NEW YORK — Derek Jeter, trying to blink away the tears, and holding a towel over his face, walked slowly around the Yankee Stadium infield Thursday night, his head spinning, trying to digest what just happened.
When he finally reached the dugout, hugging his family, and walking through the tunnel for the final time toward the clubhouse, he finally surrendered, with the emotions oozing out of his body.
In one of the most surreal and remarkable farewells in Yankee history, leave it up to Jeter to deliver the dramatic game-winning hit in the Yankees’ 6-5 triumph over the Baltimore Orioles, just minutes after the Yankees had blown a 3-run lead.
“It was sort of an out of body experience, Jeter said. “It was a weird range of emotions. I was just trying not to cry.”
BOX SCORE: Yankees 6, Orioles 5
In one swing of the bat, Jeter slapped his trademark single to right field. Antoan Richardson came scurrying toward home, and there was Jeter jumping up and down as he rounded first base.
His teammates sprinted onto the field, the sellout crowd of 48,613 danced in the aisles, and Jeter was mobbed, giving him a hero’s send-off.
When he walked toward the dugout, there were his famous teammates from the glory days, with Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada hugging him, along with Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre.
“I’ve done a pretty good job controlling my emotions,” Jeter says. “I try to hide them. I try to trick myself into not feeling those particular emotions.
“Today, I wasn’t able to do it.”
Jeter, known for his stoicism during his career, says he broke down several times during the game, retreating to the bathroom to cry, with his eyes tearing up in the ninth inning in the field.
“I was honestly out there saying, “Please don’t hit it to me,’ Jeter says. “I was thinking to myself, “Get me out of here before I do something that cost us the game.
“Funny, how things changed.”
Certainly, the script was completely altered on the fly. The game plan was to remove Jeter from the game in the top of the ninth inning with the Yankees leading 5-2. Yet, before anyone knew it, closer David Robertson coughed up three runs, the last on Steve Pearce’s home run.
Never did a blown save look so beautiful.
It gave Jeter a chance to bat one final time, and provide a memory that will never be forgotten in this stadium.
“I don’t think there was a more fitting way for it to end,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi says, “for all of the big hits, and all of the things he’s done to win championships here. He was here at the beginning of this (five World Series championship) run.”
Jeter, after celebrating with his current and former teammates, slowly then walked around the infield, waving to the crowd.
He stopped at the shortstop position.
He kneeled down, lowered his head, and prayed.
“I basically just said, ‘Thank you,”’ Jeter said, “because this is alI I ever wanted to do. Not too many people have the opportunity to do it. It was above and beyond anything I dreamed.
“I don’t know what to say.
“I’ve lived a dream since I was 4 or five years old, and now the dream is over.”
Jeter, playing only the second game of his career after the Yankees had already been mathematically eliminated, also decided that he will never play shortstop again.
He will strictly be used as a designated hitter in the last three games at Fenway Park in Boston.
Hey, nothing is going to spoil this memory, playing his final season filled with tributes.
“This year has been difficult,” he says, “because you almost feel like you’re watching a funeral. People are telling you great things, and they’re showing highlights. I understand that my career is over, but people are giving you well-wishes like you’re about to die.
“Do you know what I mean?
“Part of you feels like you’re dying, I guess, because it’s true from the baseball side.”
Yet, never, ever, will Jeter ever be forgotten, turning a meaningless game into an electrifying October postseason night, leaving magical moments and memories that New York will forever cherish.
What else would you expect from the man?
Let’s see: A steady rain suddenly stopped in the afternoon. A meaningless game morphed into an electrifying October postseason night, and left magical moments and memories that New York will never forget.
“Derek Jeter,” Yankees president Randy Levine says, “has that kind of power.”
Oh, what a night.
Chalk up another memory, with Jeter getting his first walk-off hit in seven years.
There are the five World Series championships. The game-winning World Series home run in 2001. The dive into the stands. The flip.
“I remember me and the Boss (George Steinbrenner) standing there and watching when that happened,” Levine said, “hitting that home run. Mr. November. There were so many incredible moments, but how can you ever forget that?”
It perhaps was fitting that Jeter’s final game at Yankee Stadium was on the 46th anniversary of Mickey Mantle’s finale.
From one legend to another.
“Mantle and Jeter were larger than life, iconic Yankees,” says Levine, who had 600 requests for tickets from celebrities, politicians and friends. “But these are different times because of the technology. They are living it minute by minute, day by day. Everything becomes so magnified.
“The amazing thing is that Derek lived through it for 20 years, being the biggest star in the biggest city and on the biggest city. And though all of the technology and social media, he always managed to handle it with grace and dignity.
“What an incredible player.
“What even a more remarkable person.”
No one again will ever wear No. 2 after the Yankees’ season ends Sunday at Fenway Park in Boston. One day he one will be honored in the Yankees’ Monument Park behind the center-field fence. And, in five years, he’ll be entering the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
“You’re not replacing him,” teammate Chase Headley says. “You might as well just acknowledge that and not try to, because it’s not possible.
“To become that type of leader, and become that respected in the clubhouse, there’s nobody that’s obviously done it that long and done it the way he’s done it.
“Next year, there will be different year. Different players, different personalities. But you’re not replacing what that guy does.
“You just can’t.”
Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale
GALLERY: JETER’S FINAL HOME GAME