The play happened more than 18 years ago, but for a generation of baseball fans all you need to describe it are two simple words: The Flip.
The 102-win Oakland Athletics were trailing the 95-win Yankees, 1-0, in the seventh inning in Game 3 of the 2001 American League division series. With a runner on first, Oakland’s Terrence Long laced a double to the right-field corner that was fielded cleanly by Shane Spencer.
Jeremy Giambi, Oakland’s lumbering designated hitter, was rounding third base and trying to score from first when Spencer uncorked a throw that seemed destined to live in infamy. It sailed over the heads of two potential cutoff men and started veering out of catcher Jorge Posada’s reach at home plate, right up until shortstop Derek Jeter materialized, streaking across the field, snagging the ball with his glove and flipping it sideways toward home.
Posada wheeled around with the ball and just barely tagged Giambi, who had chosen not to slide. The Yankees, down two games to none in the best-of-five series, would win that game and the series, all because Jeter did something no one could quite comprehend.
“You’re not going to see that play ever again,” Luis Sojo, a utility man for the Yankees, said after the game.
Art Howe, the manager of the Athletics, could barely hide his confusion and disappointment over Jeter’s play. “I didn’t have a clue why he was involved in that,” Howe said, “but it worked out well for them.”
The Yankees, who had won four championships over the previous five seasons, went on to lose the World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks that year. But Jeter’s flip, which became his most famous single play, also helped short-circuit a potential dynasty in Oakland, as Billy Beane’s ragtag bunch never reached the heights many had envisioned.
A couple of months later, Oakland’s best player, Jason Giambi, signed with the Yankees.
On Tuesday the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce its 2020 class of inductees, and the ballot features six players who were in Oakland that night — four of whom played in the game. Back in 2001, it would not have been hard to imagine all six getting a shot at Cooperstown some day, but their careers diverged and now their voting totals could not be more disparate.
Roger Clemens, the former Yankees pitcher who has been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, was named on 149 of the 210 ballots listed on Ryan Thibodaux’s Hall of Fame vote tracker as of Monday evening. Andy Pettitte, the Yankees starter who has dealt with a similar issue, was named on just 22. Jason Giambi and Eric Chavez, the offensive cornerstones of that Athletics team, were each named on one tracked ballot. And the Yankees’ Alfonso Soriano, a rising star at second base who stood by helplessly as Spencer’s wild throw sailed over his head on its way to Jeter, had not been named on any.
Jeter, who lasted a remarkable 20 years with the Yankees, was named on all of them. He has a chance of becoming the Hall’s second unanimous inductee, joining his longtime teammate Mariano Rivera.
Though Jeter was occasionally a punching bag for baseball’s sabermetrics world during his career, the combination of his huge moments, World Series rings, consistency and longevity have made him an obvious Hall of Famer. His 72.4 career wins above replacement don’t hurt, either.
But for Jeter to be named on every ballot, and Soriano on none, is still something of a surprise, at least through the lens of where they stood early in Soriano’s career.
The former double-play partners were quite the duo from 2001 to 2003. In fact, it would have been easy at the time to argue that Soriano was on his way to surpassing Jeter, at least as an offensive player. In their three full seasons together, Jeter hit 49 homers, drove in 201 runs, stole 70 bases and compiled 12.5 wins above replacement. Soriano, 18 months younger, hit 95 homers, drove in 266 runs, stole 119 bases and compiled 10.2 WAR in that period.
But the Yankees, never known for their patience, were desperate to get back to the World Series, so Jeter and Soriano’s partnership ended with a trade that sent Soriano to Texas for Alex Rodriguez after the 2003 season.
Jeter would remain the Yankees’ shortstop for 11 more seasons, winning another World Series in 2009. Soriano played two solid seasons in Texas and was traded to Washington — where he switched to the outfield and recorded baseball’s fourth 40-40 season. Then he became something of an albatross for the Cubs, with decent production that did not justify the eight-year, $136 million contract that had brought him to Chicago. In 2013, when Soriano was a shell of his former self, he was traded back into the Yankees’ fold, where he and Jeter spent their final two seasons together.
Jeter will be the third player from that 2001 game to be elected to the Hall of Fame: Mike Mussina and Rivera were inducted last year. And, barring a collective change of heart about Clemens, Jeter will most likely be the last. Pettitte is not nearly close enough, and Giambi, Chavez and Soriano will all fail to meet the 5 percent threshold to remain on the ballot.
To suggest that Soriano — or Chavez or Pettitte — should be a Hall of Famer would be nearly as ridiculous as suggesting that Jeter shouldn’t be one. But perhaps the fates of all those involved would have been different if Jeter had simply remained at the pitcher’s mound on that night in 2001, where everyone expected him to be, rather than making a play that will live forever.