July 09, 2011
In the third inning of Saturday's game against the Tampa Bay Rays, with his career hit counter one shy of the notable 3,o00 mark, the New York Yankees shortstop lifted a pitch from David Price(notes) into the left field stands at Yankee Stadium. Pandemonium ensued in the stands and Jeter's teammates crowded at home plate as the Yankees finally filled the emptiest spot — a player notching 3,000 hits while wearing pinstripes — in their otherwise crowded trophy case.
In a postgame interview with Kim Jones on YES, Jeter said he was happiest — and relieved — to get all of his hits with one team.
"I've been lying to you guys this whole time. I had a lot of pressure on me these few days in New York. But after my first at-bat, and got that first hit, I relaxed a little bit.
"Hitting a home run was the last thing I've thought about."
Update: Jeter finished 5 for 5 at the plate — the first time anyone went 5 for 5 on the same day they also collected career hit No. 3000 — and he had a go-ahead RBI single in the eighth.
If Jeter becoming the 28th player in big league history to reach the number was inevitable, the route he took to get there certainly were not. Only one other player — Wade Boggs — recorded his 3,00th hit via the home run and Jeter himself hadn't hit a home run in the Bronx since last season.
Yet when you look back at the highlight, the home run fits into his career perfectly. Like the 2,999th hit of his career — a single off Price in the first inning — the count was full and Jeter had already fouled off a pitch to keep the at-bat alive. With flashbulbs popping and the ballpark packed with fans who had paid top dollar to be there, Jeter was able to stay within the moment and create the best kind of highlights.
Really, that's why Derek Jeter was able to collect these whopping 3,000 career hits: control. While his bat speed and leg strength may have decreased some over the years, his batting eye and pitch selection has not. He's making contact with pitches in the strike zone at nearly the same rate he was 10 years ago while actually improving his contact percentage at pitches outside the zone. Jeter steadily walks about once every 11 plate appearances and has struck out at a rate under the league average every season of his career. Few players have been able to make a career out of hitting with consistent line drives to the opposite field. And yes, a good chunk of those 3,000 hits came from his legs, hustling down the first base line before anyone in the infield can scoop his dribblers.
Of course, even though No. 3,000 came during a storybook moment that should seem appealing to anyone who ever grew up wanting to play professional baseball, there are going to remain some cynics.
And that's understandable, because the one thing that has been out of Jeter's control during his long career is the perception and evaluation of his talents by the fans and media. No other superstar, not even peculiar teammate Alex Rodriguez(notes), is quite as polarizing or as equally overrated and underrated by different factions of fans and analysts. Male fans of opposing teams, desperate to assert their own manliness and masculine machismo, love to hate him. Male fans of the Yankees, desperate to assert their own manliness and masculine machismo, love him more than is probably healthy for someone you've never met. Broadcasters bend over backwards to simultaneously praise Derek Jeter's so-called intangibles while ignoring his actual production in the batters box.
The dichotomy of perception shows up in awards and stats, too. Jeter has never won an MVP award despite being an all-around powerhouse in both 1999 and 2006. He's never won a batting title although he's finished among the top five in the league six different times. Statistically, Jeter has been shown to be a below-average shortstop and yet he's won five Gold Glove Awards. With all the noise, it's seemingly impossible for a casual fan to place the Yankees shortstop in his proper spot in history.
So let me help with that: in just over 15 seasons, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter now has more than 3,000 career hits. What more do you need to know? Take a step back and be in awe of the simplicity of that wonderful, round number. Though we'll be watching the 3,00th blast forever, how he collected those hits is unimportant. Where he ranks against other historically great shortstops like Barry Larkin or Arky Vaughan or Honus Wagner is immaterial. His contract, his celebrity girlfriends, his sad detractors, his posh real estate investments, all completely irrelevant!
It's true, I am not an unbiased party in celebrating this milestone. Ever since I first bought a Yankees t-shirt fifteen years ago with No. 2 on the back, I've been the most ardent admirer of Derek Jeter that I know. But instead of letting my fandom skew your opinion of me, try instead to appreciate my reasonable evaluation of the milestone. It's neither the act of a superman nor an everyday happenstance.
It is, however, a plateau that few baseball players will ever reach. Period.
Derek Jeter reached that plateau by doing two things: (a) showing up nearly every day and (b) having tremendous bat control. So shut out all that other noise and appreciate this fine player for his historically significant accomplishment. He's more than earned it.