Yankee Stadium was alive last night, and I don't think, looking back just hours later, that I mean that in a purely metaphorical way. There was a pulse I could feel in the balls of my feet – feet that were ensconced in boots for the first time since last winter – and there were moments when I was all but certain that I could feel the collective heartbeats of 47,000 fans. We had all bargained with the Gods of rain, making promises many of us probably weren't prepared to keep, but there we stood, and we were trying to get ready to say goodbye.
Because I became a baseball fan later in life, it has always been somewhat clear to me that it's not just about the games and the rivalries and the players that seep into the life of a fan; it's really also very much about who the person is when she is rooting for the team and where in life she finds herself when those runs are scored, when that ball looks like it's going over the wall but bounces back in for a double, when players morph into Gods or crumble like fallen idols.
I don't know what adult life is without the Yankees. I don't know what this new version of my family would have been without the collective joy the sport cushioned us in like a really expensive but awesome pillow that almost always provided spectacular back support.
I can hardly fathom a holiday or a birthday looming where I don't at least consider Yankee apparel as a present for my stepfather. (When he turned seventy, my sister had a jersey made with 70 on the back and "Pop-Pop" written where the player's name would go across the top – and I still think it's one of the best gifts ever given to anybody.) I cannot picture the den in my parents' house without thinking first of the memorabilia covering the walls that I stare at open-mouthed even after all of these years.
I've said before that my first Yankee game was the night they won the World Series in 1996. It will never not be a fact about my life that doesn't stun me silent when I think about how fortunate I am – and it's never something somebody hears about me that doesn't stun that person silent too. It's an insane thing to have befallen my life; it's something I'm still not sure I deserve.
My first year at the Stadium was Jeter's first year too. I'm quite sure he made a larger impression than I did. His was the first name I knew on the team. I liked that he was young. I liked that I thought he looked handsome when he wore his batting helmet. I liked that he'd always stand up at the dugout instead of sitting inside of it, and that he was often the first player to congratulate another when something great happened for that guy at bat.
I noticed that, even if the Yankees were up by eight runs or down by twelve, he'd run to the next base as though everything in his existence depended upon him getting there safely. I recognized that he rarely argued explicitly with the home base umpire when a call would come in that he didn't like when he was at bat like Posada so often did. Jeter would shake his head with quiet disapproval, but he'd walk away. Sometimes he'd turn around to throw that ump a withering look, but he never risked getting thrown out of the game because of a single moment of frustration.
He always seemed to know that the game was more than the moment.
At the old Stadium, we sat four rows behind the Yankee dugout, a sentence that is crazy just to type, so aware am I of my unbelievable fortune. When I first started going to games, my new-by-my-mother's-new-marriage brother was very young. He loved Jeter, and there were many times Jeter would roll a ball across the dugout to Devin. Once he rolled his bat to another young kid in our section, and the kid was so surprised, he almost rolled it back.
I thought about that kid last night. I don't know who he is. Before that night when he got the best parting gift ever, I'd never seen him before. I don't think I ever saw him again. But I know that he was watching the game somewhere last night, and I know he must have turned to someone who sat near him, maybe someone he really cares about now that he's an adult, and he told that person the story of the night that Jeter gave him his bat.
Those are moments you just don't forget.
In the old Stadium, that old man would walk around with his frying pan and a spoon that fans would bang on for luck. I saw Freddie and his spoon more often than I saw some of my family members. He wore the old-school Yankee jacket that my dad sometimes wore, the one I see now in pictures taken a very long time ago, the blue shiny one with the white letters printed across the front. I loved how Freddie was embraced by the players, the fans, the mayor. Once when he was very ill, word spread through the stands and I remember praying for him. I remember that when he was back, he came to our section and my stepfather Jack almost crawled across a toddler and a woman in a walker to have his moment of banging the spoon against the pan.
It was tradition. One thing I've learned over these two glorious decades is that Yankee fans really respond to tradition.
In both stadiums, my favorite thing Jeter did was one of those small, personal quirks, a private tradition made public by doing it in front of thousands of people at every game. As the end of the Star-Spangled Banner would play, Jeter, standing in the outfield between Cano and Rodriguez, would drop into a crouched position. He would clearly be saying a quick prayer, and when he was done he would reach out both of his fists and tap each guy at the same time on the legs. They in turn would tap him on the back at the same moment, the rhythm happening in such perfect tandem it's as though they had practiced it in Spring Training. I looked for that moment every time I was there. I loved that it made Jeter seem human. I liked knowing that he had routines like I have routines. It seemed important to me as a fan who came to care about this man's well being that he would bring himself some peace before he'd give the game everything he had.
Last night I turned to Devin, the brother I no longer clarify as being related to me through marriage.
"I love that moment when he says a quick prayer in the outfield after the anthem," I told him as we walked through the throngs of fellow revelers to our seats.
"I don't think I ever noticed that," he said.
The moment we walked into the building last night, my eyes filled with tears. I did not expect that emotional reaction, not then. I was holding my mother's hand, trying not to lose her as Jack surged ahead in the crowd on his way to go upstairs to eat at the restaurant. At some point she turned to me, and I was wiping my eyes.
"I know," she said with a sad smile. "It truly is the end of an era."
The thing is, this has been my only Yankee era. I never experienced the team without Derek Jeter as the major focal point. There were other players over the swelling years that became guys I actively began to root for, guys I started to feel like I knew. I loved Paul O'Neill. I loved that someone so tall could be so agile. I loved that I could read his emotions on his face. I really loved that he came out to Springsteen at a time when guys like Chuck Knoblauch walked up to bat to the sounds of absolute shit music.
Yes, I judged players sometimes based on their taste in music. And I won't even pretend to apologize for doing so.
I loved Tino and I loved Bernie. I loved the moment the bullpen doors would swing open majestically and Mariano would run out. I miss the moment of relief that he was here now, on the mound, and that everything would be okay.
I liked Brosius and Mussina, and I thought it was adorable that my mother always loved Girardi because he had a degree in something like Chemical Engineering from Northwestern, and that meant he was smart. At an event where we were lucky enough to meet the players, my mother told Girardi how much she respected his completed education and his degree as he signed a ball for her in that sweet spot.
"Well, my mother insisted," he said to her with a shy smile.
Moments like that one are why I cared about certain players and exactly why some of them, no matter how good a season they were having, would always be nothing but dead to me. When I met Johnny Damon, he had a whole conversation with me about how I had spent my day. I overlooked his Red Sox history in that second and decided to love him forever. When Alex Rodriguez didn't even glance up at my mother's face while she welcomed him to the team and mentioned that she had gone to Miami also, his fate was sealed in my eyes. He could suck it. Nobody gets to be dismissive of my mommy, not even some insanely-paid player, pre-steroid scandal.
My dog always liked Matsui. Listen: I know I'm one of those crazy dog owners who treats my canine like she's human, but I am not lying or embellishing when I say that when Matsui first got up at bat at Yankee Stadium and hit a grand slam home run, Wookie and I were watching from home. My parents were at the Stadium that night, just as they were on so many nights, and as this new guy walked up to the plate, Wookie sat up and stared at the television. When that gorgeous crack of the bat was heard, Wookie continued to watch. Only after he hit home plate did she settle back down onto her pillow to rest until the rotation went around and he was back up to bat. Then she sat up to watch again. It was weird and it was funny, my dog's reaction to this new player, but just like some kids have a dinosaur obsession and the parent shrugs and decides to deal with it, I went out and got her a doggie Matsui shirt that became the only article of clothing for years she allowed me to put her in. She was Matsui once for Halloween. I don't understand it, but it made me smile.
Last night, during televised commercial breaks, the big screen showed testimonials and tributes to Jeter. There were sweet ones from fans and from commentators, but my favorite ones were from some of his former teammates. Matsui was in there; so was Martinez. Watching them was like seeing ghosts of the past sit up and say hello.
It was jarring.
It was beautiful.
The entire game, the cheers never let up. Variations of "De-rek Je-ter" and eventually 'Thank you, Je-ter" rang throughout the stadium, rumbling as though exploding from a hidden space below, filling the nighttime sky with adoration and sheer gratitude. Our new seats in the new Stadium are in the fifteenth row behind the Yankee dugout. As a joke I say we're slumming it, knowing what a ridiculous comment that is to make, precisely why I say it. But from our seats, we could see Jeter's face and that he was beginning to well up, that maybe he was willing himself to try to feel numb for another inning.
It all felt very real. Horribly, it began to feel very final.
At one point, my brother shook his head slowly.
"You okay, Poodle?" I asked.
"I can't believe this is it," he said, his voice low. And I looked at him and suddenly flashed on an image of the two of us watching a game together all those many years ago. He was blonder than he is now and I hadn't ever purchased eye cream back then, and when he'd hold onto my hand during those long-ago games, his palm would feel soft, like puffy baby skin, and now his hand is rougher from how hard he works and it is so large that I tell him he has paws, not hands. It's those moments that we can't get back, and that so many of them happened while Jeter played his soul out in front of us makes his leaving feel even more poignant. It's not just that he's an undeniable superstar leaving a sport he helped define; it's that he's leaving us with memories that can only now be a part of the past, a collection of retrospective moments that are profoundly special but no longer current.
They can never be current again.
The way it all eventually went down last night? How could it not have gone the way that it did? Of course he drove in a walk-off run. You could literally feel the dawning of collective understanding that the Yankees would have to bat in the bottom of the ninth and that Jeter would be coming up third.
I saw people look at each other with a glint in their eyes. I had one too.
I burst into tears when he drove in that run. I was so damn happy for him that his final moment in that Stadium was exactly what he deserved, what he had fought for, what I'm quite certain was written as his destiny. Watching him embraced by his teammates was emotional; watching his former teammates and his beloved former Coach wait for him on the field, standing like they were there to escort him safely to that Other Side, was almost devastating in its pure expression of honest and decent sentiment. He deserved every single second of a moment I'm not sure he'll fully internalize for a good long time.
"This has to be almost too much for any one person," I said to Devin last night as the crowd erupted into cheers yet again somewhere around the sixth inning, and I could see Jeter push his hat down for a moment as he stood playing shortstop in the field.
We watched his parents and his sister and his nephew and his girlfriend as they filed into the first row. We watched the cameras begin to flood the field. We watched every person in that Stadium absolutely riveted to the poignancy of what was transpiring in front of us, including the entire Orioles team, leaning against the railing outside their dugout, showing nothing but total respect for their often-rival.
At the very end, after the embraces and the dumping of the Gatorade, we watched him walk to where he had stood for so many years as the best shortstop in the game, and he crouched down there. I hoped he could locate the quiet inner peace in a moment that had to have felt so personal but was also one that so many were invested in too. I wished his solo jaunt out into the field could have really been solo, that it hadn't been followed by a cameraman who aimed the lens at one point at Jeter's feet, but I get that the cameraman was just doing his job.
I wonder what it must be like when millions of people feel like they have a stake in your life and in your choices. I've understood and applauded for years how private Derek Jeter is, that he has never, for all of his tremendous fame, allowed himself to truly become a public commodity, at least as far as his personal life goes. His own ability to self-protect is yet another thing I respect about him.
I'm not sure I've ever been to a Yankee game where after the second out in the bottom of the ninth, we weren't told by Jack to walk, to get to the garage, to walk faster, to hop into the car, to make it onto the Deegan before the other 46,999 people in the place tried to drive that same route. Last night, we stayed the entire time. We even stayed and watched his press conference from our seats as it was projected onto the huge screen in center field.
It didn't matter that it was clear we wouldn't be getting home until close to one in the morning – we stayed there.
I think we were simply all very aware that when we finally left, this part of it – maybe forever the best part of it – would really be over.