By Jason Keidel
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I was supposed to discuss four topics with Lori Rubinson during our weekly Sunday evening chat on WFAN, but after taking our whacks at the LeBron piñata, we only had time for three.
The fourth – and perhaps most interesting – is why Derek Jeter’s march toward 3,000 hits isn’t getting New York nearly as juiced as we thought it would. There are several reasons for this.
It didn’t take a Mensa member to deduce that Derek (if he stayed healthy, the eternal proviso for any record) would swat 3,000 hits. His consistent career arc of 206 hits per season, nearly slump-proof batting average of .312, sans splashy power numbers, make him a low risk for missing the mark. And, before yesterday, he hadn’t been on the DL since 2003.
And thus it gives his record the feel of formality. Since we knew he’d be here, his arrival surprises no one.
3,000 hits aren’t sexy, even when the sexiest players hit them. Chicks still dig the long ball, and always will. A singles hitter, even one as handsome as Jeter, is still a singles hitter.
Tyler Kepner recently wrote a piece in The New York Times about the cool reception Roberto Clemente got after his 3,000th hit in Pittsburgh against (of course) the Mets. After getting the big hit against Jon Matlack, a whopping 13, 117 fans freckled Three Rivers Stadium, barely saluting the immortal, who tipped his cap at second base and moved on. The scene was so muted that half the Mets didn’t even know Clemente was that close to the milestone.
David Maraniss, who wrote a biography about Clemente, told the Times that there were several reasons beyond the statistical boredom of 3,000 hits, including the town’s dedication to college football, the ascending Steelers, and perhaps some latent bigotry toward the first team to field an entirely black and Hispanic baseball team. (I have a problem with the final assertion, but that’s for another time.)
Jeter will surely get more love from a team and a town in love with him since 1996, but it won’t even match the blizzard of confetti LeBron James and Dwyane Wade got in Miami before they played a single game together. It’s just hard to get fired up over a base hit.
And it’s not like the Yankees have been a woeful franchise for the last century and Jeter’s achievement serves as a distraction from stumbling squad. The Yankees are supposed to have all the records.
You could argue that the Yankees have fielded the five greatest players in history. (You’d lose the argument, but you could make it and not be laughed out the building.) And since Jeter isn’t one of them his feat doesn’t fly among the myriad memories and pennants. The fact that no Yankee has done it doesn’t speak to Jeter’s superiority over Babe Ruth, but rather to an astonishing aberration that the greatest team in the history of team sports doesn’t have a hitter with 3,000 hits. (And if the number were that important, why doesn’t a Yankee have it?)
And if you think about it, Jeter’s not even breaking a record. Indeed, he will join Clemente at No. 28 on the all-time hit list. So it makes you wonder what the big difference is between 2,999 and 3,001. Sure, baseball trades on stats, but we tend to pay more attention when it means more.
Finally, the feat feels incongruous. What do we love about Jeter? What does the marquee flash over his silhouette?
Jeter isn’t about 3,000 hits anymore than he’s about 500 home runs. Jeter was never judged, in any strict sense, by statistical bona fides. Jeter is about his head-first leap into the stands in 2004 (I was at that game, oddly enough), gathered by and propped up by his grateful and faithful fans, climbing back into fair territory with his face bloody, swollen and scarred. Jeter is about the flip in Oakland in 2001. Jeter is about running right, spearing the ball, and his leaping pirouette as he slings the ball back to first.
Jeter is about getting praise from Curt Schilling (who never has nice things to say about anyone) and the rest of Red Sox Nation. Jeter is about, if you believe in these things, being a True Yankee. He’s about timing, and the Gods, knowing he wouldn’t reach his mark at home pinched his foot and put him on the shelf, where he may resume his quest on June 29, perhaps getting 3,000 at Citi Field, a de facto home game, particularly with Yankee fans gobbling up tickets from fed-up Mets fans whose mantra, “Wait ‘til next year” is becoming a yearly refrain.
For some players, the 3,000th hit is their portal to Cooperstown. But Jeter was getting into the Hall of Fame with 2,500 hits. He is, in the spirit of his single-digit predecessors, about bling, the rings and trophies. So since we’ve argued that Jeter is measured in nuance, we can’t now redefine him 16-years deep into his career. And Jeter is so publicly sterile that he expresses no emotion over the mark. And if he doesn’t care, why should we?
No doubt more than one man cave has Derek Jeter memorabilia lathering its walls, but never in Jeter’s halls. That is part of his charm, why No. 2 is No. 1 to so many. He’ll get his big hit, tilt his helmet to his fawning fans, greet his adoring teammates as they drip onto the field, and the focus on stealing second. There will be a game to win.
Feel free to email me: Jakster1@mac.com