It’s the evening of October 3, 2001. Mike Mussina of the New York Yankees and Barry Zito of the Oakland Athletics, are locked in a tense dual in the third game of the American League Division Series in Oakland. The Yankees, down 2-0 in games, face elimination as they cling to a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning. With two outs, Jeremy Giambi, the Athletics designated hitter, singles. No cause for alarm, the Yankees might think; Mussina is pitching well, and they have two outs.
In a move that offers even more comfort, Athletics manager Art Howe decides to leave the slow-footed Giambi in the game, rather than pinch-run the fleet-footed Eric Byrnes. The stage is now set for one of the most dramatic plays in post-season history.
The next batter, Terrence Long, drills a low liner past Yankee first baseman Tino Martinez. The ball bounds toward the right-field corner. Shane Spencer, the right fielder, sprints after it as Giambi lumbers around second. The Yankee second baseman, Alphonso Soriano, and Martinez line up on the foul-line to receive a throw from Spencer and relay it to the plate. Derek Jeter leaves his shortstop position and moves toward the middle of the infield to relay a possible throw to third. As Giambi nears third, Spencer grabs the ball and hurls it toward the infield, but it sails way over the two cut-off men.
Ron Washington, the third-base coach, seeing the ball go awry, gives Giambi the go sign. Giambi chugs around third and runs homeward just as Jeter scurries toward the descending ball.
The ball bounces once and Jeter grabs it with both hands as he crosses the first-base line. Instantly, he flips the ball backhanded, sort of pushing it toward Posada as his momentum carries him away from the plate. As the ball lets fly, Jeter is about 15 feet from Posada, the same distance as the surging Giambi, who fails to see the frantic signal by the on-deck batter to slide.
The ball smacks Posada’s glove three feet in front of the plate. The Yankee catcher, his left knee on the ground, spins, sweeps his glove to the left and tags Giambi on the back of his right leg a split second before his foot hits the plate. Posada and Jeter look at the plate umpire: OUT! Jeter, Posada, and Mussina pump their fists; the Yankee dugout explodes, hands clapping, players spilling onto the field.
“YOU HAVE JUST SEEN THE GREATEST PLAY YOU WILL EVER SEE BY A SHORTSTOP!” shouts Thom Brennaman, the lead announcer. “WHAT WAS HE EVEN DOING OVER THERE?!” screams his partner Steve Lyons. The rest of the ballpark falls silent.
Six seconds. That’s the time it took to destroy the hopes of the Athletics and their fans—the time between Spencer grabbing the ball and the ball reaching the leg of Gaimbi. The play did more than halt Oakland’s seventh-inning rally; it killed the spirit of the team and the faith of its fans. Though their team still led in games, 2-1, 10,000 fewer fans turned out the following day. All momentum had switched to the Yankees. Mariano Rivera shut down the Athletics in the eighth and ninth innings, and the Yankees won the final two games, wrapping up the series.
Questions came up after the game. Why did Giambi not slide? “I thought there was going to be a collision,” he said. “I was focused on Posada because I thought the ball would be there. I made a mistake not picking up the sign to slide.”
What happened when Spencer uncorked the errant throw? “I let it go and it took off on me,” answered Spencer, seeming to blame the ball. “I had a little too much on it. Jeter came out of nowhere. I didn’t even know who it was. I had to ask who it was.”
Soriano, when asked what was going through his mind when the ball sailed over his head, said, “I thought there was no chance we could get him out. Then I saw Jeter running to the ball and I thought, ‘Whoa, we’ve got a chance.’ ”
“Jeter came out of nowhere.” This was repeated over and over. The coolest, most understated explanation came from Jeter himself. “I was where I was supposed to be,” he said. “I didn’t have time to turn around, set up and throw. I just got rid of it. If I tried to spin around, he would have been safe.” He went on to say that the Yankees practiced the play all year because of a similarly errant throw in spring training.
The play may have been practiced, but not The Flip. As Scott Brosius, the Yankee third baseman put it: “You don’t practice the old run-toward-the-dugout-twist-and-throw-home-play.”