Jeter's last game
New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter hits an RBI double against the Baltimore Orioles during the first inning at Yankee Stadium. Reuters/Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK -- The scattered rain showers that hovered over the Bronx on Thursday gave way to a picturesque sunset ahead of Derek Jeter’s final home game as a member of the New York Yankees. The clear skies allowed fans to put away their umbrellas, but there won’t be a dry eye in the house when “The Captain” walks off the field for the last time.

“It’s one of the great nights as a fan of baseball, but even better if you’re a Yankee fan,” said Abraham Robinson of Freeport, New York, who grew up watching Jeter play shortstop. “He played with so much character and integrity. He played the game the way it should be played. For a guy like Jeter, it’ll make your most hated rivals respect you. It’ll make ballparks that you go to treat you like one of their own. It makes fans that aren’t even a fan of sports a fan of yours.”

On an average night, even a team with as devoted a following as the Yankees will have a few empty seats when the first pitch is thrown. But Jeter’s last home game is not an average night. Yankees personnel opened the gates to the stadium at 4 p.m. to allow fans a chance to walk out onto the field and take his last batting practice.

It’s a form of catharsis, a chance for Yankees fans to take in every last aspect of an iconic night in real time. And the crowds took full advantage – River Avenue was packed for hours before the scheduled first pitch at 7:05 p.m.

From the moment Jeter announced in February that the 2014 MLB season would be his last, tickets to his final home game became a hot item. By late September, about 1,000 tickets remained on the market – but only for fans who were willing to spend anywhere from $350 to over $15,000. As of Wednesday morning, the median sale price for a ticket to the game was over $600.

John Genovese, a diehard Yankees fan from Jeter’s hometown of Pequannock, New Jersey, considered selling his ticket to Thursday night’s game. He was at Yankee Stadium under similar circumstances last season, when he watched future Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera throw his final pitch in pinstripes, and decided to see what his ticket would fetch on the open market.

“I decided to go on StubHub to see what ticket prices were going for where we’re sitting. They were upwards of $1,800,” Genovese said. But ultimately, his sense of history – and a genuine respect for all that Jeter has meant to the Yankees – overtook the allure of a profit.

“If you had a ticket to Gehrig’s speech, Ruth’s last home game, Mariano’s last game. … If you have pinstripes in your blood, you gotta be here,” he said. “[It’s] a lot of emotions. He came in as a young kid, and now he’s leaving as a grown, established man. Nothing but praise for the guy. He’s nothing but a class act and a role model.”

In 20 major league seasons, Jeter amassed five World Series rings, 14 All-Star Game appearances and more than 3,000 career hits. But, for all of his accolades, the “overrated” tag has dogged him for years. His career numbers, while impressive, lack the sexiness of Ruth’s 714 home runs or DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. Moreover, the exhaustive nature of his farewell tour – the ad campaigns, the gifts from opposing teams, the Jeter jersey patches – irked more than a few baseball purists. ESPN pundit Keith Olbermann spoke Tuesday for many critics when he lambasted Jeter’s statistical output and defense, arguing that he is “nowhere near an immortal.”

“Contrary to what you may have heard, Derek Jeter is not the greatest person in human history,” Olbermann said. “He did not invent baseball, he did not discover electricity, he is not the greatest shortstop who ever lived. And among all the terrific players in the history of the New York Yankees, he is not, by any measure, No. 1.”

Regardless of whether Jeter is the first or the 21st best player in Yankee history, he is universally respected in the baseball world. His class and bearing seem to resonate with fans more than anything he’s done – or not done — on the diamond.

“It transcends baseball. For me personally, it’s about growing up,” said Christian Pascarella of Brooklyn, New York. “I feel like a chapter of my life is ending because I grew up with Derek Jeter. To me, it’s more than baseball. It’s life.”

Mark and Mike Parrault, brothers who came down from upstate Binghamton, New York, concurred. They drove more than three hours for a chance to bid farewell to their favorite player. “He’s classy, man. Everyone in the league respects him," said Mike Parrault. "He’s like the face of baseball today, and I don’t know where baseball’s gonna be when he retires.”

As Yankees’ starting shortstop for the last 20 years, Jeter is New York royalty by default. But there’s a sense of universality to his career; over the last two decades, he was involved in so many of baseball’s most memorable moments that his fan base extends across the country. It’s a testament to both the Yankees’ status as a worldwide brand and to Jeter’s broad appeal to the general public.

Despite being from Alabama, just an hour away from where the Atlanta Braves play their home games, 52-year-old Paula Kayler grew up watching the Yankees. Sitting near Babe Ruth Plaza outside of Yankee Stadium, she described why Jeter is so universally beloved.

“I think he loves the game so much, I think he respects the game so much,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that he’s kept himself out of the public eye, but yet we, the public, love him so much. If I were to ever find out that he’s any different than I think he is, it would just be a major shock. He’s a true gentleman, and with all the things that’ve happened in baseball in the last 10 years, especially PEDs [performance-enhancing drugs] … he’s kept himself clean. I just have a lot of respect for him and I don’t think you find a lot of players anymore that are as genuine as he is.”

That universal appeal is a major reason why Gatorade and Nike – two of Jeter’s biggest sponsors – each launched separate, nationwide marketing campaigns to celebrate his final season in the big leagues. Gatorade’s commercial, titled “Made in New York,” followed Jeter as he walked through the streets of the Bronx, chatting with fans on his way to Yankee Stadium. An overwhelming success, it garnered more than 5 million views on YouTube in less than a week. For Kayler, the commercial embodied everything that Jeter represents to baseball fans.

“I was sitting at work when I first saw it and I just started to cry,” she said. “My friends were looking at me like, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ To me, that just says it all. To me that said, he does care about us. He doesn’t know me personally and never will, but that shows me that he realizes people like me are a lot of the reason that he’s where he is. His talent too, of course, but he’s so loved because he’s such a good guy, and us common folk can relate to it.”

Jeter’s career won’t be over on Thursday – he will travel with the Yankees this weekend for a final series against their age-old rivals, the Boston Red Sox. He will likely receive his share of cheers even in the enemy territory of Fenway Park, but Jeter’s final curtain call at Yankee Stadium will be the true endpoint to his Hall of Fame career.