Though the day was certainly scripted and carried out to honor a Yankee (and sports) icon, Derek Jeter Day also doubled as an October baseball reunion. As the Wild Card era has expanded postseason opportunities for franchises, players, and fans, a select group of major leaguers have seen their dreams of competing in the postseason come true over and over and over again. Jeter has appeared in 158 playoff games, tops in MLB history. Also on the charts and in attendance at Yankee Stadium were no. 2, 3, 6, 7, and 10 on the postseason games played list: Jorge Posada (125), Bernie Williams (121), Tino Martinez (99), Mariano Rivera (96) and Paul O’Neill (85). Reggie Jackson had played in the most postseason games (77) before the addition of the wild card; he was there. Add Michael Jordan to the invite list and you’ve tallied another 179 playoff games of experience to the group, though he would carry the nickname “Mr. June” more fittingly. As a matter of math, the 14 athletes gathered at this on-field mixer share 1,252 games of postseason experience among them, which takes into account Joe Torre’s 142 games of managerial duty.
As we all looked on, a quick glance to the Royals dugout showed that day’s opposing team taking in the festivities from the top step. This gathering of onlookers were composed almost entirely of players who know what the playoffs look and feel like based only on stories they’ve been told and televisions they have watched. Sure, James Shields has battled six games, Omar Infante 30 and Raul Ibanez 44, but nearly every starter on that squad has had nary a sniff of October’s magical scent.
Three Royals in particular—Billy Butler, Josh Willingham and Alex Gordon—have played more than 1,000 regular season games apiece (3,303 between them) without a chance to compete in the Fall. Logic tells us that a great baseball player is just that, whether or not he ever gets the added playoff experience. Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Luke Appling played close to 5,000 games between them and the regular season is all they ever saw. When considering Torre’s managerial postseason experience above, remember that he never got there as a player, while playing in 2,209 games in a solid career. Yet don’t think for one moment that a guy like Butler is convinced by that notion, especially when looking from his dugout at all of those great memories gathered on the field.
“You put in the hard work to be a productive big leaguer, but honestly you play this game to win," Butler shared. "Some of the guys on this team, they’ve put in a lot of time and haven’t had winning seasons. Before last year, I hadn’t had any. We’ve had a lot of failure in this game as a team. Your goal is to provide for your family. Your goal is to be a productive big leaguer. But when you’ve done all that, you want to win something as a team. We’re on the verge of doing that and that’s what our focus is every day. We take every day now like it’s a new season. Every game’s a new season and I’ve never been in that position before. Usually by this time in September we’re out of it and you’ve just got to see if you can build on something you’ve been doing. It’s a team game still and I love my teammates, but you’re just trying to finish strong for yourself in a team game. Now that’s all out the window and it’s amazing. I’ve never been in this position before and I couldn’t be more excited.”
Butler also explained that the opportunity to play in a pennant race is an opportunity to play team baseball. You worry about your team’s results far more than your personal numbers. When you’re on your way to 90-plus losses, it’s hard not to look out for the man in the mirror.
“You can’t make it known and obviously you love all your guys. When you go out there you’re trying to win a game every night, but if you lose another game and it’s like, ‘Oh well it’s 96 or 95 (losses).’ At the end of the day, it’s still a losing season,” Butler said. “That’s the way it’s looked at and here now with us getting a win each night anyway you can—getting a guy over, getting a bunt down, hitting a sac fly or just doing whatever you can to get the job done, that’s all that matters each night. You get a hit, it doesn’t matter. A guy going 4-for-4 and we lose, that doesn’t matter anymore. It matters that we come out ahead in this game.”
Butler’s starving for that October chance, but so is the man who’s been there more than anyone else—and Billy spent the weekend competing against him. This unique twist wasn’t lost on the All-Star.
“I do (find it ironic). It would be a fitting end for him to go out on the postseason stage; I just hope that it’s not at our expense. You can’t help but respect the guy. He’s been a role model in this game. He’s a mentor to me and he’s an idol to me. It’s one of those things that is just tremendous to watch each day and I’m just happy that I get to be his opponent a couple more times,” said Butler.
Adam Dunn waived his no-trade in hopes of getting to October after 1,918 regular season games. Back in 2007, it was my good fortune to cover Jeff Cirillo and his first ever trip to October after 1,617 games. Below is a part of the conversation we had before the game in which Cirillo’s team (Arizona) clinched the playoff spot. This is followed by parts of a post-celebration talk when it hit home that he was finally going. This took place September 28, 2007.
On the meaning of that night’s game: “For me it’s one of those things. I think I’m number one on the active list as far as not making the playoffs. My heart, my soul and everything, you know I might not play a lot but every pitch is kind of a gut-wrenching experience, but it's fun. It’s a great situation to be in. Everyone always says, you know, you want to play meaningful games in September. We’re down to the last three ticks here and we all know the importance of the games. We’re playing a very, very, very hot team (Colorado). We have our ace going tonight. Everything is in our hands, but at the same time it’s not going to be easy,” Cirillo said pregame.
On finding himself reflective, also pregame: “You know you and I have been together a few years. After every time we go to the last series, you walk across the mound and you look up at the stadiums and say to yourself, ‘I may never get on this grass again.’ This would definitely be very rewarding, especially being in Minnesota and thinking that we didn’t really have a chance to go to the playoffs there. Knowing that this is my last year, to never be in a position like this to go to the playoffs would have been unfulfilling."
The postgame reaction: “Unbelievable! I wouldn’t say it’s a monkey off my back but it’s something that every player should be fortunate enough to experience. You watch it on TV, you see the guys and you think, ‘Man it’d be great to experience something like that.’ It’s like watching a great game and you wish you were there. That’s the thing, being in this clubhouse and jumping around with those guys, I’m 38 years old and I feel like I’m 18 years old jumping around there. If I’d have been here in the beginning, I might have taken my shirt off and started dancing right in the middle of the thing. I’ve been here for six or seven weeks, when the Twins said that the Diamondbacks had claimed me on waivers, I just held back when I was in the clubhouse with Gardenhire. I just held back, kind of playing the game face but I was so excited to have a chance to come here and be on a first place team and get to the playoffs. It wasn’t easy, these last four or five days have been unbelievable as far as pitch to pitch. When we were down in Pittsburgh, I got a stomach ache and I asked (Coach Lee) Tinsley, ‘Is this what it’s like to manage every day? Are you just like this every single day, just like this ulcer type feeling, this little pit in your stomach?’ You know you want to do so well and you want to win. I’m just fortunate that we didn’t let it slip away."