Fans only ones enjoying Jeter's chase

7/8/2011 - MLB Derek Jeter New York Yankees + more

There was joy in Yankee Stadium on Thursday night, and excitement and hope in the stands, even though the scoreboard out in right-center field was bringing nothing but bad news.

Up in Boston, the Red Sox were putting a hurt on the Baltimore Orioles, and down on the field, the Yankees were doing nothing with Jeff Niemann and the Tampa Bay Rays. In all likelihood, by the time the game ended, the Yankees would be a second-place team for the first time since June 24.

But it didn't matter. Neither did the score -- 5-1 Rays -- or the fact that for just the second time all season, the Yankee Stadium crowd bore witness to Bartolo Colon melting down to a puddle of goo right in front of them.

It was the ninth inning, two runners were on base, and even though there were two outs, what was left of the announced crowd -- 47,787 -- was still around.

Derek Jeter had just been given a free one.

With Kyle Farnsworth -- who was a villain in this park even when he played for the home team -- on the mound, Brett Gardner had just struck out swinging. The game should have been over.

Except that Farnsworth's cutter had hit the dirt and squirted away from Tampa Bay catcher John Jaso, allowing the speedy Gardner to breathe one last gasp into a dead inning.

And to give Jeter one final chance to nudge closer to the 3,000-hit club, a club so stubborn that even though it knows Jeter will eventually bust down its doors, it's still trying its best to keep him out.

So now the remainder of the crowd -- about half the number who were in the ballpark when it was just about full -- was on its feet, cheering, buzzing, chanting his name and snapping their disposable cameras every time the pitcher went into a windup.

And the thought occurred as clear as the flashbulbs that popped all over the Stadium every time Jeter came to bat: The fans are the only ones truly enjoying this chase.

Maybe this is as it should be. Sports, after all, are supposed to be fun and games for the fans and serious business for the men and women who work at them for a living.

Even so, there is a special grimness about Jeter's pursuit of this particular milestone. And the grimmest of all seem to be the two men closest to it -- Jeter and his manager, Joe Girardi.

This should be the first of many victory laps to a great career, yet Jeter and Girardi are approaching it as if it were a death march.

Before the game, the manager had said, "We're going to try to wrap this up this weekend," as if it were a load of garbage to be put out on the curb by Monday morning.

He also spoke of Jeter wanting to put the chase behind him "so he can get back to just being Derek Jeter," as if the weight of the pursuit of hits had somehow robbed him of his identity.

And even when he said, "It's an exciting time for all of us," he wore the mirthless expression of a man heading in for a colonoscopy.

Jeter, for his part, doesn't even try to pretend he is having fun. Before the game, he visibly grimaced as a technician wired him for sound for his real-life role in an HBO special documenting his chase.

He has been prickly in interviews, admitting to growing weary of what he perceives to be negative coverage, and verbally sparring with reporters he once bantered easily with.

He doesn't seem to realize that the people covering this chase aren't exactly having a ball either; there are more of us, many more, cramming the clubhouse and the press box, making the stifling July air seem even more humid and rendering the pregame interview process even more unworkable than normal.

We, too, would like it to end as soon as possible so we, too, can get on with our lives.

Not so for the fans, however.

They cheered Jeter as intensely Thursday night as I have ever heard them at any time other than the postseason. They have paid the kind of prices this weekend no one pays to go to Yankee Stadium anymore. According to one website, tickets for Friday night's game that normally sell for $50 were up to $163, representing a price increase of more than 300 percent.

So here they were, in the ninth inning of a lost game, having seen Jeter lash the first pitch he saw for a double into the left-center field gap, a shot that gave them hope that this would indeed be the night.

They gasped when Jeter turned on one in the fifth, sending a rocket down the third-base line, and their disappointment was audible when Sean Rodriguez, the Rays' athletic young third baseman, made a diving stop and easily threw Jeter out.

"He hurt my feelings a little bit," Jeter would joke afterward. "They were joking on the bench that I hit two or three balls a year down the third-base line. He caught one of them. It was unfortunate, but I thought it was going to get by him at first."

He had grounded out more routinely to shortstop in the seventh, and that looked to be that. One hit closer but still two away with three games to go until the All-Star break.

And then came the freakish strikeout/wild pitch to Gardner and suddenly, the chase was alive again.

"You don't see that too often," he said. "I got another opportunity. But more important than another opportunity, you are trying to extend the game. It didn't happen."

No, it didn't. Jeter looked overmatched on one 97 mph fastball, fought off a couple more, and then tapped a slow roller to third. In past years, he might have had a chance, but this version of Jeter had no shot, and the air went out of the ballpark almost before he left the batter's box.

"We'll just have to wait another day," Girardi said, with an air of resignation.

"I can't wait to see it," Nick Swisher said. "But at the same time, we got games to win here."

Asked what the feeling was like in the dugout during the game, Jeter said: "Today was the first time that they really focused on it or said anything on it. A couple of guys mentioned, 'Get three hits today.' After the game, they just said, 'Get a couple of hits tomorrow.'"

Said Girardi: "Business as usual."

Maybe in the dugout, but not in the stands.

A lot of the same people who filed out in disappointment Thursday night will no doubt be back Friday, not dreading The Chase or wishing it away.

Unlike the men closest to it, the people who seem to be enjoying all this the most are the ones sitting furthest away.