Jeter’s Flip

23:54 Sun 25 Mar 2012
[, ]

Unlike the previous one, this “transcendent sports moment” is one I watched live on television. 13 October 2001, I was in San Francisco, and it happened not that far away, in Oakland[1].

It stands on its own merits, but has additional cultural relevance because it’s likely that without it the book Moneyball would never have been written.

Entering the third game of the 2001 American League Divisional Series[2], the New York Yankees trailed the Oakland Athletics by two games to none. The Athletics had taken both of the games at Yankee Stadium, needed one more to advance, and were playing at home.

The Yankees were reigning champions, and had been since 1998; they still had the “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, and Mariano Rivera.

Behind the phenomenal pitching trio of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, the Athletics won 102 games in the regular season[3], seven more than the Yankees.

The game was a tight pitching duel between Zito and Mike Mussina, with the only score coming from Posada’s fifth-inning home run. Mussina made that lead hold up, recording eight straight outs after the home run before giving up a two-out single to Jeremy Giambi in the bottom of the seventh inning.

With Rivera likely coming in at the start of the eighth, the Athletics must have felt that this was their best chance[4]. Mussina was as tired as he was going to get. Their batter, Terence Long, was a strong hitter on a hot streak[5]. If they could break through here, and nullify the advantage the Yankees had due to Rivera, they had an excellent chance of taking the game and the series.

Long came through with a line drive into deep right field, a clear double. This would normally mean an easy score for a runner at first base, but Jeremy Giambi wasn’t known for his baserunning ability. If the Yankees could execute correctly, they would have a chance to catch him.

In order to prevent the run, the Yankees had to tag Giambi—touch him with a hand or glove containing the ball—before he reached home, and the player in position to make that tag was Posada, the catcher, guarding the plate. Since the ball was in right field, it would be difficult to get it to Posada—300 feet away—in time.

Despite the drama of the moment, in many ways this was a typical baseball play, with various participants all well aware of their roles:

  • Jeremy Giambi: get to home plate.
  • Terence Long: advance as many bases as is reasonable, but under no circumstances risk being the third out.
  • Jorge Posada: get in position so that when the ball arrives, a tag on Giambi is possible.
  • Shane Spencer: get the ball to Posada as soon as possible.
  • Alfonso Soriano: get in position to catch Spencer’s throw when it falls short.
  • Tino Martinez: get in position to catch Spencer’s throw when it falls short if it goes over Soriano.
  • Ramón Hernández (Oakland’s next batter, not on the field): signal Giambi to slide if it looks like it will be a close play.

Everyone in the stadium understood how important this play was; its outcome probably affected the win probability for the teams more than any other in the series[6].

Spencer grabbed the ball in the right field corner and spun around, throwing down the first base line. Perhaps aided by adrenaline, it was a very strong throw. It clearly had the speed and range to allow a tag on Giambi.

It wasn’t quite on target, but no-one expected it to be—that’s what the cutoff men, Soriano and Martinez, were for.

It went over Soriano, who was out past first base.

It went over Martinez, near first base. Posada wouldn’t have a chance to get it without giving up his position at the plate.

Spencer’s throw was too strong. The combination of his strong throw with Soriano and Martinez’s positioning meant that the Yankees had no player to relay the ball to Posada, and Giambi would score.

But Jeter, standing by the pitcher’s mound, saw that the ball would go over Martinez, and ran to cut it off. At nearly a full run, he caught the ball with both hands while facing away from the plate, and while still running perpendicular to the foul line threw a kind of sidearm shovel pass to Posada—a throw so perfectly on target that Posada could continue the momentum from catching it with his glove to move around and tag Giambi, who never saw the signals Hernandez was giving him and so didn’t slide.

Giambi was out at the plate, the Yankees retained the lead, Rivera came in for the last two innings, and the Yankees had their first win of the series. They would go on to win the next two, setting up the opening scene of the Moneyball movie and, according to the story, prompting Athletics General Manager Billy Beane to try to find new ways to compete with the bigger-spending clubs.

The combination of the play’s importance with the situational awareness and the athletic ability required for Jeter to do what he did means that this easily makes my list of transcendent sports moments. The relationship to Moneyball, itself an important development in baseball history, is merely a bonus.

The play has also been controversial in an odd way: Jeter claimed that it was a play the Yankees had practiced at some point, and many people in baseball didn’t believe him. It’s not clear why he would lie, as it would look even better for him if he came up with it without ever practicing. Whether or not they did practice it doesn’t change its amazing qualities. Also oddly, new Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine recently made the claim that the ball would have gotten to Posada in time without any intervention from Jeter, which seems extremely unlikely, to say the least.

As with “Bird’s Steal”, it had to be Jeter to make the play, as it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it—and, again similarly, it was a play that seemed to alter the path of fate: the Athletics were going to tie the game, and then Jeter did something unbelievable to take their run away.

(I’m not embedding video because Major League baseball have a terrible history of both taking down video and of using poor technologies for their own hosted video—if the link to it on their Division Series Video fails for you as it does for me, an internet search for “Jeter’s Flip” will probably get you there. It’s worth the search—Oakland’s third baseman at the time, Eric Chavez, later had this to say about it: “We’re probably never going to see that play ever again. A shortstop making that play behind first base, in foul territory, then flipping the ball to the catcher with his momentum carrying him away from the play—it’s unheard of.”)

[1] The obvious question of why I didn’t go to this game, expense be damned, is not one I have a good answer for.

[2] A best-of-five-games elimination round, effectively the quarterfinals for determining the American baseball champion.

[3] And yet were still a wild-card team whose opponents had home-field advantage. 102 games is the most ever won by a wild-card team; they were second that year to the Seattle Mariners, who took the west with a record-tying 116 wins. The Yankees had home-field advantage over the Athletics because baseball decrees that divisional pennants must “mean something”, and the Yankees won their division while the Athletics placed second in theirs.

[4] Jermaine Dye did get a double off Rivera in the 9th, but really, it’s Rivera, and no miraculous broken-bat bloop helped the Athletics out.

[5] Batting average .389, on-base percentage .421, total bases divided by at-bats .889.

[6] I couldn’t find a citation to back up this assertion, though I suspect one is out there.

Leave a Reply