Last Game at Camden
An 18-year love affair comes to an end.
I was seven years old when I first fell in love. His name was Derek, and he was tall, smart, and athletic. A serious catch.
Off the bat, Derek and I faced a few obstacles on the path to romantic bliss. To start, he was 14 years older than me. Then, of course, there was the fact that we had never actually met. And lastly, he — Derek Jeter, age 22, of Kalamazoo, Michigan — was the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees.
None of that mattered. I was in love.
Jeter started playing pro ball for the Yankees full-time in 1996. It was the same year Toy Story came out, and I got my first AOL screen name (lilminnow61, if you’re wondering). Them were optimistic times.
After seeing Derek play live for the first time, at an Orioles game in Baltimore some time in 1996, the special moments between us started to quickly rack up. I framed his rookie card and placed it in a coveted spot on my bedside table, next to my stack of Wishbone books and half-finished friendship bracelets. From my position at first base in Little League softball, I’d practice double plays with our shortstop Megan deep into the dim hours of the sticky Virginia nights. When Derek and I eventually played together for the Yanks, I wanted to be ready.
I even found a way for Derek to be at my bat mitzvah, even though he couldn’t be there in person. My saint of a mother ordered a life-size painted cutout portrait of Jeter and me, which we placed in the marble lobby of our synagogue.
I regret nothing.
During those glory years of the late 90's and early 2000's, my dad and I spent countless hours watching Jeter and the Bronx Bombers dominate the league. Bleary-eyed, we’d stay up late together to catch the end of each big game on TV. My dad loved Jeter as much as I did, though his reasons were a bit more sophisticated than mine. He’d go on about the captain’s quiet leadership, his aversion to showboating, his consistent work ethic, his playfulness. I was partial to his cute butt and ‘90s fade.
It’s 2014 now, and 18 years have passed since Jeter was a rookie. He’s retiring at the end of this season at the age of 40 — ancient in ballplayer years. I’m 26 now, and my dad’s pushing 72.
We decide to go to Jeter’s last game at Camden Yards in Baltimore to say our goodbyes. I make a special trip down to Virginia from Boston, where I’m in school, so we can take the trip up Route 95 to the park together.
We arrive 2 hours before the game starts, as we always do. The heat-bloated air, the smell of sausage on the grill, the green metal seats that scorch your butt, the sound of a thousand little kids yelling for balls — all of it hits me with the force of a fastball down the middle.
My dad’s the picture of a dedicated fan — worn-in ball cap, Yankees shirt, beer in hand, with a head full of stats and a lifetime of baseball stories lodged in his brain. I respect the man so much — for his quiet leadership, his aversion to showboating, his consistent work ethic, his playfulness.
His eyes glimmer, for the first of many times that night. He’s a cryer, just like his kid.
And then, the chant rises, without origin. Der-ek, Der-ek. He stands along the third baseline, pinstripe-clad, throwing a ball around with a teammate.
Derek leans back, grinning, and for a second he looks just like the 22-year-old rookie I fell in love with — before the media obsession, before the model girlfriends, before the five World Series rings and countless All-Star games, before I left home, before my life got too busy to watch baseball every day, before I grew up and he became a boy in a man’s game.
Before all that was Jeter. And here he is now, haloed by a green, green field. It feels spiritual. It always does.
Without warning, Derek catches one final ball, pulls his cap down on his head, and jogs towards the dugout. Fans scream his name, but this time, he doesn’t look up.
It’s nearly game time, after all.