NEW YORK -- Three months into the regular season, it finally felt as if there was a real Yankee game at Yankee Stadium.
After 91 games of watching the Lyle Overbays and Travis Hafners and Vernon Wellses in pinstriped outfits that never seemed to look quite right, there was Derek Jeter on the field, in a Yankee uniform, ready to play a real baseball game for the first time since October.
There was life in the stands, if not a whole lot of people -- Jeter's return was never officially announced, having only been decided upon in an emergency meeting shortly before midnight Wednesday -- and a real sense that for the first time all season long, the boys were back in town.
But as has happened so many times this season to so many other Yankees, a day that began in optimism ended in an MRI tube.
Jeter's day ended early because of "tightness" in his right thigh, a generic term whose seriousness will only be determined by the all-seeing eye of magnetic resonance imaging.
"It's not frustrating yet," Jeter said, with emphasis on "yet."
"We'll see. They MRI everything around here," he said. "I'm hoping it's not a big deal."
After going 0-for-3 and making a throwing error for the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate in Scranton, Jeter got word that the Yankees needed him, hurriedly packed his belongings and was driven from Moosic, Pa., to his apartment in Manhattan, arriving around 3 a.m., dropping off to sleep around 4, and then popping out of bed at 6:30, too excited to sleep any longer, like a rookie before his major league debut.
"I was nervous going into the game," he admitted. "It's almost like it's Opening Day for me even though we're in, what are we in, July now? I've lost track of the months. It felt good to be out there and the fans were great. It's been a long time. It felt good to finally be out there and playing in a game."
Derek Jeter made his comeback, all right, and performed reasonably well for a 39-year-old who has not played in a major league baseball game for nine months, minus one day.
Jeter's first trip to the plate was like a coronation -- the rather sparse crowd stood and cheered for a full 30 seconds as he dug in -- and his first trip around the bases was like a victory lap, a huge grin spreading over his face as he scored the first run in what would become an 8-4 Yankees victory.
He made contact in all four at-bats (albeit on the ground), got a base hit on the first pitch he saw (albeit an infield hit that Kansas City Royals third-baseman Miguel Tejada couldn't come up with), scored a run, drove in a run and ran hard from home to first.
"I felt fine. I felt good," he said. "I thought I was moving good from first to third, scored, ran out a couple of ground balls. Everything felt good up until that point."
"That point" was his last time up, when it was clear to everyone in the ballpark that something was not quite right with Jeter, and that his storybook day might not have a happy ending after all.
On that one, Jeter, who normally busts it out of the batter's box on every at-bat, whether the ball is headed for the stands or for the shortstop, jogged to first base even though the ball was bobbled by Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar.
It was at that point that Jeter, who would insist he was fine while riding on a gurney, told Joe Girardi he "felt something" in his right quadriceps.
That was enough for Girardi, who called a halt to Jeter's first game back in the eighth inning, after four at-bats, one hit, one run, one RBI -- and one very anxious trip to the hospital for a test.
"I don't ever think anything is a big deal," Jeter said, "So I'm hoping for the best."
To that point, things had gone about as well as could be expected for Jeter under the circumstances.
Relegated to DH duty due to his abbreviated preparation -- the Yankees hoped he would play back-to-back games in Scranton before recalling him for Friday's game against the Twins -- as well as a foot injury suffered Wednesday night by regular DH Hafner, Jeter did not have to worry about fielding grounders or diving after line drives or having to execute one of his patent jump throws.
All he had to do was hit, and hopefully spark the Yankees' moribund lineup just by his mere presence in their clubhouse, as part of their roster, and at long last, on the field.
"Yeah, you see how I sparked it?" he would joke afterward, but there was little doubt that getting Jeter back was something the Yankees have needed for a long time.
"Derek's playing today? That's awesome," a genuinely surprised Brett Gardner said in the clubhouse before the game. "I know it's been a long time coming. Just the other day he wanted to start the season on time and here we are, what is it, game 90? It's great to have him back, not only on the field but off the field. He'll be a big presence and hopefully he's in every game the rest of the year."
In the end, it would be Gardner who would pinch hit for Jeter in the eighth inning after he had been removed from the game.
But to that point, the Yankees' offense, which scored eight runs Wednesday night, came up with eight more on Thursday afternoon, which seemed like a month's worth of production in two days.
And although Jeter's contribution was modest -- he beat out his first-inning dribbler and wound up scoring on Wells' sacrifice fly, and in the sixth, drove in a run with a ground out in his final at-bat -- there was something different about the way his teammates went about their business on this day.
The bottom of the Yankees' batting order, usually a procession of automatic outs, produced seven hits -- two each by Zoilo Almonte, Luis Cruz and even Austin Romine -- and combined for three RBIs and three runs scored.
"I think everybody was a little more energetic today," Romine said. "He's our captain. We kinda rally around him -- he's our leader, he plays the game hard, and it's just nice to have a bat like that back in the lineup. It kinda pumped us up.''
Earlier this week, falling behind 3-0 in the first inning as the Yankees did Thursday would have meant facing certain defeat, but Jeter's Yankee teams were never done in the first inning, and neither was this one.
Overbay, who had the big blow Wednesday night -- his first grand slam in more than seven years -- had a mere two-run double with the bases loaded on Thursday, giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead in the fifth. Almonte and Nunez singled in runs six and seven in the same inning, and Jeter's ground out to the shortstop completed the scoring in the sixth.
The place was rocking, and for the first time all year, or at least since Opening Day, it felt pleasantly familiar, like it used to be at Yankee Stadium when you could count on Derek Jeter being in the starting lineup every single day.
But not long afterward, Jeter's big day had taken a turn, and like so many of his teammates, he would finish it in a hospital waiting for a machine to reveal his fate.
That, too, felt familiar, only in a different way, for a season in which few days seem to end as well as they begin.