Sunday, July 10, 2011

Jeter was destined to be a Yankee hero

NEW YORK – The Armitron clock high above the left field stands said 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 this way, with a sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium chanting his name “Dehhhhrick Jetah. Dehhhhrick 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, his second of five hits on the day. He dropped his head as he always has, trying to stifle the smile that was spreading across his lips. His teammates spilled from the dugout, led by the two he played with the longest here – Jorge Posada(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes).

With his second hit on Saturday, Derek Jeter became the 28th player – and first Yankee – to reach 3,000 hits.
(Getty Images)

It was as if the whole thing had been scripted from the beginning.

In these times where offensive records seem to fall with regularity, there is still a magic to 3,000 hits. Jeter, the sole Yankee to achieve the feat, is only the 28th player to achieve the milestone and the line of potential candidates to join him in the near future includes just his teammate Alex Rodriguezand Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki. And while Rodriguez is a superior hitter with a real chance to someday own the all-time home run record, his 3,000th hit (which should come in 2013) won’t have the same impact as Jeter’s.

Rodriguez is a representative of his era. He was a baseball mercenary who abandoned his first team to seize the bounty offered him by the Texas Rangers and then manipulated a trade to the New York Yankees after a deal to the Red Sox didn’t work out. There is no sense of loyalty from A-Rod. He is just another great player without a home. And no matter how much he outshines Jeter at the plate and on the field, he will never be beloved here the way Jeter is. Jeter is different. Jeter is immune to the vacillations of the city’s sports fans.

Jeter 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.

But 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 that 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. The other day manager Joe Girardi, a former teammate, talked about the comfort of always knowing Jeter would be there. If nothing else Jeter brought consistency to a franchise often embroiled in tumult. Players came and players went. George Steinbrenner raged. The games kept getting bigger and bigger and the only thing anyone could say for sure was that Jeter would be at the top of the lineup, playing shortstop and lining singles to right field.

He is not the player he was. He came into the game hitting .257, his range at shortstop diminished with age. In recent days, as the attention intensified, he tried to smile but also looked weary. When he led off Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay with a double, he seemed hopeful two more would come that night, getting him to 3,000 and ending this chase. Failing to do so disappointed him.

“Sure I want it to be over,” he said on Friday afternoon before that game was rained out.

Then on Saturday, with a blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds as if the afternoon had been painted by Norman Rockwell, Jeter delivered as only he has all these years. He hit a single to left in the first inning and came up in the third to an enormous roar from a crowd that sensed something big. As soon as his bat made contact with the changeup from Rays pitcher David Price(notes), the crowd began to scream. Jeter, the kid from Kalamazoo who longed to be a Yankee, did exactly what would be expected of a Yankee in such a situation. He dropped his head and ran. He was already to first base when the ball finally disappeared into the seats.

Just like Jeter. As if this was going to happen any other way. The perfect moment from the perfect Yankee.

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