Derek Jeter had no business being there, no business at all. But that's what made the play so astounding.
There are two outs in the bottom of seventh in Game 3 of the 2001 American League Division Series. Yankees starter Mike Mussina is pitching a gem, having allowed just a pair of hits and no runs in a riveting duel with A's left-hander Barry Zito. Mussina leads, 1-0, an advantage given to him a few innings earlier by catcher Jorge Posada's home run.
Mussina, in his first postseason with the Yankees, delivers what he hopes is the final pitch of the seventh inning to Jeremy Giambi, but Giambi singles to right. In the A's dugout, manager Art Howe contemplates pinch-running for the slow Giambi, perhaps Oakland's worst baserunner. But he tells himself: "I'll pinch-run if he gets into scoring position."
With Giambi leading off first, Terrence Long slashes a groundball inside the first-base line, just past the reach of Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez. The ball bounces down the right-field line as Giambi rolls toward third base. Waving wildly is third-base coach Ron Washington, telling Giambi to keep on going.
As right fielder Shane Spencer runs toward the corner, hoping to reach the ball before it hits the wall, second baseman Alfonso Soriano sprints into short right field to get into position for the cutoff. Martinez positions himself near the first-base bag, backing up Soriano.
Meanwhile, shortstop Derek Jeter is, of course, in his proper place -- near the pitcher's mound, where he can read the play and make the necessary adjustment. He either cuts off a throw to third base or moves to back up the two relay men or covers second base in case of a throw to nail Long.
Out in right field, Spencer grabs the ball, whirls, and fires the ball toward home plate. As Giambi rumbles home, Scott Brosius, the Yankees' third baseman, says to himself, "He's out by 10 feet if we make a good relay."
But Spencer's strong throw not only sails over Soriano's head, but also over Martinez's. Ramon Hernandez, Oakland's on-deck hitter who is standing on the grass on the first-base side of home plate, realizes, "Hey, that ball's going to hit me!" Giambi is going to score, the game will be tied, and the A's -- who won the first two games of the best-of-5 series, could wrap it up with another run.
Suddenly, out of nowhere appears Jeter, swooping in from the middle of the infield, running toward the first-base line. Having read the trajectory of Spencer's sailing throw, and realizing it's going to go over Martinez's glove and skid toward Oakland's on-deck circle, Jeter dashes between Martinez and Posada.
With the Yankees and the stadium looking on in sheer astonishment, Jeter scoops up the ball on a bounce with two hands along the baseline. With his momentum carrying him off the field and toward the Yankees' dugout, Jeter, still in motion, flips the ball backhanded, 20 feet to his right, lateralling the ball sideways in the same manner in which a quarterback pitches a football on an option play.
"I didn't have time to turn around, set up and throw," Jeter told the press afterwards, as if the play was simply routine. "Basically, I just got rid of it. If I tried to spin around, he would have been safe."
As Giambi comes chugging home, Hernandez, doing what the on-deck hitter is supposed to do when there is a play at the plate, signals for Giambi to slide. He yells. He waves. But Giambi doesn't look for him, doesn't see him, illustrating his poor baserunning fundamentals and instincts. "The stadium was so loud, he couldn't hear me yell, so I just put my hand out and told him to go down," Hernandez would say later.
Meanwhile, Jeter's backhand flip is so accurate that Posada needs only to reach back and simply tag out Giambi. When Posada reaches to catch the ball, he swipes at Giambi with his glove. Giambi, who should have slid into home plate, goes in standing up. Posada's tag gets Giambi's right foot just as it is about to come down on home plate. Giambi tries leaping over Posada's tag. He's unsuccessful, and Kerwin Danley, the home-plate umpire, calls him out.
Jeter thrusts his arm in the air. Posada leaps in the air. Yankees all over the field and in the dugout celebrate. Giambi and Hernandez slowly walk to the dugout, shocked, bewildered, shaking their heads.
"I didn't know Spencer missed the cutoff man," Giambi said later. "I was picking up Ron Washington. I was coming in and was getting ready to make contact with Posada. He hadn't gotten the ball yet so I figured I had a better chance to try to run through him and beat him to the plate."
Giambi admits that he didn't look for Hernandez to see if he should stand or slide. "If I had, the play may have turned out differently," he says. "I was looking to see if Posada had the ball."
Hernandez is stunned as he thinks about the play, over and over again. "If Jeter doesn't catch the ball, the ball hits me -- that's how far off the mark it was," Hernandez says. "Jeter made an unbelievable, heads-up play. Then he makes a great throw to boot. Unbelievable. The play saved them."
He shakes his head. Around him, Oakland players watch replays of Jeter's acrobatics. They're aghast, speechless. "What's he even doing in that spot!" yells center fielder Johnny Damon. "He has no business there whatsoever," Long says. "I don't have a clue as to how or why he was even involved in that play," Howe mumbles softly. "Shows what kind of player he is."
Teams, of course, do not practice plays where they have a third relay man. There are double cutoff men and if someone overthrows it, it's the catcher picking up the ball, not the shortstop. But that's Jeter for you.
"We're probably never going to see that play ever again," A's third baseman Eric Chavez says today. "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."