The ball flew off the bat, then sailed briefly, then took a Louganis-like dive toward a spot of unprotected green in the shallow outfield. This was directly in the third baseman's coverage area, but he stood frozen while a blur came rushing in from shortstop.
Derek Jeter followed his instincts, which have made him a shoo-in for Cooperstown someday, and raced toward the spot. He reached for the ball and caught it -- of course! -- and then his momentum took him tumbling into the seats. He went face-first, surely sending a million women screaming in horror.
The umpire pulled him from the stands like he was a bobbing for apples and Jeter emerged dazed and disoriented and in need of chin therapy. It was a signature play by him, this bit of hustle from a 2004 game against the Red Sox, chasing a fly ball that, in the big picture, was rather meaningless. History has done plenty of gushing and reflecting on that play ever since, but what I remember most was something history ignored.
That ball belonged to Alex Rodriguez. It was his catch to make, his chance to be a hero. Instead, he turned into a mannequin while Jeter did what Jeter does. And it was a moment that perfectly captured the career arc of two Yankee teammates and former close friends who were once considered the future face of baseball when they broke into the majors in a smashing way.
Well. Years later, one face remains unscathed (the scratch on the chin has long since healed). The other is on a "Wanted" poster in the commissioner's office. There is nothing in baseball more startling than the fork in the road that sent Jeter and A-Rod their own separate ways, and it has caused some of us spectators to ask: What the hell happened? How did they get here?
On Monday night Jeter returned to the Yankees lineup after missing the last three weeks with a strained calf, in an injury-ravaged season the 39-year-old called "a nightmare." But his nightmare and A-Rod's are not the same, obviously. Jeter was welcomed back to the clubhouse and to baseball with a sympathetic, get-well round of applause. A-Rod, meanwhile, was welcomed back from a hip injury and drug investigation by a goon named Ryan Dempster. They are polar opposites now more than ever before, and while Jeter and A-Rod are perhaps headed to the same final baseball destination, only one will enter the Hall of Fame without prejudice.
Fact is, A-Rod was supposed to be one of the greatest players in baseball history, and he played like it for a number of years, but now you could argue whether his career, taint and all, will be judged in a better light than Jeter's. He made more money, certainly, but his pursuit of that, and of immortality, led him down a path that Jeter, as far as we know, never took -- a path paved with arrogance, ego, betrayal, stupidity and syringes. This isn't a bad-guy/good-guy comparison. This is about choices and fate and greed, with one player trying to outdo the other and now paying a very steep price for that.
Their once-tight relationship was fractured forever by A-Rod putting money first. Back in the late '90s they were almost inseparable, two young, gifted and gene-blessed ballplayers who killed on the field and in the nightclubs. "Blood brothers" is how A-Rod described them. Their friendship was even considered too tight for some: In August of 1999 Jeter and A-Rod stood and joked and playfully held each other's jersey while their teammates on the Yankees and Mariners began to scuffle, and a Yankee scrub named Chad Curtis later called Jeter out. But nothing came between the two players until A-Rod did Curtis one better by telling Esquire magazine in the now-infamous interview that he was worth more money than Jeter: "You go to New York, you wanna stop Bernie (Williams) and (Paul) O'Neill. You never say `Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern."
Even if he felt that way about A-Rod, Jeter would never have said it. He wasn't raised that way. Jeter is so respectful about his family -- and mindful about his image -- that they became the foundation that kept him in check when he became a star at age 20. (Legend has it that after a star-struck Jeter brought Mariah Carey home to meet the family, he eventually broke off the relationship when she didn't get the unanimous vote.) The temptation faced by Jeter in New York on a daily basis was surely unreal, and yet the next time you hear about him being involved in a serious scandal will be the first.
A-Rod never followed such principles, and while it's not an excuse, he never had to answer to anyone. Everything revolved around him and his ego, which was considerable then and now and needed to be fed constantly. It convinced him that he had to have the best of everything and be the best at everything, and so his contract had to be bigger than anyone's and his legacy, too, even if it meant using steroids to achieve both.
When A-Rod found the pull of gravity and age too hard to fight and saw his performance dip toward the ordinary, he went back to an old friend. And we don't mean Jeter. Eventually, the Biogenesis case against A-Rod will come to light, and the details will likely confirm the rumors about how deep A-Rod was involved. He couldn't deal with mortality and injury quite like Jeter.
After the 2010 season there was a minor uproar about Jeter and his declining numbers. He was 36 and struggling at the plate, in the field and with his body. His All-Star appearance seemed like a lifetime achievement gift. Even more insulting to him, the Yankees asked Jeter to take a $7 million pay cut a few years after they gave A-Rod the largest contract (and now one of the clunkiest) in professional team sports history.
Well, the last two seasons were nothing short of solid redemption for the captain, and last year Jeter finished seventh in the MVP vote and hit .316 at age 38. This year, through all his injuries and re-injuries, he has tried to rehab through hard work and pride.
You wonder what's going through Jeter's mind as he watches the A-Rod disaster flick. Later this year, once his appeal is heard, A-Rod will do at least some time in Bud Selig's penitentiary, and another baseball all-timer will have been beaned by his own ego.
On Monday in Toronto, Jeter and A-Rod shared the field for the first time all season, causing A-Rod to say, "It's been a long time, way too long." A-Rod celebrated the moment by homering, and yet almost nine years to the day, a diving and painful catch by Jeter still trumps that. It wasn't the greatest catch in the history of baseball or the Yankees. And truthfully, the catch itself wasn't the most interesting part of that play.
When the ball was in the air, Alex Rodriguez saw opportunity slip, or rather, he let it slip. And right there, we saw how someone with 650 home runs and over $300 million in career earnings will be haunted by an inability to achieve something that proved to be beyond even his considerable skills.
We saw that Alex Rodriguez could not, then and especially now, be Derek Jeter.