MINNEAPOLIS — During Monday’s All-Star workout at Target Field, Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield carefully held his fungo bat and gingerly sent some practice ground balls Derek Jeter’s way.
Notable, because Butterfield had been there before. In Florida, as a Yankees coach, dispatched as a sort of one-man baseball SWAT team in the fall of 1993. Jeter, the Yankees’ first-round pick in 1992, had committed a staggering 56 errors that summer at Class-A Greensboro.
Butterfield was sent to the Instructional League to slap him thousands of grounders and get the kid moving in the right direction.
“He was like a baby Doberman early in his career trying to catch ground balls,” Butterfield remembered in the moments leading up to Tuesday’s All-Star Game, kick-started yet again by Jeter’s two hits in the American League’s 5-3 victory.
This is how the game goes. Players grow, years pass, baseball life zigs and zags and, eventually, comes full circle.
And once or twice every generation, out of that full circle emerges a man for the ages.
“You couldn’t have written a script like this,” MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was saying earlier in the day, a day that in all likelihood will be remembered forever as Jeter’s last steps on the big stage. “He’s just remarkable.
“How lucky can this sport be to have the icon of this generation turn out to be Derek Jeter? Amazing.”
Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, wouldn’t you know it, started the 85th All-Star Game with a shot to shortstop. It was a ground ball just like some of the hundreds of thousands that Butterfield hit a then-19-year-old Jeter in the fall of ’93, sanding the rough edges away from a kid who would grow into a five-time World Series-winning shortstop.
Given McCutchen’s blazing speed and Jeter's dive, it made for a difficult play. The 40-year-old version of Jeter still nearly made it, and McCutchen pointed at him and grinned as the Pirates’ leadoff man walked back to first.
In Jeter’s fairy-tale world, of course this game would start with a ground ball right at the Yankee waving goodbye.
“I didn’t want to hit him anything with a backspin that would eat him up,” Butterfield said of Monday’s ground balls, some 21 years down the road. “I didn’t want to embarrass him. I made sure to hit him ones with a little topspin.
“It was fun, though.”
As Jeter himself noted, he came to his first All-Star Game in 1998 “scared to death.” He was surrounded by players he grew up watching, and it was intimidating. Now, he was surrounded by players who grew up watching him.
“I feel like I’m young,” Jeter said. “A lot of that has to do with the fact that we’re playing a game. So when guys say they grew up watching you, it’s kind of hard to digest because [I] still feel like I’m young.
“Anyone who has respect and admiration for the way you’ve performed in your career, it makes you feel good.”
“It’s an honor to get to play in his last All-Star Game,” Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki said. “As a child looking up to him, it’s sad to see him go. But at least he gets to go off on his own terms.
“I have the utmost respect for him.”
There is a reason why Tulowitzki wears No. 2. It is the same reason a sellout crowd of 41,048 stood in unison and roared when Jeter was introduced before the game, and again when he stepped to the plate to lead off the bottom of the first inning.
DER-EK JET-ER! echoed the spry ballpark that opened in 2010, 15 years into Jeter’s career. DER-EK JET-ER!
At 40, he is finding both opponents and situations are becoming more and more deferential to him.
And so it was that after looking over a cutter to start the bottom of the first, he lashed the second pitch he saw for a clean double to right field.
“I was going to give him a couple of pipe shots,” said NL starter Adam Wainwright, who was cuffed for three first-inning runs. “I didn’t know he was going to hit a double, though.”
Wainwright added: “I thought he’d line a single to right, or maybe a ground ball. I probably should have pitched him a little better than that.”
Wainwright would come to regret those words. They surely weren’t among the smartest things a dominant and intelligent Wainwright has ever said.
If it was true, then shame on him for leaving his competitive edge in St. Louis.
If it was an exaggeration…then shame on him for reducing Jeter’s moment.
“When you’re out there, it’s a game and things are on the line and you want to win,” Tigers starter Max Scherzer said. “Even though it’s his last All-Star Game, I’d want to get him out.
“You’ve got to earn it.”
As he spoke, Scherzer was unaware of Wainwright’s comments or intent.
“If that’s what he wanted to do, then fine,” Scherzer said when finally briefed on Wainwright’s words. “I just know that if I was on the mound, you’d have to earn it from me.”
By the end of the eighth inning, Twitter practically melting down in judgment, Wainwright was rushed onto the Fox national broadcast for some damage control. He also stayed late after the game, explaining that he misspoke.
Clearly, he felt badly about the whole thing. His explanation seemed to be something along the lines of, he didn’t exactly groove the pitch but did throw a get-me-over cutter that wasn’t as crisp as he could have thrown it.
“He grooved them?” Jeter said. “The first was a little cutter he threw down and away. He probably assumed I was swinging, so he didn’t groove the first one.
“The second one was about a 98 mph two-seamer that I stayed on really good. I don’t know, man.”
At this point, Jeter couldn’t help himself. He paused, laughed and the entire room laughed along with him.
“If he grooved it, thank you,” Jeter said. “You still have to hit it.
“I appreciate it, if that’s what he did. Thank you.”
The whole thing was reminiscent of Cal Ripken Jr. homering in his final All-Star Game, in Seattle in 2001. Pitcher Chan Ho Park never admitted to grooving that pitch, though watching the pitch and the reaction that night, many of us assumed as much.
Regardless, when the Angels’ 22-year-old wunderkind Mike Trout followed with an RBI triple, it was hard not to watch them both running the bases and see some sort of transformation in progress. The outgoing face of the game, and the incoming face of the game.
“I think, let Mike be Mike,” Jeter said. “I don’t think people have to necessarily appoint someone to a particular position. You know, if he continues to do the things he’s done, he has his head on right, he plays the game the right way, he plays hard.”
When Jeter came to the plate a second time, in the third inning, Wainwright was long gone. This time, Jeter battled Reds starter Alfredo Simon to a full count, over six pitches, before redirecting a 94 mph heater, sending a soft liner into right field for a single.
When the ball nestled into the grass, Jeter had become the oldest player ever to collect two hits in an All-Star Game, nudging aside Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski (39). His All-Star average now is .481 (13-for-27), which ranks fifth all time among those with a minimum of 10 at-bats.
The starry goodbye was both epic and poignant. Jeter spoke to his teammates in the AL clubhouse, telling them that careers go by quickly, too quickly, and that they should enjoy every minute of it.
“He just wanted to thank us,” Trout said. “And you know, we should be thanking him.”
After that second hit, Jeter trotted out to shortstop to start the fourth inning, but when he wasn’t looking, here came the White Sox’s Alexei Ramirez scooting out to send him off to a curtain call. It was unscripted and, for Jeter, always the most confident man in the room until this uncertain goodbye, unexpected.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Jeter said. “My back was turned, and I heard [Robinson] Cano yelling. Usually when he yells, I ignore him.
“And then I saw Ramirez come out. So it was a wonderful moment that I am always going to remember.”
Off he went, to another roaring, standing ovation, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” filling the ballpark as Jeter made his way down the receiving line in the AL dugout, hugs for everyone.
If this was the final moment on the big stage for Jeter, whose Yankees have as much chance of playing in October with four-fifths of their rotation on ice as October has of hosting Christmas this year, it was another fairy tale.
From the flip play in Oakland to the leadoff homer against the Mets in the Subway Series, so many Octobers have been conquered, so many tales have been written.
And, of course, so many ground balls have been taken.
Said Butterfield: “I don’t think you’ll ever see another Derek Jeter.”
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.
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