Commentary

Jeter understands importance of 3,000

The Captain has shown up with class every day as he approaches the milestone

Updated: July 8, 2011, 11:45 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- He showed up every day at the office, on time, eager to earn his wage. In a world overrun by cheats and frauds, slackers and incompetents, Derek Jeter was extraordinary in his mastery of the ordinary.

His batting helmet was his hard hat. Even as a cover-boy shortstop, a New York, New York bachelor who squired enough starlets to make Broadway Joe Namath blush, Jeter was always best defined by his coal miner's work ethic, his willingness to get dirty and to stay late.

At age 37, he isn't the ballplayer he used to be, and there's no shame in that. But while his bat and legs have been victimized by gravity and time, Jeter still embraces the same game-day dogma he carried onto the field as a rookie starter in 1996.

DiMaggio's dogma.

"I think every day you have to play like it's the most important game in the world," Jeter said Thursday night before ripping a first-inning, first-pitch double in a 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays and going to bed with 2,998 hits to his name.

"I've tried to do that throughout my career. It can be difficult at times because we play so many games, but I have enough respect for this game to know the least you can do is go out there and hustle every day and play as hard as you can."

Jeter played hard, and he played hurt. More than anything, he played.

Woody Allen said 80 percent of success is showing up. For Jeter, the estimate sounds low.

He wrecked his shoulder in 2003 and tweaked his calf in 2011. Other than that, Jeter has been a near lock for 150 or more games per season at a position more physically taxing than any except the one behind the plate.

"One thing I always wanted to do," Jeter said, "when I came to the field I wanted the organization to have a pretty good idea of who was going to play shortstop.

"I take a lot of pride in going out there every single day. ... I try to be as consistent as possible. I think that's the thing that's probably the most difficult to do in our sport."

If you listened closely enough Thursday, you could hear Jeter's immense pride framing his maddening monotone pitch. The man with seven seasons of at least 200 hits was asked about the list of 27 men who had amassed 3,000 hits in their careers.

Jeter said that he was aware of the names and that he was aware of how relentlessly consistent one had to be to join them.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Michael Heiman/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter's first-inning double left him just two hits short of 3,000.

"One thing that I think gets overlooked in baseball stats is guys that have 200-hit seasons," Jeter said. "Home runs go up and down, runs go up and down, but 200-hit seasons, there's usually only three or four guys in both leagues combined that get 200 hits. In order to get 3,000 hits, you have to do that for 15 years."

If he sounded impressed with what he was about to achieve, he had earned the right.

Of course, no New York Yankee had ever gained entry into the 3,000 club, not Ruth or Gehrig, DiMaggio or Mantle. Jeter first stumbled upon this truth five or six spring trainings ago while flipping through the team's media guide.

"That was mind-boggling to me," Jeter said, "because of the history of this organization."

So he would be the one to edit the media guide. Jeter's robo-approach to the craft made him the most prolific hitter in franchise history and the most prolific hitter at his position that the sport has seen.

It also made him the main event Thursday night, less than two years after Jeter broke Lou Gehrig's intramural record before a delirious rain-soaked crowd. On the brink of 3,000, the shortstop returned from Cleveland needing three hits against the Rays' Jeff Niemann, the same starter who surrendered three hits to Jeter on that 2009 night he tied Gehrig.

And on the very first pitch he saw from Niemann, with more than a few flashbulbs exploding in the stands, the Yankees' leadoff man lashed a ball to left-center and out of the reach of B.J. Upton, whose less-than-maniacal pursuit allowed Jeter to race to second.

"Early on," the Yankees' captain said, "I thought I was going to get a few."

A vast majority of the 47,787 fans present were on their feet, pleading for two more swings like the one they just saw. A rush of adrenaline rising from his toes, Jeter believed he would deliver for them before the night was out.

"That's what I thought," he said. "It didn't happen."

With another standing ovation greeting him in the second, Jeter grounded out to third. In the fifth, Sean Rodriguez rained on Jeter's hit parade with a Graig Nettles-like dive and stop-and-throw. "That hurt my feelings a little bit," Jeter joked.

In the seventh, with the crowd up and chanting his name, the captain slapped a benign bouncer to short. In the ninth, Jeter caught a major break when a two-out strike three to Brett Gardner found its way to the backstop, giving the home team an extra out.

But Jeter could only turn a 2-2 pitch from Kyle Farnsworth into a tapper to Rodriguez, who charged in while the leadoff man busted it down the line. When the throw beat Jeter by a half-step, the captain tilted his head backward as a look of bemusement stretched across his face.

The Yankees fell out of first place and fell out of love -- if only temporarily -- with Bartolo Colon, who moved an entire lineup of Rays closer to 3,000 hits. But the game within the game was the dominant storyline, the game of man versus mythology.

Jeter made it one down, two to go while the scout who signed him in 1992, Dick Groch, the first Yankees official a teenaged Jeter met, took it in from his Stadium seat. "I've lived through each hit," Groch said. "Lived through it in the morning paper."

The shortstop was always there in the box score. His manager, Joe Girardi, called him "Mr. Consistent" and meant it as a compliment of the highest order. Across 16 seasons in the Bronx, from the old place to the new place, Jeter's commitment to everyday excellence hasn't diminished along with his physical skills.

"My job is to play every day," Jeter said. "I've always looked at it that way."

So he will get to the park on time Friday, you bet, and punch the clock. The ultimate grinder will take another crack at history one base at a time.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter"

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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