NEW YORK — Derek Jeter woke up Thursday morning, tried to act like it was just like another game, but it was like no other he ever experienced in his life.
This is it.
He’s a creature of habit, he joked, and tried to keep his routine the same.
Yet, driving to Yankee Stadium, and running into traffic from the United Nations Security Council, it hit him that this would be the final time he’d be driving to the ballpark as an active player for the New York Yankees.
It was like driving to your farewell party, only with a sellout crowd of nearly 50,000 people greeting you upon arrival.
“It’s tough for me to start getting emotional and sentimental before I have to play,” Jeter says. “I’m just not wired like that. After the game, I’ll tell you everything I can.”
It was raining all day, but fans still flocked early to the ballpark, rushing towards the gates when they opened at 4 p.m., even though the rain caused batting practice to be canceled. No matter. They still stood by their seats, proudly wearing their No. 2 jerseys, watched the tributes and giving a standing ovations after Jeter’s Gatorade commercial, and a fan appreciation clip, hoping for an early glimpse of the man.
And, just like that, defying all dire weather forecasts, the rain magically stopped.
“It’s Derek’s Day,” Yankees president Randy Levine told USA TODAY Sports. “You’re not going to let it rain on his day.”
When Jeter finally appeared on the field at 6:52 ET, and greeted kids involved in his Turn 2 charity Foundation before warming up on the field, field, he received a thunderous ovation.
It never stopped. He was the first one to run onto the field, while his teammates stayed a few second behind in the dugout, giving fans another chance to cheer. And instead of the Bleacher Creatures giving their own roll call, the entire stadium joined in.
De-rek Je-ter! De-rek Je-ter! De-rek Je-ter!
When Jeter stepped to the plate for his first at-bat in his final game at the stadium, at 7:21, the crowd rose to its feet, chanting his name in a thunderous roar.
Then, in typical Jeter fashion, he lines a double off the left-center field wall, scoring Brett Gardner from first base, electrifying the joint.
If you closed your eyes, you’d swear he just woke up the ghosts, resurrecting those wondrous memories of October past at the old Stadium.
Yes, and when the fans opened their eyes again, there were joyful tears.
“It’s emotional, I know it is for me,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi says. “It will be very difficult. I got a little choked up [Wednesday].
“There’s never an easy way to go out.
“We may not see something like this again.”
The rest of the free world feels the same, with tickets selling for the highest price in Major League Baseball history for a regular season game. The average price was $ 419, with tickets selling this week as high as $ 6,500.
“I know we weren’t to miss it,” says Paige Bunch, who traveled from Savannah, Ga., with her 17-year-old son, Trey. She was out of work for 2 ½ years, went to school, and just found employment in July.
And her first purchase was $ 256 game tickets for her and her son, giving him an early graduation present.
“He cried when I told him,” said Paige, who arrived to Yankee Stadium nearly five hours before the first pitch. “I promised him I’d bring him to New York to see Derek Jeter’s final game. It’s expensive, but worth it.
“How many people can say they got to see their childhood idol play his last game?”
Veteran scouts like Bob Fontaine Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays, who has been scouting for 40 years, and remembers scouting Jeter in high school while working for the California Angels, couldn’t stay away from Yankee Stadium.
“This makes me feel old,” Fontaine says. “You see a kid like that in high school, and you never think something like this is going to happen. I mean, what he meant for the Yankees, what he meant for the game, who could have imagined?”
Jeter’s teammates were just in awe as the fans. While Jeter didn’t arrive to the clubhouse until 3:41 p.m., wearing a black suit, most of his teammates had been around for at least an hour earlier.
“When you see somebody from the outside, and you hear the reputation, and you see all of the accomplishments,” says Yankees third baseman Chase Headley, acquired in July, “you hope that kind of person lives up to the persona that you’ve seen from the outside. He’s been more than that.
“Really, it’s been an honor to be able to stand beside him, witness that, and watch him go through an unparalleled run of any player.”
Yankees starter CC Sabathia, on the disabled list most of the season, even made sure to arrive early for a good seat on the bench. He wasn’t going to miss this game. He even made sure to bring his family on the cold and windy evening.
“I think we all understand the historical significance of this game,” Sabathia says. “
There were plenty of baseballs that were going to be preserved from the game, and yes, Girardi said, he was going to keep the lineup card.
“It’s the memories, more than the mementos that I want to hold onto,” Girardi says. “when I think about my time with Derek Jeter.”
Oh, yes, the memories.
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.”
Certainly, no one again will ever wear No. 2. He will be honored in Monument Park behind the center-field fence. Who knows if anyone will even take his locker?
“You’re not replacing him,” 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.”
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GALLERY: JETER’S FINAL HOME GAME