’re in New York,” the camera quick-cutting to Mariano and Derek, bopping wallflowers whose star power was momentarily outshone.
So Yankee fans have to settle for those five rings from the Age of Jeter. Nothing’s perfect, not least the Captain’s farewell tour. In almost a full season of postseason play (158 games), his stats are impressive – .308 average, 200 hits, 20 homers, 61 RBIs – but he won’t be adding to those numbers in his goodbye year.
Now there is just the sparkle of that black-diamond chain Jeter wears around his neck as he awaits induction into Cooperstown. And perhaps we’ll get one final, blinding flash of Jeterian bling: Could Jeter become the first-ever unanimous Hall of Fame pick?
Read more baseball coverage from the Voice archives—including a first-person account about playing against Cal Ripken, Jr., a Yankees art exhibit, and post 9-11 baseball therapy—below.