Thursday night, in case you hadn’t heard, was Derek Jeter’s final opportunity to don the famous home pinstripes. The night ended in impossibly poetic fashion, with Jeter walking the game off on a ground ball sprayed through the first and second basemen powered by the type of handsy, exactly-as-taught inside-out swing he has made famous over the years. The entire evening comprised a fitting epilogue to a storybook career, dripping with gravitas throughout.
It was a familiar feeling, watching that player on that field (well, a Yankee Stadium field of some sort, at least) perform on the national stage for seemingly the millionth time. He spent year after year playing a leading role on Fox’s October programming, producing a bevy of indelible memories. There was the flip against Oakland, the home run in the opening minutes of November against Arizona, the series-opening home run against the New York Mets. His career has occurred, to the casual fan, almost exclusively in big moments on the big stage. Thursday night’s dramatic, hard-to-believe finale seemed fitting, given the award-winning career that preceded the finale.
In one sense, though, the game technically meant nothing. The Yankees were eliminated from playoff contention the night prior after their 9-5 loss to the Baltimore Orioles, meaning that Thursday evening, as Derek Jeter laced up his sneakers for the final time on those (previously) hallowed grounds, was the very first time he had done so without at least a minuscule chance of reaching the postseason. Think about that. Jeter made his debut in 1996 and last night, the final home game of his entire career, was the only home game where his team wasn’t playing for something. His entire career meant so much partly, perhaps even primarily, because the games he was playing in mattered so much.
The most recent season, prior to last year’s kinda-sorta contention, where the Kansas City Royals played any meaningful games in September was 2003. That ballclub was held together by chewing gum and a Winning Spirit, flukily lurching to a 16-3 start and hanging around long enough to remain in the race in September. The team wasn’t that good, though, while last year’s squad had far too big of a hole to climb out of to have anything but a prayer.
And yet here we sit, the last two months of Royals’ games each feeling individually monumental. Every day has been wrought with anxiety, wondering when, exactly, the Royals were going to blow it all. When it comes to the Royals and good fortune the question is not if it will end but when. For decades, literally multiple groups of ten years, the Royals have had random, relatively brief respites of exhilarating play breaking up the lengthy, seemingly interminable swaths of pathetic baseball. Essentially, the Royals have had a generation’s worth of meaningless games. Games cared about momentarily then forgotten an hour after their conclusion. Games where the primary interest was in how select, potentially promising young prospects performed with actually winning the game a secondary matter. The franchise, despite the inevitable optimism accompanying the Royals each March on their return trip from Arizona, played out the string from Game 1 to Game 162 year after year after year.
And then, this year happened. No matter how this season ends* it will very likely be my all time favorite baseball season. This is a team that is last in home runs in the major leagues and in walks in the American League. It pays two starting pitchers nearly $20M combined to post league average-at-best numbers and possesses a once-top 10 prospect in baseball who flirted with the Mendoza Line for the majority of the season. It is a team that is imminently flawed and one who can be blindly frustrating to watch play, given their hacktastic approach and dearth of power.
And yet here they are, playing a whole host of meaningful games. Pretty much every game since the beginning of August has felt like life or death, growing in gut-wrenching importance with each passing week. This stretch started, mind you, immediately following a Trade Deadline that saw Dayton Moore do nothing as the majority of the fan base, me included, wanted him to trade Big Game James and effectively bow out of the race. A winning streak to open the month of August quickly and forcefully inserted the team into the thick of the pennant chase and, for the first time in a generation, into games drenched with meaning.
Tonight, the Kansas City Royals will play a game with a chance to clinch a postseason berth. It is, by very definition, the most meaningful a regular season game can be. As Jeter’s career winds down in a meaningless series between two also-rans, the Kansas City Royals, laughingstocks for, more or less, the entirety of his long and celebrated career, are taking the final steps toward a playoff berth. The tables have turned, rather forcefully.
The stage that has always felt so natural, so assumed, for Jeter is so utterly foreign to the supporters of the Kansas City Royals. The weekly games on national television feel misplaced, the standings page on MLB.com wrought with a glitch. It still, even after two whole months of this, feel real that the Royals actually are going to make the playoffs. Typing those words, after saying them and texting them countless times in the past couple of weeks, and knowing the inherent truth behind them remains hard to believe.
The Kansas City Royals will be in the playoffs. Repeat it as many times as necessary in order to believe it. The host of nerve-wracking, edge-of-your-seat games the Kansas City Royals have played the past weeks will pale in comparison to the live-and-die-with-every-pitch gravitas of the postseason. The very same postseason that served as the setting to Derek Jeter’s Greatest Hits will now welcome the Kansas City Royals. After a lifetime, literally, of watching the other team play in the games that matter, dripping with significance, it will be overwhelming to watch my team, the Kansas City frickin’ Royals, ascend the exact stage.
Tuesday night will be soaked, from start to finish, in meaning.
Jeter will be absent. The Kansas City Royals will be present.