The Flip: An oral history of Derek Jeter's greatest, most debated play

It is the most iconic, most brilliant play in the career of New York Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, the play that personifies his remarkable combination of athleticism, agility and, most important, awareness. It is one of the most famous plays in the history of postseason baseball, one that has been replayed hundreds of times every October for 20 years. Like many unforgettable plays, it has a nickname. It will always be known as The Flip.

It occurred in the 2001 American League Division Series between the Yankees and Oakland Athletics. Oakland held a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series but trailed 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 3 on Oct. 13. With two outs and Jeremy Giambi on first, Terrence Long hit a hard ground ball over the first-base bag. Yankees right fielder Shane Spencer fielded it in the right-field corner but overthrew two cutoff men — second baseman Alfonso Soriano and first baseman Tino Martinez. Jeter raced across the diamond, fielded the ball on one hop in foul territory between first and home, and made a backhand flip to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged out Giambi on a very close play at the plate. The Yankees won the game 1-0, then won the next two to advance to the American League Championship Series and ultimately the World Series.

“You’ve opened up an old wound for me,” says Art Howe, then the A’s manager. “Jeter was a thorn in my side for a long time, but it was an amazing play he made. The flip was incredible, but to be in that position, I really don’t know what he was thinking. And there he is, in the perfect spot.'”

What makes The Flip even more intriguing is the debate still surrounding it. Should Giambi have slid on that play? Most involved agree that he should have, and likely would have been safe. Was Giambi really out at the plate? Oakland pitcher Barry Zito, and several other A’s, said at the time that he was safe. Was Giambi told to slide by Ramon Hernandez, the on-deck circle hitter? Would Giambi have been safe if Spencer had hit one of the two cutoff men? Would Giambi have been sent home if either of the cutoff men had been hit? And what was Jeter doing all the way over on the first-base line on that play, anyway?

The best part about that play, though, is that no one involved in it had ever seen it made before, or since.

“I’ve never seen that play,” says then-Yankees manager Joe Torre, who has spent 60 years in the major leagues as a player, manager and executive. “I’m certainly happy the first time watching it was in Game 3 of the division series.”

Howe says he had never seen that play.

“And you’ll never see it again,” he says.


A Long hit over first base

play

3:07

Take a look back at Yankees icon Derek Jeter’s most memorable moments.

Derek Jeter
“I am big on preparation. I always just run through all the possible scenarios in my head before they happen. You know athletes talk about how they slow down the game, they slow down when you prepare. You know, you have a guy on second base, you’re playing shortstop and you know where you’re going to go if you go to your left or your right, you’re coming in, you know the speed of the runner, you know the different circumstances, you know which runners run hard, which don’t. You have all these checkpoints in your head. So when [Long] hit the ball down the line, it was something I had prepared for. I was in the position I was supposed to be. That’s the way I always looked at it.”

Tino Martinez, Yankees first baseman, 1996-2001, 2005
“It’s one of those plays where it’s a sure triple as soon as it goes over the bag. It’s a double cutoff play, an automatic double-cut play on that ball down the right-field line.”

Ron Washington, A’s third-base/infield coach, 1996-2006, 2015-2016
“I heard they practiced that play. They probably did.”

Joe Torre, Yankees manager, 1998-2007
“To this day, when people talk about the play, I tell them that we work on that play in spring training, and they sort of laugh at me. There’s a reason we did work on it. You have to have someone athletic like Derek to make a decision on where the play is going to be.”

Jorge Posada, Yankees catcher, 1995-2011
“We practiced that play in spring training. We don’t have that play happen the whole year. It just happened to come against the A’s in the playoffs.”


Missing the cutoff men

Jeter
“My job in that situation is to be the third cutoff man. And 99.9% of the time, it’s just to redirect the throw to third base. You would assume that one of the first two cutoff men would be hit, but in that situation, he overthrew both of them. If you think about it, if he hit either one of them, Giambi would have been thrown out by about 15 feet at home. I saw it go over both of their heads. If you go back and look at the hop, it would have taken Jorge away from the plate because the throw sort of started to check up, up the line.”

Art Howe, A’s manager, 1996-2002
“He would have been out from here to next week at home if he had hit the cutoff man.”

Martinez
“I was the second cutoff man. I was the trail guy, but I stayed around the first base area in case he overthrew the first cutoff man. Shane’s got a pretty good arm. He airmailed both of us. I jumped and didn’t even have a chance to catch it. If he hits Soriano, now Soriano has to make the perfect relay throw to the plate to get him. It’s almost like it turned out in our favor that that happened because a perfect relay is pretty hard these days. It almost worked out better that he airmailed both of us because Derek was in the right spot.”

Shane Spencer, Yankees outfielder, 1998-2002
[Laughing] The game was going so fast; with Mussina and [A’s starter Barry] Zito pitching really well, there was no action, so when the ball got hit down the line, [Martinez] just assumed [Paul] O’Neill [the every-day right fielder, who didn’t start against Zito, a left-hander] was out there, and the ball was going to go all the way to the wall. So I cut it off before it got to the wall. I turned around and chucked it. It was like, ‘Hey, whoa, there’s nobody there.’ It was probably one of my best throws ever. So, the one time I miss a cutoff man, because they both weren’t really in the right position, I get the overthrow and he gets the ESPY.”

“All I know is that I get asked the question all the time, whether it’s from kids when I do clinics: ‘Wait a minute, you’re the one that threw the ball?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s me.’ As I’m coaching, it’s like, ‘OK guys, now let’s hit the cutoff man.'” Shane Spencer

Mike Mussina, Yankees pitcher, 2001-2008
“I ran toward [the A’s] dugout to back up the play, and looked for the ball wondering if it was going to second or going home, then I would veer one way or the other.”

Torre
“Winning 1-0, two outs, there’s a good chance the play will be at the plate … if there is going to be a play. We don’t care if [the batter] goes to third, you just want to keep the guy from scoring. Derek’s athleticism, and he has great instincts, made that play. You have to be in the mindset of the third-base coach. I don’t think in any instance he’s going to stay at third base. They’re going to take their shot, and rely on somebody having to make a play.”

Washington
“If [Spencer] had hit either one of those cutoff men, I would have stopped Jeremy at third.”

Howe
[Laughing] Knowing Wash, I don’t know if that’s a true statement.”

Mussina
“The weird part is, that situation comes up every 10 years, and for Derek to do it right. … We do things out of habit, I run to back up home on that play out of habit, but this was not habit. The right fielder overthrowing both cutoff men is not habit. And Derek was still there at the right time in the right place.”

Torre
“If you throw over one cutoff man, there’s a 50-50 chance you will throw over two of them. Spencer in right field is just going to wheel and throw, he’s just going to give it to somebody else. It’s like a pitcher pulling a fastball: He threw it and just held on to it a little too long, and it wound up in foul territory. That’s a long distance from the cutoff man.”

Spencer
“If I throw it to Tino, I don’t know if he has the arm strength to get him out. If I get it to Soriano, he has the arm strength, but would it be accurate? Who knows?”

Posada
“As soon as I saw him overthrow the two cutoff guys, I took two steps forward away from the plate to get the ball. I was going to go get the ball, and try to throw [Long] out at second base. But thank God I saw [Jeter] out of the corner of my eye. I had completely vacated home plate. Then, when I saw Derek, I retracked and went back.”

Washington
“Spencer threw it out of that corner and missed them all … and there was Derek Jeter.”

Spencer
“I’ve seen so many different angles. You got to go 50-50 on that one. Friends of mine think the throw would have beat him anyway, and originally, Posada said it would have. But when you watch it, it would have been a bang-bang play either way. I don’t know. I don’t really care. All I know is that I get asked the question all the time, whether it’s from kids when I do clinics: ‘Wait a minute, you’re the one that threw the ball?’ I say, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s me.’ As I’m coaching, it’s like, ‘OK guys, now let’s hit the cutoff man.'”

Jeter
“It’s tough to say that anything went wrong on that play because we got him out at the plate. But if Shane had hit one of those two cutoff men, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it now.”


Jeter runs to the spot

Jeter
“I’ve been in that area before on a play like that, but I’ve never fielded it and flipped it home. That’s the first time for me. The only time.”

Mussina
“His responsibility is like a free safety. He read the trajectory of the ball. The ball was thrown too high; no one else was in position to catch it. He ran 60 to 70 feet to get in position because he was paying attention. I was backing up home. I looked over my shoulder and saw him running, and I thought, ‘Where did he come from? How did that just happen?'”

Washington
“I’ve seen guys miss the cutoff man, and when it does, it rolls, and someone goes and gets it, but by the time they get it, the run is across the plate. Derek was supposed to be floating in the middle. He recognized that that ball was missing everybody, and, the smart player that he has always been, he left the position he was in and got to the line. He recognized the setup; he saw the ball coming out; and he automatically left because he saw that no one was going to catch that. It wasn’t just that he got over there; a lot of smart ballplayers would have gotten over there. As a shortstop, I have run to that spot. But I’ve never had a ball bounce to me like it bounced to Derek Jeter.”

“I was backing up home. I looked over my shoulder and saw him running, and I thought, ‘Where did he come from? How did that just happen?'” Mike Mussina

Martinez
“It’s the same thing for me on a ball down the left-field line. The shortstop and third baseman are the double-cut and, me, the first baseman, runs to where Derek ran, only it’s on the third-base line, in an emergency. But I’ve never had the ball come to me like it did to Derek.”

Torre
“Derek had the best perspective on the play because he can see Giambi at third base. He was basically going to race Giambi to home plate because he has to get there before he does. Derek has great instincts, and no question, instincts are so important. When the ball was hit, I don’t think Derek had anything else in mind but to go home. If he was wrong, and the guy didn’t go home, then the worst-case scenario is second and third.”

Howe
“It was just an incredible play on Jeter’s part to possibly foresee that throw. His position is supposed to be a cutoff man towards third base.”

Martinez
“I turned back, and when Derek was right there, and caught it on the one hop, and it seemed to me, from that point, everything went in slow motion.”

Jeter
“I know I’ve run to that spot before. But a lot of things have to happen for that play to happen.”


The Flip

Jeter
“I was thinking, ‘Just get rid of it as soon as possible.’ There really wasn’t a lot of time to do anything else. That was the only way I could get rid of the ball in that time frame. It was just catch it and get rid of it in one motion.”

Washington
“The key to that play was his flip. Most guys go to the outside of the line and try to flip it directly to the catcher, which would make the ball fade on the opposite side. But Derek flipped the ball to the inside. He made it come back to the catcher. He led the catcher right into the runner.”

Martinez
“He pitched it right back to Jorge, and I describe it as the perfect flip, the perfect pitched ball to the perfect spot. He hit Jorge right at the bottom of home plate, not high where the guy could have slid under him. It was right in front of home plate. The only way Jorge could have made that play is exactly where Derek flipped him the ball. He didn’t have time to raise up, catch it and put it back down.”

Torre
“Derek’s back flip was so unorthodox. The thing that was so remarkable about it is that he came so far into foul territory to get the ball, then back flip.”

Mussina
“You watch a lot of athletes and they talk about just making a play. He just made a play that no one else would make. That’s the definition of a Hall of Famer — 99 times out of 100, that ball bounces two or three times, and now it’s too late to pick it up and throw it to the plate. But the one time it happened, he read the play perfectly, he flipped it backwards, on the run, 40 to 45 feet, on target.”

Posada
“It felt like a second baseman flipping to the shortstop on the double play. He’s a shortstop. The way he flipped the ball is not common for a shortstop. The accuracy, and he had some hair on it for me to catch the ball.”

Spencer
[Joking] The first time I saw it, I thought, ‘What are you doing grabbing the ball? I had him at the plate!'”


The catch and tag

Jeter
“All that was going through my mind was, ‘Tag him.’ Then I looked at Kerwin [Danley, the plate umpire], and he signaled out. It’s not a play you work on. I had never shovel-passed a ball to Jorge before. He fielded it cleanly; he applied the tag cleanly. I always felt it was the perfect storm.”

Torre
“As a former catcher, I give Georgie a lot of credit for staying home. He could’ve so easily drifted to where the ball was, and start heading over there. But he stayed home, caught the ball and made a difficult tag.”

Mussina
“It was a tremendous play by Posada. To catch it, swipe tag, it was like, ‘Holy crap!’ To take that throw, with the ball between his legs, how did he not let the ball get kicked out of his hand? It was a classic Yankee play. I saw it so many times from the other side: Everything went their way for 30 seconds.”

“If he slides, he’s safe. For sure. 100%. 100%.” Jorge Posada

Posada
“It was just one of those swipe tags that you just hope you catch the ball first. It was just a lot of things that didn’t happen for them but happened for us. I could have gotten hurt on that play. He could have scissored my hands. I don’t know how I caught it. I caught it and swiped back. The ball could have gotten loose. The way I tagged him, with my palm instead of my hand open, that helped out a lot, too. A lot of things went our way. We got lucky with [Giambi] not sliding. The guy that was hitting behind him [Ramon Hernandez] did not tell Jeremy to slide. There were a lot of things that went our way.”

Howe
“That’s not correct. I asked Ramon after the play. To say the least, I was a little livid when the play was over. They were coming back into the dugout, and I asked Ramon right away, ‘Did you tell him to slide?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I was telling him to get down.’ So, I take his word for it. But I don’t think he’s in any of the pictures.”

Washington
“If we could go back over that again, and tell Jeremy to hit the dirt, he would have been safe. But he decided to run across the plate. The on-deck circle guy never got up there to direct the traffic. The on-deck circle guy never told him to get down. But in that situation, it’s a 1-0 ballgame, Jeremy Giambi is supposed to know he has to hit the dirt. No reason to run across that plate. But, the ball started to move. Everyone had something to do on that play.”

Posada
“If he slides, he’s safe. For sure. 100%. 100%. I just did a phantom tag. To tag him on his calf on the way down to the plate.”

Howe
“I don’t know about that. Posada had his foot in there. He might have been able to block him off the plate if he slides. I would not say that he would have definitely been safe if he had slid. Jeremy did the best he could to score, and he didn’t do it.”

“Out! He’s out! 100% he was out. You can’t change it now. It’s kind of like the Jeffrey Maier home run [in the 1996 ALDS against the Orioles]. It’s a home run. Whatever you want, but it’s over now.” Derek Jeter

Martinez
“The umpire made the perfect call. It was such a close, close play, with no replay back then, if he calls him safe, and we can’t replay that, it could have turned the whole series around, and maybe changed the dimension of the entire postseason.”

Washington
“I really feel in my heart I made the right play. Sometimes, you make the right call, but everyone has to be on board, and doing what they’re supposed to do. I am not blaming Jeremy Giambi, but he’s supposed to hit the dirt. The only way you don’t hit the dirt is if you see the ball and no one can get to it. You got to hit the dirt.”

Giambi declined to be interviewed for this story, but a year ago, he told The Athletic he stands by his decision to not slide:

“Now that we know what happened, it’s maybe I should’ve slid. If I slid and I was out, maybe the question would be, should I have run Posada over? And then I think, well, maybe I should’ve taken him out. And then I think back to when Pete Rose took out Ray Fosse (in the 1970 All-Star Game) and I think, well, what happens if I ruin Posada’s career?

“Those are things we can’t analyze. Obviously, I think about it. I don’t dwell on it, but I think about it. I think that’s part of our competitive nature. I mean, we were going to win a World Series. I know that was the first round, but we always felt like we had to go through the Yankees, and if you got through the Yankees, you had a pretty good chance, at that time. They were the team to beat.”

Was Giambi really out at the plate?

Howe
“Where’s replay when you need it? I really don’t think he was out. I thought he tagged him on the back of his calf after his foot had hit the plate. But what are you going to do? Nothing can be changed. But they probably couldn’t overrule it on replay. It has to be clear proof that it’s one way or another before they overrule a play. I’ll tell you that the umpire [Danley] called me after the game and told me if he slides, he’s safe. But he didn’t slide.”

What did Howe say to Giambi after the play?

Howe
“Actually, I didn’t say anything to Jeremy. I didn’t think it was appropriate to get in a player’s face over that.”

Jeter
“Out! He’s out! 100% he was out. You can’t change it now. It’s kind of like the Jeffrey Maier home run [in the 1996 ALDS against the Orioles]. It’s a home run. Whatever you want, but it’s over now.”


The post-play reaction

Jeter
“I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t remember [what it was like in the dugout after the play]. Everyone was excited. We still had to win that game. It was 1-0. You’re excited that it happened. But the thought process was, ‘We have to win this game.'”

Martinez
“The reaction was, ‘We still have a one-run lead!’ We were getting shut down. The first reaction was, ‘Let’s get some more runs.’ We knew it was a great play, but after the game, when we watched the highlights on ESPN, it was like, ‘Wow!’ I see it replayed all the time now. It’s on at the stadium all the time. I’m sure it’s going to be played even more the week he is inducted in the Hall of Fame. It’s fun to watch every time.”

Posada
“It was like hitting a home run to win the game. That was the atmosphere in the dugout. Everyone is pumped. Everyone is high-fiving. Everyone is screaming. Derek is like, ‘Let’s go!’ That kind of feeling.”

Howe
“That was like a punch in the gut. You know the closer, the big man [Mariano Rivera], he’s going to have to pitch more than one inning or two innings if they’re going to beat us. And he really wasn’t doing that at that time. If we get into their other bullpen guys … anything could happen.”

Mussina
“I don’t know what the reaction was in the dugout, but I know how Jeter would have reacted: ‘I saw the ball; I went after it; I caught it and threw it. Big deal. So what? I did what I was supposed to do.'”

Posada
“Derek probably downplayed it a little bit. But this is a very special play made by a Hall of Fame player.”


The legacy

Jeter
“I’ve seen it quite a bit. It seems like when anyone talks about my career, that’s one of the first things that they speak of. And I’m fine with that because we won the game.”

Where does it rank among Derek Jeter’s greatest plays?

Martinez
“It has to be in his top five, if not No. 1, because of the magnitude of it, being in the playoffs, changing an actual playoff game in favor of us. I’ve seen him make so many backhand plays, diving plays, jump throws, over-the-shoulder catches, but they go unnoticed. That had to be his No. 1 play.”

Torre
“Down two games to none, it’s a 1-0 game in the seventh inning of Game 3, I don’t think anything comes close to that play, the pressure involved in it.”

“That play was greater than great. That play is why he is a champion.” Ron Washington

Mussina
“That’s a top-two or -three play that I saw him make. I saw him dive into the stands and break his face. I’ve seen him get so many big hits. But that was his defining moment. It just defined the way that a professional baseball player is supposed to play. His whole career, he was in the right place at the right time; he ran out every ground ball; he battled every at-bat; and he did all of that as the shortstop of the Yankees. He got 3,000 hits, but that play is why he’s in the Hall of Fame.”

Posada
“It’s way up there. He’s always at the right place at the right time. Even his glove became clutch. There were plays — the play in the hole, going into the stands in the Boston series, there’s a bunch of them — but this one … if we don’t make that play, we are eliminated. We’re winning 1-0, if they tied it at home, it changes everything. It tells you how big and important and clutch that play was. When we talk about Derek Jeter, we talk about that play first.”

Washington
“I’ve seen it a thousand times. That play was greater than great. That play is why he is a champion.”

Spencer
“[I don’t know where it ranks] because honestly I didn’t even know what happened on that play. I threw it, I threw it where I would usually throw it, and there was nobody there. And I thought, ‘Oh, s—!’ And I didn’t know Jeter was there, I didn’t see Jeter make the play. I ran into the dugout, and I remember talking to [teammate] Clay Bellinger, and I asked, ‘What the hell happened?’ He said, ‘Jeter caught it and flipped it.’ I said, ‘What?!’ I’m getting high-fives from people on the bench, and I don’t know what happened.”

No one really knows exactly what happened on that play … because no one had ever seen that play before.

Jeter
“No, I haven’t seen that play [before or since]. That alignment. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another team work on that alignment, which we did. I’ve never seen it. … No, that’s not completely true. Phil Rizzuto [the shortstop-turned-broadcaster for the Yankees] threw out the [ceremonial] first pitch at home in the game after that. He ran up the first-base line and flipped the ball to home.”

www.espn.com – MLB