Baseball 77: Derek Jeter

In the days before Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit, I wrote a 3,000-word essay about what he means. I've updated it here.

Derek Jeter will not be remembered for 3,000 hits. None in the club are remembered for the number. That's not exactly how it works. of the 32 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. Ichiro's chop. Cobb's sharpened spikes. Rose in head-first flight ...

Jeter too will be remembered for something more -- he will be remembered for the moments. So many moments. And we all watched them together.

Derek Jeter is, I believe, the most SEEN player in baseball history. What is that? Baseball used to be shrouded in mystery. How many people actually saw Lefty Grove play? Stan Musial? Frank Robinson? Rod Carew? For most of the country, players were names in box scores (and often shortened names like Mus'l and R'bnsn). 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 summon any play in stunning high definition ... and high def can look more vivid than reality. There was nothing about Derek Jeter's game left to the imagination. He was there, in full, all of his superpowers all of his flaws magnified and intensified and exaggerated beyond all reason.

Jeter played lead guitar on the most indomitable team of this open era. He came to the plate 734 times in the postseason, and that is a full season of Octobers, 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 our time, making them among the most indelible imagines of any times.

But it's more than just 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 (though they are hardly worth remembering, "we win as a team," "we lose as a team," "sometimes you have to tip your cap"), and we can close our eyes and see Derek Jeter doing those things he always did: 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 ...

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" does define Derek Jeter, perhaps more than anyone before him.

* * *

What does 3,000 hits mean, anyway? The number is only a number, not substantially different from 2,994 or 3,003. And even that word "hits" is vague. 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 totaled about 1,800 more bases. Hits are 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 to reach 3,000 hits, yes, that'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 12-game road trips. Three thousand hits is a daily battle with the hard-throwing kid who isn't entirely sure where the ball's going, the funky reliever who hides the ball as long as he can (as if reluctant to let go), the crusty veteran who has nothing in stuff but does know where the weaknesses prevail, the dominant pitcher who through some bit of timing magic seems to come on the schedule twice a week. For 3,000 hits, a batter must triumph over interminable slumps, conquer the disabled list and endure the line drives that are caught. He swings at baseballs that dissolve into the shadows, pushes back at the manager and trainer who suggests a few days rest, fights on after fly balls die on the warning track.

Three thousand hits is a daily fight with the odds, with darting sliders and diving fielders and umpires eager to punch you out on a fastball that might be an inch or two off the plate.

You can't ever win a baseball career. There is always another game, another season, another change-up over the hill. But maybe, if you get 3,000 hits, you can claim something like victory. Nobody gets to 3,000 on talent alone. 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. With a streak of heat and luck and a bit of magic, a man might hit in 56 straight games or collect 262 hits in a season or bat .400.

But 3,000 hits is a life. It takes hitting when you're young and hitting when everybody knows your weaknesses and hitting when the reflexes begin to slow, and hitting when you can't quite catch up to the fastball.

As Bill James has written: A flake cannot get 3,000 hits.

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? Murray and McGwire were first basemen -- and that's pretty much where the comparisons end.

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.

But there is only one way to get to 3,000 hits -- and that's to get a bit closer every day. Be relentless. Rose used to say that he loved getting four hits in a game because it meant he had a chance to get five. 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. Ripken did too. The 3,000-hit club players are not all alike, no, but they share a quality. 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.

* * *

Derek Jeter is wildly overrated. 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. And on the other hand, no five-time Gold Glover has ever been so savaged for being a defensive liability.

Detractors so often said that if Jeter had not been a member of the overhyped Yankees, he would have been overlooked. And at the same time, twice, perhaps three times, he should have won the MVP Award. He never did.

The Jeter legend was that he could will his team to victory with invisible powers of grit, will, and command. The Jeter reality is that he created more runs than any shortstop ever.

There's a reason for these clashes: Jeter has been inescapable. If you are a baseball fan, you have an opinion about him. His game was out there; his baseball soul exposed. You can like him or dislike him, admire him or object to him, but you cannot ignore him. When Derek Jeter came to the plate in any ballpark in America, there was never silence.

This gets back, I think, to the original point of being seen: Jeter was doggedly present for 20 years. I like that word: Present. It can mean "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 played in 145 or more games in 16 different seasons -- that's one more than Cal Ripken. Ten times in his career he has come to plate 700 or more times -- only Rose had more 700 PA seasons. 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 never changed. He always, to the very end, seemed focused, determined, ready. If you watched him play in April 1998 or June 2009 or July 2012 or August 2000, you saw the same guy.

Of the 2,774 games he has played, he has gotten at least one hit in 2,114 of them. He has had multiple hits in more than 1,000 of them. He was always there, 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 persistent, the most enduring, the easiest to like, the easiest to hype, the easiest to be cynical about? I think so.

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. Eight times Derek Jeter got 200 hits in a season. No other shortstop has done that more than four. Twelve times he hit .300 or better ... that's more often than Clemente or Brett. Jeter hit double-digit homers 16 times, most ever for a shortstop. Jeter stole double-digit bases 17 times, most ever for a shortstop. Jeter scored 100 runs 13 times, most ever for a shortstop.

He was unrelenting and undeniable. We can't remember all the hits. But we can remember that there have been more than 3,000 of them.

* * *

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.

As for the rest: 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 for himself. 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. Adrian Beltre was no longer indestructible.

Jeter played for three more seasons after he got to 3,000 -- one of those was a season almost entirely lost to injury. He wasn't the same player, and the team around him was crumbling, and this is how it goes for most baseball heroes.

But with Jeter, things were always a bit more complicated. His admirers sang with gusto. His critics roasted with fury. People started paying attention to his chase of 3,000 hits long, long before they did for any other player (it went back to when he got his 2,722nd hit to pass Lou Gehrig at the top of the Yankees list), and because of that the chase felt interminable.

But when it happened ... it was otherworldly. I wrote it like this:

At exactly 2 p.m., with Jeter expecting fastball, with the crowd in high pitch, Price threw a 78-mph curveball that hung over home plate the way the sun hangs over Key West. And Jeter did the last thing anybody expected—including himself. He turned on it. He crushed it. As Jeter broke out of the box, he did not know if it would clear the fence. But he did know that nobody was going to catch it.

The ball went over the fence.

And then ... madness. The Yankees' players rushed out of the dugout. The Rays' infielders clapped slightly. A 23-year-old man named Christian Lopez, who was given his ticket by his girlfriend, fell on the ball in the leftfield bleachers. The sound in the new stadium was as loud as it was in the old stadium when Jeter hit the home run in the 2001 World Series just after the clock struck midnight on Nov. 1. Jeter rounded the bases, and when he touched home plate, he ran into a bear hug from Jorge Posada. Incredible. Ridiculous.

In that moment, it all flooded into one giant thunderburst of emotion. He had done it! But what? He had become the 14th man to get 3,000 hits with one team, sure. He had become only the second to do it on a home run (the other, oddly, being Boggs). Sure. He had brought Yankee Stadium to a state of pandemonium yet again. Of course.

But what was Derek Jeter all about? The relentlessness. His next time up, he got another hit. And the time after that, he got another. And the fifth time up, yes, five-for-five, still going even after 3,000 hits, still Jeter when there was nothing left to prove.

* * *

I have always liked watching how players react at Yankee Stadium when their name is chanted by the bleacher fans. The fans will chant the name of Yankees on the field until the players acknowledge them. Some players have little rituals. 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, the instant they begin to say his name (before they even got the "urr" in DEH-rick JEET-urr) would hold out his glove toward the fans. Enough. Thank you. He did this without looking, automatically, while never losing focus on the batter. And it felt to me the perfect Derek Jeter gesture. He was saluting the fans without taking his eye off the game. He was 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. Sure, he loved the job. His game was played with joy. But it was still work, and work must be done right, and that's what Derek Jeter was about. He wasn't ABOUT getting 3,000 hits. But he got there anyway.

And he got there because of two hits he got off Runelvys Hernandez on a Wednesday in Kansas City, a triple he legged off Pat Hentgen in Toronto and the five hits he got that one day in Boston. He got there despite the 94 times in his Yankees' life when he went zero-for-five. He got there despite the aches and pains, the disappointing errors and the ground balls he couldn't reach, the broken bats and the bad calls.

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, the same way in front of a flock of television cameras as he did with a couple of stragglers in an otherwise empty clubhouse.

It 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? He did. Three-thousand hits. The number says what he always said. He hears you. He loves you. But he's working right now.