By Neil Keefe
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I had three thoughts when Derek Jeter hit a 3-2 pitch off David Price into the left field stands for his 3,000th hit:

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1. Of course Derek Jeter would hit a home run for his 3,000th hit.

2. The guy who was lucky enough to have that ball bounce into his hands (Christian Lopez) is about to be rich.

3. What was John Sterling’s call? Does he have any voice left to call the rest of the game? Is he still alive after the hit?

I watched Saturday’s game on YES with my friend Scanlon and when Jeter came up in the third inning and Michael Kay made it a point to talk about the special marked balls being brought in for Jeter’s at-bats incase he hits a home run, I turned to Scanlon and said, “Yeah, like that’s going to happen.” I was expecting an infield single and a swinging bunt down the third base line in what has become Jeter’s patented hit these days, like his line drives to right field used to be. But of course Derek Jeter hit a home run for his 3,000th hit on a full count to tie the game because that’s what Derek Jeter does. And of course he would go 5-for-5 with two runs, two RBIs, tie the game once and then drive in the winning run in the eighth inning.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about Derek Jeter for his 3,000th hit. I have written several “love” pieces about Jeter already, including one in May, and I have taken flak for all of them. I thought about ranking all of Jeter’s hits from 1 to 3,000, but I thought that would be a little extravagant. (Just kidding, I never seriously thought about doing that…) I was actually hoping that WCBS would put together a montage of all 3,000 of John Sterling’s calls for Jeter’s hits, but then I realized I would never want to wish that kind of task upon an intern to complete. So, I decided the best way to celebrate Jeter’s hit would be with another one of what my friend’s refer to as “Jeter love” pieces.

This won’t be the last “Jeter love” piece though it might be the last until he retires or until he goes through another contract negotiation (if he does) because there really isn’t anything left to celebrate. Jeter can keep on winning World Series, and I pray he does, but this is really the last milestone of his career that will get this kind of coverage and this kind of attention, unless he miraculously finds a way to pass Pete Rose. This was the final stamp Jeter needed to solidify his place in Cooperstown and validate his longevity in the game. Now that’s all that’s left for Jeter is to go back to worry about winning games, reaching the postseason and winning in October. And that’s all Jeter has really wanted all along.

The entire “DJ3K” campaign over the last few weeks, which was sandwiched around a stint on the disabled list for a calf strain, has been about everything that Jeter hasn’t been about during his entire career. Having the story become about him rather than the team is what Jeter has tried to avoid as a major leaguer and for the first time he was more important than the team and his hitting results were more important than the team’s result.

When I talked with Bleacher Creature Bald Vinny earlier in the season about Jeter’s nonchalant response to Roll Call over the years, Vinny gave it a good term when he said, “Jeter’s ‘too cool for school.'” He didn’t mean it in a derogatory way, but rather saying Jeter’s quick glove wave to Section 203 is the only way that makes sense for Derek Jeter to acknowledge the fans. It wouldn’t be Jeter-like for him to flex his muscles or salute the crowd or turn completely around. And that is why this whole quest has been out of the ordinary for a player that never wants the game to be solely about him.

That’s why it was weird when the game was stopped and delayed while the entire team came onto the field to congratulate Derek and he had to awkwardly hug everyone from the dugout like he was leaving a house party and was automatically hugged the people he was close with and then was forced into hugging the others like a Larry David moment. And then the bullpen emptied and he hugged everyone from the bullpen too. And then he went back into the dugout and came back onto the field for a curtain call in which he acknowledged every area of the Stadium. It was a moment that was expected and for everyone else would have felt normal, but to watch the guy you know didn’t want to have to deal with that inevitable moment deal with it, well, it was both interesting and engaging.

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Jeter became the first Yankee to chase a real milestone (a milestone covered nationally and not just locally) in the social media era, so everyone constantly knew what he was doing every game and when he was doing it leading up to 3000. And this is the first Yankees milestone in recent years that has gotten this kind of hype and attention for a “clean” player and one that the organization can celebrate. Roger Clemens’ 300th win and A-Rod’s 500th home run were appreciated at the time, but now looked at with skepticism, and A-Rod’s 600th home run was looked at with skepticism as it was happening. The Yankees haven’t had a “clean” player or a homegrown player recently achieve a monumental milestone that everyone can appreciate without an asterisk or a footnote until Jeter’s home run on Saturday.

Even with the milestone being epic, what’s more important to me is that Derek Jeter has looked like Derek Jeter since coming back from the disabled list (9-for-23, 4 2B, 1 HR, 4 RBIs). He has been hitting with power and for extra bases and it’s almost as if he’s once again expected to get a hit rather than roll one over to the shortstop.

I still believe in Jeter’s abilities and believe that somewhere inside him the 2009 Derek Jeter still exists even if most people have accepted what he has become or think I’m crazy for thinking differently. But I keep telling myself that Jeter is going to go on a tear where he hits .400 for a month or two and gets his average back to where it had been forever. Maybe I’m just in denial and failing to admit what everyone else already has, or maybe we’re seeing the beginning of Jeter becoming the old Jeter right now.

I believe in Derek Jeter because he is all I have known since I was nine years old. Now I’m 24 and he still starting at shortstop the way he was when I was in fifth grade. And that’s why David Cone’s remarks about Jeter perfectly describe No. 2’s worth to the Yankees and Yankees fans.

“[Jeter] was really instrumental in turning a young generation of baseball fans in New York into Yankees fans. Especially in the ’90s, those young kids who could go Mets or Yankees, Jeter’s the one who led them to Yankees.”

Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to do when Jeter retires. I try to pretend like that day will never come the way I would try and pretend like the summer wouldn’t come to an end or that the first day of school wouldn’t eventually come when I was younger. But I have to accept that one day Derek Jeter won’t be the starting shortstop anymore, that No. 2 will be behind the center field wall instead of in front of it and that I will have to hope that another franchise player with championship pedigree comes along. No, I don’t need any tissues, but thanks.

That’s why the 3,000th hit to me is both exciting and in a weird way a bit depressing. Even though it’s a celebration of Jeter’s career, it’s also an indicator that his career is closer to the end than the beginning. It means the Yankees are closer to having to have another shortstop and I’m closer to having to deal without having Derek Jeter in my life every day during every summer.

I have followed Derek Jeter’s career more closely than any other athlete in my life. Whenever I have missed a Yankees game during his career, the first thing I check after the final score is how Jeter did. Jeter’s personal stats became the most important thing to me other than the Yankees’ actual record and I’ve said before that it’s sick, but I have memorized his average and home run and RBI totals from every season. On Saturday, Jeter gave me another stat of his to memorize, but this one won’t be hard:

“July 9, 2011, 2:00 p.m., third inning against the Rays on a 3-2 count off of David Price.”


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