Yankees at Rays, top of the seventh, Derek Jeter at bat for the plunk heard 'round the world. Al Merrill, 87, watched from the sofa in his son's living room. Rays reliever Chad Qualls stood on the mound.
Al had been watching baseball all day Wednesday, at the Largo card shop where he builds $10 collector packs, but this game was the biggest. He had been a diehard Rays fan since their opener in 1998, when he watched his hero, Ted Williams, toss one of the first pitches. He wore his Carl Crawford jersey.
Al watched the pitch — fast, inside, striking with a loud thunk and sending Jeter into a whirlwind of pain. Jeter hopped toward the Yankees dugout, looking the very icon of suffering. The horror! The agony! Jeter's been hit!
Except he wasn't. Al knew by the first replay that Jeter was faking it. His rage built. Al is a quiet man, soft-spoken, generous, but at this moment he burned. Not for the plate umpire. Not for the instant replay. The Yankee captain himself. Jeter.
Al bleeds baseball, has since his grandfather taught him the rugged game of "base" as a boy in snowy Buffalo. He built up his baseball skills through high school until enlisting on Pearl Harbor Sunday, then read all about Williams, a slugger turned pilot, in the Stars & Stripes newspapers while at war overseas. When Merrill returned home, carrying a leg pocked by three German slugs, he gave up playing for coaching Little League, 23 seasons in all, including leading the Pueblos, a crew of teen girls in the Indian Rocks League, to Division 3 victory.
"Oh, Derek," Al shouted, struggling to his feet. "What in the hell did you do?"
Al's son, Michael, and daughter-in-law, Janet, watched from their loungers as Al hustled the best he could to his apartment next door. Al opened his alphabetized box of rookie cards, leafed to the J's and found one of his rarest: a Derek Jeter rookie, 1993 Upper Deck SP foil run No. 279. In it, Jeter is fielding a ball, looking so young and innocent, a golden arc stamped above his clean-white Yankees pinstripes.
Al picked up his scissors.
As card collectors go, Al is a purist — he's never cut one and never sold one, except for that Mickey Mantle rookie when he yearned for a Lincoln Town Car. But he had rarely felt this angry before. He slipped Jeter from his protective sleeve, held Jeter in his hands and, like a spurned lover, snipped Jeter into eight jagged pieces. Still seething, he walked into the bathroom, wrapped Jeter in toilet paper and flushed Jeter out of his life.
If the latest Beckett Baseball price guide is to be believed, that flush cost Al $100, maybe more. It didn't matter, Al thought. It was finished.
Janet came to check on Al, thinking maybe he had gotten sick, and yelled back to Michael when she learned what Al's rage hath wrought. Michael clutched his stomach in laughter. Al said it wasn't very funny.
Jeter would get on base, the Rays would get the win and the fans would get their answer: yes, Jeter admitted, the ball had cracked off the knob of his bat. The nation would argue over gamesmanship and Jeter's legacy and the state of the game.
Al had already made up his mind. Jeter was going, going … gone.
Contact Drew Harwell at [email protected] or (727) 445-4170.