Reaching 3,000 hits will set Jeter apart

NEW YORK – A few years back, maybe five or six as Derek Jeter(notes) remembers, the shortstop sat in a spring training clubhouse examining a New York Yankees media guide with a few teammates. As they scrolled through the records section they noticed something startling: Never in the great, glorious history of the franchise had there been a player who had 3,000 hits as a Yankee.

Not Babe Ruth. Not Lou Gehrig. Not Joe DiMaggio.

And right there Jeter had to understand the legacy he could own on a franchise loaded with legends, several of whom were considered better players than he. The Yankees might have a garden of monuments dedicated to home run champions and triple crown winners, but none had 3,000 Yankee hits. That distinction alone would belong to Jeter as long as he stayed healthy.

Fans at Yankee Stadium count down what might be the last run at 3,000 hits by a lifetime Yankee.

Of course he would never admit to such a realization. That wouldn’t be Jeter, forever careful to avoid seeming presumptuous or boastful in public. When he was asked about that spring day on Thursday afternoon he shook his head and quickly looked down.

“I try to focus on the present,” he said, just hours before getting his 2,998th hit Thursday night in a 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. “I don’t like to think about the future. You may have an opportunity to play long enough but you don’t look too far ahead.”

It was such a Jeter thing to say, offering a tiny window into his life – albeit with a humorous un-Jeter like stumble as he tried vainly to come up with the words “media guide,” calling it a “little Yankee pamphlet” – then quickly shutting off the glimpse inside.

“That’s why you guys in the media always hated him,” said Don Zimmer, a special assistant for the Rays who sat beside Joe Torre as the Yankees bench coach for the first eight full seasons of Jeter’s career. But it is exactly what Zimmer came to love about the player who called his manager “Mr. Torre” long after he had grown into an international superstar dating models and starlets.

“He never changed,” Zimmer said.

As he talked in the Rays dugout, the 80-year-old Zimmer ducked his head to catch a glimpse of Jeter as he jogged around the field during batting practice, head held high with the same seamless gait.

“That’s why I respect him so much,” Zimmer finally added.

Like Jeter, Zimmer went years without knowing a Yankee player hadn’t gotten 3,000 hits until someone told him a couple of years ago. And as it did for Jeter and the players gathered on that spring day a few years ago, the fact shocked Zimmer. Surely on the franchise of Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and Don Mattingly, there had been someone with 3,000 hits. “I couldn’t imagine,” Zimmer said. But the closest one was Gehrig, who was the franchise leader with 2,721 for seven decades until Jeter passed him two years ago.

Zimmer stared at the field, watching Jeter walk around the batting cage and chuckled with amazement.

“To think he’s the only Yankee who’s gotten 3,000 hits, that’s something special,” he said.

The temptation in the days leading up to Jeter’s hit is to call this a record. Yankees manager Joe Girardi made that mistake on Thursday before quickly correcting himself. A 3,000th hit is a milestone. But given the long lists of things dominated by the Yankees, including 27 World Series titles, Jeter becoming the only Yankee with 3,000 hits is indeed a record of sorts. There really seems little chance anyone else will accomplish this, certainly not in the next 1½ decades, which is what it has taken Jeter to get to this point, pecking away with nearly 200 hits a season. The only player on the roster with a chance is second baseman Robinson Cano(notes), but Cano is already 28 and it’s hard to believe he could keep a steady pace of 200 hits deep into his 30s.

Derek Jeter leads the Yankees out of the dugout for his 2,361st game with the franchise.

Since the Yankees feel they must always produce a contender, they never go through the kind of youth movement other franchises do. It’s hard to imagine someone currently in the system rising to the same lifetime Yankee star status as Jeter. In fact, were it not for a suspension to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner in the early 1990s followed by a commitment to a core of young players, Jeter might never have had a shot with the Yankees, something Jeter alluded to Thursday.

“When I came up in this organization when The Boss was here, many players didn’t get too many opportunities,” he said.

We may never see another group of players like Jeter, Jorge Posada(notes), Andy Pettitte(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes) in New York again. That’s what will make Jeter’s 3,000th hit so remarkable. Who would have imagined a player sticking around long enough to accomplish this in the Steinbrenner era. No one will probably have the opportunity to be Derek Jeter again. The long line of Yankee lifetime legends might well end with him.

How fitting he should be the one to get more hits than any of them.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jul 7, 2011