The scene will be the Bronx on Monday and Tuesday night, then Queens on Wednesday and Thursday, and the only place more appropriate would be if Derek Jeter’s final career meeting with the Mets would take place under Pedro Martinez’s ol’ mango tree.
As the modern chapter closes on a rivalry that will never again be quite the same, what else are the Mets to do except tip their caps and call Jeter their daddy?
“It’s been fun, you know?” Jeter told Bleacher Report during a conversation last week. “What makes it fun for us is the fans get into it. The atmosphere makes it fun.
“It’s like when we play Boston. It’s like that in the playoffs. The Mets are the same thing.
“It’s the talk of the town, so it’s always enjoyable.”
Look who’s talking: Jeter has absolutely crushed the Mets throughout his career.
Over 84 games—83 starts—the Yankees captain has danced on their heads as if he were some sort of baseball Baryshnikov. Lifetime slash line: .368/.421/.548, with 13 homers, 43 RBI and 19 steals in 20 attempts.
In the only Subway World Series since 1956, Jeter did what he does to the Mets: Hammered them to the tune of .409/.480/.864 with two homers and two RBI. He was named as the 2000 World Series MVP. Of course he was.
Jay Horwitz has worked with the Mets for 35 years, moving from director of public relations to vice president of media relations, and in that time he has rarely seen anybody treat his beloved Mets the way Jeter consistently has.
“I think back to the 2000 World Series, and it was like every time they needed a big hit against us, he got a big hit,” Horwitz said. “He’d make a big play. He’d be in the right place at the right time on the field. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever seen play.
“In my 35 years, I don’t think I’ve ever met him. I’ve just admired him from afar. I’ve admired the way he played. He might go 1-for-4 in a game, but the ‘1’ was a big hit. The guy was one of the greats to ever play the game.”
The signature moment over all these years, of course, came when then-Yankees manager Joe Torre moved Jeter into the leadoff slot for Game 4 of the 2000 World Series. With the Yanks holding a two-games-to-one edge, leadoff hitters Chuck Knoblauch (0-for-8) and Jose Vizcaino (0-for-4) had yet to get a hit, and Torre was looking for an igniter.
“You needed a spark, and you knew that he wasn’t going to be backstepping,” Torre reminisced during a weekend telephone conversation. “He basically took the bull by the horns on a lot of occasions when he felt we needed a little bit of a lift.”
Which is exactly what Torre was looking for, especially with George Steinbrenner still alive at the time and absolutely maniacal about getting the best of the Mets.
“Momentum was so important, and I felt we weren’t doing a whole lot from the leadoff spot,” Torre said. “So I put Derek up there. One thing about Derek, a lot of players over the years would tell me ‘I want to hit third’ or ‘I want to hit fourth.’ He really didn’t care where he hit.
“He kidded me when he passed me in lifetime homers, saying he should have been hitting in the middle of the lineup the whole time.”
Moving atop the lineup became Jeter’s King Kong Atop the Empire State Building Moment: First pitch of Game 4, he turned on an inside Bobby Jones pitch and yanked it over the left field fence.
“First thing that comes to mind is that leadoff homer. Son of a gun,” said current Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace, who was Bobby Valentine’s pitching coach for the Mets during that World Series. “What you remember is just the player.
“When you go over the team, at that time, the guy was in his prime. The way he played defense. The way he understands the game and doesn’t make any fundamental mistakes in the field.”
Wallace remembers the Mets game-planning for that World Series, knowing there was no one way to attack Jeter.
“You had to mix it up,” he said. “One time, try to keep the ball away and make him chase something off of the plate, a breaking ball. Another time, throw a sinker down and in to try and induce a ground ball to the left side, and play him that way.
“He’s a guy who covered the strike zone in and out, up and down. Mostly, he was a guy you could get out when you keep the ball down. But he was a tough out. He could not only put the ball in play at that time, but he could turn on the ball, too.”
That was reinforced to Bobby Jones in the pivotal Game 4. The Mets went into that game on the heels of their 4-2 Game 3 win, thinking they were about to draw even with the Yankees. They exited 3-2 losers, with Jeter tread marks all over their tattered scouting reports.
What Torre most remembers was a small moment as the Yankees were preparing for Game 4.
“Beforehand,” Torre said. “He sort of had a good look in his eye as if to say, ‘OK, you put me at the top of the order.’ It used to be, when I hit him third, he’d say, ‘Uh oh, I guess I have to hit home runs,’ kidding.
“This particular day, he walked by me before the game. He looked at me. I looked at him. It just felt good. Words didn’t have to be uttered. It sent me a message.”
It sent the Mets a message, too. Multiple messages. After pummeling Jones for that leadoff homer, Jeter drilled a leadoff triple to start the third inning against Jones and scored a batter later on a ground ball to make it 3-0 Yankees. The Mets were finished in this World Series.
“I remember talking after one of the games with, I don’t know if it was Al Leiter or Bobby Jones, and he was saying we made the exact pitch we wanted to and it was one of those times Jeter flared the ball to right field and got on base in a clutch situation,” Wallace said. “You do everything you wanted to do, and he’d still get on base.”
The stakes never again have been as high for Jeter and the Mets. The results, though, remained pretty much the same through the years, inflating Jeter’s Prince of New York standing to an even greater degree.
Ever the throwback, though, Jeter pauses when asked whether he’s glad interleague play came along when it did so he could enjoy all of those extra games in New York against the Mets.
“I sort of like the old school when you play a team in the World Series and you’ve never seen them,” Jeter says. “Now there’s still a chance of that, but interleague play…it’s fun to play other teams and to go to other stadiums, and it’s fun for the fans.
“But I liked that, when we played the Braves in ’96, I didn’t know anything about them. I’d just seen them on TV.
“But I enjoy those games (with the Mets).”
Few who have watched haven’t. Except, maybe some of the poor schmoes wearing Mets uniforms attempting to slip a fastball past Jeter. But even for many of those in the Mets dugout, it’s been difficult to do much else other than shake their heads and nod in respect.
“It was an honor to play with Derek at the World Baseball Classic,” Mets captain David Wright said. “I admired him from afar in how he conducts himself. I started my foundation, really, because of what I saw what he did with his Turn 2 Foundation. And I look forward to saying something to him when we see him on the field this week.”
Over these next four days, though, it will all play out for a final time. Maybe Thursday the Mets will give him a farewell gift or two—the keys to their franchise, perhaps? A mango tree?—and then the Mets and Yankees will sail toward their 2015 meetings and a completely new set of heroes and villains.
“There’s no Rivera, there’s no Jeter, it will be different,” Horwitz says. “It will be absolutely different. No Rivera, no Posada, and our team is young.
“It’s the nature of the game. They will be different times, but still the intensity between the two teams. It still will be fun, Yankees fans coming to Citi Field, yelling at each other, Mets fans in Yankee Stadium, yelling at each other.
“But it won’t be the same.”
Not even close.
Doesn’t mean it will be bad, or that it cannot be great. It’s just that, well, it takes a while for moments to become memories and for memories to become this rich.
Jeter smiles when asked for his most vivid memory from that 2000 World Series. And when he talks, as anyone who knows him would expect, he does not tick off tales of that home run or of being moved from the No. 2 hole into the leadoff spot in the batting order for Game 4.
Nope. His overriding memory is one thing.
“We won,” he said. “I mean, that’s it. I joked and said if we didn’t win that I’d have to move out of Manhattan. I was living in Manhattan, and that’s all anyone ever talked about was that World Series.
“I’m very glad we won that one.”
He wound up keeping two mementos as the spoils of that victory.
“The trophy, and the MVP trophy,” he said. “That’s enough.”