NEW YORK – The Armitron clock high above the left field stands said it was exactly 2 p.m. as Derek Jeter's(notes) 3,000th hit dropped into the seats below. Typical Jeter, always perfect at just the right moment.
Somehow we should have known it would happen like this, with a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium chanting his name in that brassy New York sing-song way: "Dehhhhhrick Jetah. Dehhhhhrick Jetah." He had gone nearly a year in this stadium without a home run and then on a Saturday afternoon with everyone anticipating the hit that would seal his Yankee legacy, he drove a 3-2 pitch high toward left field and there was no doubt where the ball would land. He dropped his head just as he always has, trying to stifle the smile that was spreading across his lips. His New York Yankees teammates spilled from the dugout, led by the two he played with the longest here – Jorge Posada(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes). – burying him in an embrace as he crossed home plate.
Later, after going 5 for 5 including the winning single on what had to be about the greatest day of his career, he sat behind a table in an interview room and laughed.
It was as if the whole day had been contrived in some Hollywood studio.
"If I had written it and gave it to someone, I wouldn't have bought it," he said.
So much swirled around the hallways beneath Yankee Stadium by the end of the day. Jay-Z and Joe Torre mingled with hangers-on and celebrity seekers. There is still a magic to 3,000 hits. Jeter is the 28th player to reach such a milestone. And as the only Yankee to ever get all 3,000 as a member of the team, Jeter was writing his own Yankee legacy – the one that will separate him from Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and all the others before him.
He was born to be a Yankee. And while such a line would come off as a trite cliché if used about any other player, it's actually true when it comes to him. As a child growing up in Kalamazoo, Mich. he adored the Yankees, who were the favorite team of his grandmother Dot. Each summer he visited his grandparents in New Jersey and Dot would take him to Yankee Stadium where the young Jeter gazed at the giant ballpark around him and dreamed of someday wearing the same pinstriped uniform as the players running across the field below him.
According to the book, "The Captain" by Ian O'Connor, Jeter announced to his fourth-grade class that he was going to play shortstop for the Yankees when he grew up. And as he got older the obsession only strengthened. O'Connor's book portrays the adolescent Jeter as something of a dork when it came to his favorite baseball team. He came to school wearing a Yankees cap with a Yankees pendant around his neck, Former teammates from a travelling basketball team say he even wore Yankees boxers.
It became a source of ridicule among his childhood friends, especially in the Midwest where all things New York were not beloved. But Jeter never wavered. He forever told his teammates he was going to be a Yankee. And so it was fitting that a Cincinnati Reds official named Julian Mock overruled his scouts and chose a now long-forgotten outfielder named Chad Mottola with the fifth pick of the 1992 draft, leaving Jeter to be picked by the Yankees.
Even after Jeter's dream came true and he became the Yankees shortstop, he played as if he was still that kid back in Kalamazoo wearing his Yankees cap and pendant, playing through injuries which would have sidelined other players. He was forever a constant in New York's lineup hitting first or second for most of his more than 16 years with the team.
Now at 37 he is not the player he once was, coming into the game hitting .257. His range at shortstop has diminished and in recent days he has been tormented by his pursuit of 3,000 hits, hoping to achieve it here at Yankee Stadium rather than on the road. Torre, who managed him for his first 12 full seasons in New York, recognized the angst, thinking of Jeter as "a mess" when trying to attain a personal milestone.
"It was uncomfortable for me to watch him at those times," Torre said.
Jeter himself said the last few weeks have been awkward. He insisted he wasn't fazed by the attention, but finally on Saturday he conceded: "I was lying."
[Related: Fan returns record home run ball to Jeter]
On Saturday he came into the game needing two hits to reach 3,000. And maybe he knew the anguish would end at last. It was a perfect kind of day, with a deep blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds as if the afternoon had been painted by Norman Rockwell. He singled to left field on his first at-bat and then walked to the plate to a tremendous roar on his second. He worked Rays pitcher David Price(notes), to a full count and then the day seemed to stop as Price threw a 78-mph curveball.
Jeter's bat met the ball with a huge crack and instantly it seemed everyone knew it was gone. Everyone, that is, but Jeter, who lowered his head and sprinted to first unsure if he had hit it far enough to be a home run. When he realized that he had, a strange feeling washed over him.
"To be honest with you, I was pretty relieved," he said.
But this being Jeter, he seemed embarrassed by all the attention from his teammates and the crowd, which continued to roar. At one point he gestured over to Price to apologize for the distraction. As he did, he noticed the Tampa Bay players were actually applauding him.
The hit freed him, however. And suddenly he couldn't make an out. His third time up he hit a double and suddenly he was a triple away from crazy possibility of hitting for the cycle on the day he got his 3,000th hit. His final at-bat came in the bottom of the eighth with the score tied 4-4, the go-ahead run on third and the Rays playing their infield in. He swung and hit a dribbling grounder up the middle that trickled into center field. The crowd howled one last time. How much more perfect could this day be?
Long after the game had been won, Rivera grinned and said: "I was expecting the triple."
Torre shook his head. "I'll tell you, that game would not have been as special for him if [the Yankees] had lost," Torre said.
As he spoke, Jeter walked past. The old manager looked at the player and chuckled to himself. What else was there to say?
In the end it was the perfect day from the perfect Yankee.