Derek Jeter will not be remembered for reaching 3,000 hits. None of them are. That’s not how it works. Each of the 27 men who have batted safely three thousand times in a career is known for something else, something visceral, something that inflames the memory. Clemente’s arm. Ripken’s daily persistence. Rickey beating the tag. Mays’ hat flying off. Yaz’s stance. Musial breaking out of the box. Aaron’s unassuming home run trot. Cobb’s sharpened spikes. Rose in head-first flight …
Any day now, Derek Jeter will become the 28th man to reach 3,000 hits. And Jeter, like the rest, won’t be remembered for that. Hey, how do you remember 3,000 anything? You don’t. Nobody remembers the sales figures. With Jeter, people cannot help but remember the moments because there were so many moments and we saw them all.
That’s the big part, I think. We saw them all. Jeter is almost unquestionably the most SEEN player in baseball history. Baseball used to be shrouded in mystery. How many people really saw Babe Ruth play? Mickey Mantle? Frank Robinson? Players were names in box scores. They were grainy black and white photographs in the local paper. There were static-speckled images on the Game of the Week.
Now you can watch any game or any highlight any night. You can see the plays in what the announcers call “stunning high definition” … and it is stunning. High def can look more vivid than reality. There is nothing about Derek Jeter’s game left to the imagination. Jeter has played lead guitar on the most indomitable team of this open era. He has come to the plate 679 times in the postseason, and that is a record. His flip to beat Jeremy Giambi, his stunt-man leap into the stands, his November home run, everybody knows those, these are among the indelible baseball images of of our time. But it’s more than that. We know exactly how he looks in the on-deck circle, how he runs out to the field, how he sits on the bench. We know the models he dated. We know the quotes by heart. We can close our eyes and see Derek Jeter doing everyday things: the inside-out singles to right, the jump throw from the hole, the futile diving stabs at ground balls hit to his left, the all-out sprint to beat out ground balls to first …
No, Derek Jeter will not be remembered for 3,000 hits. There is too much else to remember.
And yet, it seems to me that 3,000 hits defines Derek Jeter, perhaps more than any one before him.
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What does 3,000 hits mean, anyway? The number is only a number, not substantially different from 2,994 or 3,003. Anyway “hits” is a vague term. What are hits? There are singles … doubles … triples … home runs — and they are not really alike. Eddie Collins had 32 more hits than Willie Mays. Mays had about 1,800 more bases. Hits seem to me as vague a noun as, say, “cars.” You have two men who own a hundred cars. One could be Jay Leno. The other could be a junkyard dealer.
Still: I’d argue that 3,000 hits means something big. It’s substantial. It is 200 hits a year for 15 years. It is 175 hits each season from ages 23 to 40. Three thousand hits is a relentless uphill march through cold spring afternoons, stiffing summer nights, long rain delays and 10-game road trips. Three thousand hits is a daily battle with the hard-throwing kid who isn’t entirely sure what he’s doing, the funky reliever who hides the ball as long as he can (as if reluctant to let go), the older man who knows the small defects in your swing but might not be able to expose them, the great pitcher who comes up in the schedule so often that at-bats feel like family squabbles. Three thousand hits is a daily fight with the odds, with diving sliders and diving fielders and outside fastballs that umpires call strike three.
You can’t ever WIN a baseball career. There is always another game, another season, another change-up just over the hill. But I’d argue that 3,000 hits is something close to victory. To get to 3,000 hits, a batter must triumph over the long and mysterious and interminable slumps. He must conquer the disabled list. He must get over the disappointments, the line drives that are caught, that shadows that sometimes make baseballs dissolve into darkness, the managers who suggest that maybe it’s time for a few days off, the fly balls that die on the warning track.
Because of all this, nobody gets to 3,000 hits on talent. Nobody joins the club on a happy cycle of hot streaks. You can’t luck into it. The great Reds announcer Joe Nuxhall always used to say, “If you swing the bat, you’re dangerous,” and it’s true, a swing of the bat can turn Bill Mazeroski into a legend or the unbeatable Mariano Rivera into a loser in Game 7. An arresting series of games can stir a man to hit in 56 straight or collect 262 hits in a season or bat .400. But 3,000 hits is a life. It means hitting when you’re young, and hitting when everybody knows you, and hitting when the reflexes begin to slow, and hitting when your’e old. As Bill James has written: A flake cannot get 3,000 hits.
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Look at the names. The 500 home run club is no club at all but 25 men who happened to find themselves at the same party. What, after all, do Reggie and Killebrew have in common? How hard would Mr. Cub have to squint into a mirror to see MannyBManny in his reflection. The 300-win club is no club either. The careers of Nolan Ryan, Warren Spahn, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson and Phil Niekro would not recognize each other in a bar. There are many different ways to reach most of the milestones baseball fans celebrate.
But there is only one way to get to 3,000 hits — and that’s to get a bit closer every day.That is to be relentless. Rose would always say he saw Cobb in the clouds when he reached 4,190 hits — only Cobb could truly understand. Mays and Musial attacked the game with the same sort of joy; Aaron and Yaz and Kaline with the same professional purpose. Boggs and Gwynn and Carew were unflagging craftsman. George Brett would say every game he ever played was with fear — fear of failure, fear of embarrassment, fear of his father’s disappointment. Clemente played like that. In a way, Ripken did too. The 3,000-hit club players are not all alike, understand. But they are all alike in one way. They were PRESENT. They had to be.
And I would argue that no player in baseball history has ever been more present than Derek Jeter.
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Derek Jeter is wildly overrated. And Derek Jeter is wildly underrated. Perhaps no player has ever been so effusively praised for great defense with so little evidence of great defense to show. Twice, perhaps three times, he should have won the MVP Award and did not. The Jeter legend is that he can will his team to victory with magical powers that are only seen by true believers. The Jeter reality is that he has created more runs than any shortstop since 1900 except Cal Ripken, and before the year is out he should pass Ripken too.
There’s a reason for this, I think. Jeter — like Rose — has been inescapable. If you are a baseball fan, you must have an opinion about him. His game is out there. His baseball soul is exposed. You can like him or dislike him, admire him or object to him, but you cannot ignore him. When Derek Jeter comes to the plate in any ballpark in America, there are all sorts of sounds to be heard. There is never silence.
This gets back, I think, to being seen. It gets back to presence. Jeter has been doggedly present for more than 15 years. There is the most obvious definition of presence: “the state or fact of existing.” This is why kids say “present” when their name is called for attendance, or at least they did in old LIttle House on the Prairie episodes. Jeter has played in 148 or more games every year but one since his rookie season. Nine times in his career he has come to plate 700 or more times — only Rose and Ripken have had more 700 PA seasons. And that doesn’t even count the almost 700 times he has come to the plate in the postseason. The most under-appreciated contribution in sports is availability. Jeter plays therefore he is.
But there’s another definition of presence: “The impressive manner or appearance of a person.” Jeter’s career has had a beautiful monotony. He has not changed. He does not change. He always seems focused, determined, ready. If you watched him play in April 1998 or June 2009 or July 2003 or August 2000, you saw the same guy. Of the 2,360 games he has played, he has gotten at least one hit in 1,819 of them. He has had multiple hits in 880 of them. He was always there during Yankees games, always at the top of the lineup, always unmistakeable at shortstop, always calmly saying the cliches that filled newspaper stories but didn’t rock boats, always noticeable. Was Derek Jeter the best player of his era? No. Was he the most most persistent, the most enduring, the easiest to like, the easiest to hype, the easiest to be cynical about? I think so. He was always there in full.
That’s why I think Jeter, more than anyone else, is the personification of 3,000 hits. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice. How do you get to 3,000 hits? Line drive after bloop after scorcher down the line. Seven times Derek Jeter got 200 hits in a season. No other shortstop has done that more than four. Eleven times he hit .300 or better … that’s as often as Clemente. Jeter hit double digit homers 15 times, most ever for a shortstop. Jeter stole double digit bases 15 times, most ever for a shortstop (tied with Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparicio). Jeter scored 100 runs 13 times, most ever for a shortstop. He has been unrelenting and undeniable. We can’t remember all the hits. But we can remember that there have been almost 3,000 of them by now.
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They were all tired when they got to 3,000. Well, Cobb was only 34 when he got to the number, and he hit .400 the next year, but it was a different game then and Cobb was a different breed. Rose played a thousand more games after his 3,000th hit in his obsessive chase of a ghost, but he was something of a ghost himself by then. Mays was 39 and almost at the end. Aaron was 36 and still had a Babe to pass. Musial hit .255 the year after he reached 3,000 and demanded a pay-cut. Craig Biggio was just barely holding on. Robin Yount played just one more year. Paul Molitor was having a renaissance season at 39 when he hit a triple in Kansas City to reach 3,000. Rod Carew, for the first time in a generation, was no longer a .300 hitter
Jeter’s decline will be the most talked about in baseball history for all the obvious reasons. He’s still playing shortstop and leading off for the richest and most powerful team in American sports, and there are doubts about whether he should be doing either. He is signed for a lot of money for the next two years. He is aging exactly as baseball men age, no faster or slower, and yet every groundout seems to come as a surprise because, well, he’s Derek Jeter and we have seen him succeed so many times before.
Jeter’s 3,000-hit chase has felt bittersweet. And I’m not entirely sure of the reason. Ripken was done as an everyday player when he cracked three hits against Minnesota to reach 3,000 but the air was still charged with celebration. George Brett barely resembled the man who had chased .400 but there were no mixed emotions when he got four hits in Anaheim to get him to 3,000. It was only thrilling. But with Jeter, things have always been a bit more complicated. His admirers sing with gusto. His critics roast with fury. People started paying attention to his chase of 3,000 hits long, long before they did for any other player (really, it goes back to when he got his 2,722nd hit to pass Lou Gehrig at the top of the Yankees list), and because of that it feels like the chase has been going on forever. When he gets there, it may feel more like relief than zenith.
I don’t think it should be that way. Jeter burst into the league on the first Yankees team in almost 20 years to win a championship. He hit .314 and carried himself like a man who had done it all before, perhaps in another life. At 24, he led the league in runs and led the Yankees to 125 victories, the most any team has had from April through October. He should have been MVP. At 25, he was even better, he hit .349, scored and drove in 100. He should have been MVP again.
From that point on, his career has been a cavalcade of numbers: .343 average, 124 runs, 34 steals, 44 doubles, 97 RBIs, 212 hits, 23 homers, all achieved in different seasons. He is unquestionably one of the greatest hitting shortstops in baseball history. Jeter’s defense has been more scrutinized than the defense of any player ever, I imagine. There seems to be no consensus even now. Managers and coaches began voting him Gold Gloves after he turned 30, which was just about the time that people who try to quantify defense began to suggest that he was much less effective than he looked. But in the end, he was out at shortstop every day, and the Yankees won every year, and for most people this tends to be where the argument stops.
He has done another remarkable thing, perhaps the most remarkable thing: He has carried himself with grace and humility in a time and place that pushes hard against grace or humility. Reporters and cameras have surrounded him for more than 15 years, yet he has rarely misstepped. Steroid suspicions have circled the locker of every star, but even the most cynical tend to believe Jeter has been clean. He has been the subject of the most extravagant praise imaginable (I invented the word “Jeterate” to describe the overzealous praise of Jeter’s intangibles) and some withering criticisms too but he seems relatively untouched by both. I know a father who both (A) gravely dislikes Jeter as a player and (B) is thrilled that his son emulates Jeter.
With Derek Jeter, that is no contradiction.
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I like to see how players react at Yankee Stadium when their name is chanted by the bleacher fans. The fans do this every game, of course, chant the name of Yankee starters until the player acknowledges them. Some of the players have little rituals they do. They pound their chest. They flex. They do a little dance. Some of the players, I have noticed, let the chants go on for a little while. And why not? What’s wrong with hearing your name echo at Yankee Stadium?
Derek Jeter, almost the second they begin to say his name (before they get the “urr” in DEH-rick JEET-urr) holds out his glove toward the fans. He does this without looking, while staring in at the batter. It feels to me like the perfect Derek Jeter gesture. He is saluting the fans while never taking his eye off the game. He seems to me to be saying, “I hear you, and I love you, but I’m working right now.”
That’s what he has been doing for all these years. Working. He clearly loves his job. His game has been joyous. But it’s still work, and work must be done right, and that seems to me what Derek Jeter has been about. When he gets to 3,000 hits, there will be talk about winning and clutch hits and leadership and famous plays and charisma and the smile and commercials and what it means to be Yankees captain.
But it is also a celebration of two hits he got off Runelvys Hernandez on a Wednesday in Kansas City. It is a celebration of a triple he legged off Pat Hentgen in Toronto. It is a celebration of the time he got five hits against Boston, sure, but also a celebration of the 84 times in his Yankees life he went zero-for-5. I remember asking one of Derek Jeter’s teammates what made him so special. He said what made Jeter special was that HE WASN’T SPECIAL, not ever, that he was always the same recognizable guy, that he acted and played precisely the same way on a Saturday in Texas as he did the seventh game of the World Series.
That doesn’t seem possible, of course. We all have good days and bad, happy and grumpy moods, lucky and unlucky times in our lives. Life is rarely flat — it almost always feels uphill or downhill. There seems no way that Derek Jeter, in America’s biggest city, on America’s most famous team, in a life of tabloid back pages and cheers and boos and supermodels and opposite-field singles, could maintain that kind of balance. But, you know what? The guy is about to get 3,000 hits.That tells a story of balance. He hears you. He loves you. But he’s working right now.