OAKLAND, Calif. — Wherever Derek Jeter goes, the play goes with him.
In memory and on video, Jeter covers the 110 feet from his shortstop position to the first-base foul line to run down Shane Spencer’s overthrow from right field, then he flips the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who tags A’s base runner Jeremy Giambi, preserving a 1-0 New York Yankees lead.
On that evening of Oct. 13, 2001 at the Coliseum, Jeter came out of nowhere to make what has become the most iconic defensive play ever by a shortstop, saving the Yankees from elimination in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
Almost 13 years later, Jeter will make his final regular-season visit to the Coliseum this weekend. The future Hall of Famer is retiring at the end of the season.
“I don’t fixate on it,” Jeter said of his play when the A’s visited Yankee Stadium last week. “Other people do. They bring it up all the time. It was a special moment and I take a lot of pride in it, but it’s over and done now.”
The A’s had won the first two games of the 2001 ALDS in New York, and a victory in Game 3 would have ended the Yankees’ season. Instead, the Yankees prevailed 1-0 and went on to win the series on their way to reaching the World Series.
“Derek is always going to have to relive that one play, not that it bothers him,” said Joe Torre, who was the Yankees’ manager then. “It seems that it’s become the iconic shortstop play.
“If that run scored, it could be three and done for us. Without that play, there’s no World Series for us. We were in a win-or-go-home situation, but I’d seen Derek do things before in tough circumstances. He was always someone who was ready and calm.”
Calm was not the order of the day for Game 3. The A’s were on the verge of sweeping the Yankees despite the swelling tide of emotion that had carried New York in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan.
Mike Mussina, the former Stanford star, was in his first season in pinstripes, looking for the kind of signature postseason game that would fully integrate him into the team’s culture. And he was having it, carrying a two-hitter into the seventh inning and leading 1-0 thanks to Posada’s homer off Barry Zito in the fifth.
‘KNEW HE WOULD SCORE’
But Giambi gave the A’s and their capacity crowd a seed of hope with a two-out single to right. Terrence Long followed with a bullet into the right-field corner.
“Our dugout was on the third-base side, and we had a great view of Terrence hitting that ball into the corner,” said Art Howe, the A’s manager. “I thought Jeremy would score. I knew he would score.”
That certainly seemed to be the case when Spencer, who was playing right field, corralled the ball in the corner and rocketed a throw back to the infield that went over second baseman Alfonso Soriano and first baseman Tino Martinez, both acting as cutoff men on the first-base line.
But there came Jeter, who had come over toward the pitcher’s mound when Long made contact. Jeter kept moving toward the first-base line as he saw the play develop.
“The throw is way over everything,” said Ron Washington, then the A’s third-base coach and now manager of the Texas Rangers. “So I’m winding Giambi and I’m sure we’re going to tie the game. And then Derek goes over and gets that ball.”
Jeter says now that he was just doing what came naturally.
“I was supposed to be in that position,” he said. “I’m the third cutoff man, I’m supposed to cut it off and redirect the throw.”
The A’s never believed that. Nobody practices that throw. As recently as 2012, then-Boston manager Bobby Valentine said he believed the Yankees never practiced the play and that he thought Jeter was out of position.
Eric Chavez, the A’s third baseman that day, believed the same. Now with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chavez spent two years with the Yankees, during which he said, “Oh, man, they do practice it.”
Home plate umpire Kerwin Danley was in agreement with Washington that the A’s were going to tie the score.
“With a guy running from first and a ball hit deep in the corner like that, you think there’s going to be a play at the plate,” Danley said. “But when the ball goes over both cutoff men, I’m thinking the ball is going into the dugout or behind the screen. I’m thinking this ball is not going to get stopped.”
Up in the radio booth, A’s broadcaster Ken Korach was preparing to announce that the home team had scored the tying run.
“Once Giambi came down the line and the ball winds up in foul territory, I came this far from saying, ‘He’s going to score,’ ” Korach said. “I held back. It’s something about trying to teach yourself not to anticipate. To have that slight split second of detachment so that you don’t jump the gun on the call.”
‘BUT THERE WAS DEREK’
And, as it happened, the defining moment of the play hadn’t happened yet. Jeter caught the ball with his back to the infield, his momentum carrying him toward the Yankees dugout.
“To see the overthrow, there was so much distance between the first baseman and the catcher,” Torre said. “But there was Derek. I had the best seat in the house. He was running right toward me.”
As soon as he had control of the ball in his glove, Jeter pulled it out and made a backhanded shovel pass to Posada, a move that has gone down in baseball lore as “The Flip.”
Posada was in front of the plate on the first-base side when he caught Jeter’s throw. Danley, his mask in his left hand, was in position behind the plate at the back end of the left-handed batter’s box. On the edge of the grass behind Danley was A’s on-deck hitter Ramon Hernandez.
“Like I said, I’m supposed to cut it off and redirect the throw,” Jeter said. “But flipping it home is not something we practice. I think if Spencer’s throw is on line, Giambi is out by a long way.”
But the throw wasn’t on line, and Posada for a moment can be seen moving toward where the ball will land. Then he stays put.
“You saw how wide the throw was,” Torre said. “In my mind, Posada gets a lot of credit for staying at home. If he freelanced and went after the ball, then we’d have been in trouble. He didn’t, and that’s the only reason the play worked.
“There is something about Derek. If he was to get the ball and wheel and throw it to the plate, it probably would have been too late. But by flipping the ball, he had a reasonable chance to get the out.”
‘IF HE SLIDES?’ ...
Hernandez did what he could to help Giambi, yelling at his teammate to slide and putting both hands out, palms down, and vigorously pushing toward the ground — the universal baseball sign to slide.
Giambi, who declined to be interviewed for this story, did not slide. Posada caught the ball belt high, swung his glove hand around and got Giambi behind his right knee just before Giambi touched the plate.
Danley emphatically called Giambi out, punching his fist toward the plate. But it wasn’t as easy a call as the umpire made it look.
“That call was as close as they come,” Danley said. “It was a tough call, almost tougher because he didn’t slide and Posada tagged Giambi close to his thigh area. That makes it tough to call when a guy is running so fast. When he’s sliding, you’re just looking for the tag.
“This was a catch-flip-tag play,” Danley continued. “I had never seen anything like it before. I’ve never seen anything like it since. I’ve seen really good plays, but not like that where the ball looks like it’s going out of play and then he flips it. It was spectacular.”
Would Giambi have been safe if he’d slid? Howe says yes. He got that implication talking to Danley about the play later.
But Danley can’t say for sure.
“If he slides? I have no idea,” he said. “Yeah, maybe, seeing where the tag was. It’s all just speculation. You really don’t know. He would have had a good chance.”
That’s the legacy Jeter brings to the Coliseum in his last regular-season appearance this weekend.
“That play has never stopped bothering me,” Howe said. “Even with the flip, I thought he would score. I think of it often, of what might have been. But you can’t change history. You’ve got to give him credit for being in the right place at the right time for them.”
Said Jeter: “It is a unique play. It’s not something that has happened, you know what I mean? It’s one of those plays that just because of the unique circumstances hasn’t happened again and may not. I haven’t seen anything like it since.”
It seems no one has.
“I’ve never seen that play before,” said Washington, who is 62 and has spent his entire adult life in baseball. “I don’t think you will ever see that play again. It was one of the smartest plays from one of the smartest players.