Jeter's march to 3,000 is one of a kind

Tim Brown

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Sixteen years after he rolled a single into left field in Seattle's Kingdome, Derek Jeter(notes) is a week or two – or, heaven forbid, three – from 3,000 hits.

He arrives not the greatest New York Yankee ever, though none before him has as many hits in their uniform. Neither is he the most famous. Nor the winningest. Nor the longest tenured.

He is, however, the man whose veins carry some of all those pedigrees, just enough of this and that – of talent and timing and obstinacy and elegance – to be him and only him.

View photos

Derek Jeter got his first hit shortly after being called up by the Yankees for a series in Seattle.

He will be the 28th to 3,000 hits, so 27 paths preceded his, those struck and marked and illuminated uniquely. Others, equally distinctive, will follow his.

Only Jeter's, however, has been lit by the lamps of Broadway, executed under the glares of the Bronx, dissected by the clinicians of the press box, and held to the standards of a pinstriped century.

Only Jeter's was born a Yankee, raised a Yankee and, one day, will die a Yankee.

And all that comes with that.

Sixteen years later, 2,987 hits since the first, a mere 12 remaining, Jeter's 3,000 will come not before a distracted public, not greased by artificial turf, and not softened by breezy and forgotten Septembers, but in the center of the baseball universe, where the game is hard and the people around it unforgiving.

There are reasons it's never been done before, why the measure of 3,000 hits in baseball – for all the usual features of skill, health, longevity, luck and desire – only begin to describe 3,000 hits in New York.

"And there's not going to be another one, ever, in New York," former Yankee Johnny Damon(notes) said. "No chance."

Before a weekend game here, Jeter stood before his locker and raised an eyebrow at the notion a career milestone might have its outside influences. Not that he hadn't heard it before, or even considered it, or, perhaps, even become suspicious of it.

"Depends," he said, "on whether you're writing a negative story or a positive story."

Jeter, a child of the daily early-deadline/middle-deadline/late-deadline scraps, and of the twice-daily debate over his worth relative to, say, UZR or whoever might have had four hits the night before, is left to question the sincerity of a story about him doing something only 27 other men have. He is a product of the Yankee machine, protected by deep lineups, fed fastballs because of the muscle behind him. Or, he has persevered through every crisis, through the buzz saw of the AL East, in a ballpark that he found a way to hit in, across an entire generation.

"I don't think about it," he said. "You know what I mean? But it depends on what angle you want to take."

Three thousand is three thousand, whether a fleeting pause on the way to 4,000 in the cases of Pete Rose (4,256) and Ty Cobb (4,189) or one final swing, as was Roberto Clemente's terrible fate. In all but three cases – Rose was banned for gambling, Rafael Palmeiro carries the steroid stigma, Craig Biggio is not yet eligible – 3,000 has meant a day in Cooperstown. Three thousand crosses generational and geographical lines, carrying the implicitness of days built upon days, habits built upon habits, base hits derived from precision and toughness.

Thirteen of the 27 reached 3,000 for one franchise. Jeter will be the 14th. Nine retired with those teams. Jeter, presumably, will be the 10th. Should he play to the last day of his contract with the Yankees, Jeter will be 40, exactly one-half his life spent in their uniform.

And while there is dignity and loyalty to be drawn from, say, George Brett's 21 years in Kansas City, or Stan Musial's 22 years in St. Louis, or Robin Yount's 20 years in Milwaukee, there is little quite like 20 years in the Bronx, and 3,000 hits over the first 16½ of them.

"It's equivalent to 3,500 hits," Alex Rodriguez(notes) said. "It really is. He's extra special, I think, because he's been able to do it in this environment for so long. He's been able to endure all of it.

View photos

Derek Jeter, here surrounded by reporters during spring training in 2009, has played his entire career under the microscope.

"He's amazing, man. He really is. If anyone can teach a course on how to play in New York, we could all sign up for it. I'd be the first on the list. He's a genius. It's straight A's at Harvard. But, first, you have to get into Harvard. Then you have to stay at Harvard."

Rodriguez himself is 270 hits from 3,000. When he reaches 3,000, probably late next season, the last 1,465 will have come with the Yankees. Damon, at 37 Jeter's age and two years older than Rodriguez, has 2,634 career hits, 636 in New York.

"He always had to play with a lot of pressure on him," Damon said of Jeter. "Think of that – New York has had the greatest players of all time and there's no 3,000-hit guy."

Only the one wearing No. 2, Jeter, Jersey-born, Michigan-raised, Yankee-drafted-and-developed, New York-steeled. In an era the Yankees have had little patience for learning curves and normal career arcs, when the club would spend its way out of both, Jeter arrived, flourished, won, grew older and became a legend. And then he reached 3,000 hits, the land of Mays and Yaz and Hank and Carew, but no career Yankees.

The 27 before him, as one, batted .310, hit 284 home runs, drove in 1,542. Jeter will join at something like a .313 batting average and something close to 236 home runs and 1,151 RBIs, with still two or three years to play.

"Even around here, we kind of forget until he gets a hit and they flash it on the board," Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson(notes) said. "Then you're like, 'Oh yeah, that thing is going on.' I forget sometimes."

He is like them, without the power of Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, or the speed of Rickey Henderson or Lou Brock, or the batter's box grace of Tony Gwynn or Stan Musial, but with the diligence of them all, and the ambitiousness to do it where he did it, in the center of the storm, on the backs of parade floats, in the gloom of failure.

Maybe these weren't the toughest 3,000 hits ever – not as long as men such as Aaron and Mays fought racism before they even got to that night’s pitcher – but maybe they were. Depends on the angle of your story.

Jeter began to walk away, the conversation over when he said so, nothing decided. There was batting practice to take, another four at-bats out there, another day before 3,000 in New York, the only place he's ever known.

"It's just where I am, you know what I mean?" he said.

As he left, presumably done with such thoughts, Jeter hesitated for just a second. Over his shoulder he smiled and offered one final thought.

"It ain't easy, though," he said. "It ain't easy."