Sometime in the next week Derek Jeter could become the third-youngest player, and the first Yankee, to reach 3,000 hits. The road to that milestone was a simple one—until it became complicated
Upon reporting to the Yankees' minor league complex on Himes Avenue in Tampa during the summer of 1992, 18-year-old Derek Jeter, barely out of Kalamazoo Central High and barely 160 pounds, walked to a long rack of wooden bats and studied the choices, settling on a Louisville Slugger model P72 for no other reason than its shape, which most resembled the aluminum bat he used in high school. Twenty professional seasons later he hasn't tried another model for so much as one at bat.
More than a creature of habit, Jeter is a creature of simplicity, devoted in his life and in his game to refining the quality that Da Vinci called "the ultimate sophistication."
"In all my years playing with him," says Paul O'Neill, Jeter's teammate from 1995 through 2001, "I don't think I ever heard him have one technical discussion about the mechanics of hitting. He keeps it simple. He just plays. It's like he's still playing high school baseball."
Jeter's commitment to simplicity soon will yield an extravagant result: 3,000 hits. He is about to become the 28th player—and first Yankee—to reach the milestone, and if he does it on Monday he will tie Robin Yount as the third youngest to get there. (Jeter, who was seven hits short through Sunday, turns 37 this month; Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Yount are the only players to reach 3,000 before their 37th birthdays.)
In an era in which offensive records get rewritten more than a Hollywood screenplay, the achievement of 3,000 hits retains every bit of its luster. Jeter played his first big league game in 1995. The most recent member of the 3,000-hit club, Craig Biggio, began his career in 1988. In the six seasons between their debuts—just as performance-enhancers, expansion-diluted pitching and smaller ballparks began to aid offense—990 players made it to the majors without reaching the historic plateau.
It took Jeter and his unorthodox contraption of a swing to rise above all others of his era. Asked about his approach to hitting, Jeter replies, "It's kind of simple, man. I've always thought the more simple everything is, the easier it is. I don't complicate things. I really don't."
AND YET, as Jeter closes in on 3,000, his career has grown more complicated than ever. A down season last year was followed by ugly contract negotiations with the Yankees that turned more public than the circumspect shortstop ever wished. That led to a damaged relationship with the front office, which has been followed by a 2011 season that has been even worse than the last. Too often for Jeter the questions have been less about how many hits he has and more about how many he might still have in him.
"It's changed, no question," Jeter says when asked about the media environment surrounding him and the Yankees. "It's not necessarily about whether you win or lose—yeah, it is—but we can win and if you don't get any hits, they'll ask, 'Well, why didn't you get any hits?' And if you got two hits, it's, 'Well, what happened that third time?' So everything is dissected here. There's more [dissection], definitely—because there are more outlets now. It's part of it, I guess. But I try not to pay attention."
Indeed, Jeter said he avoids reading and listening to criticism and has made it known to family and friends that he's not interested in hearing about any negative press. "You flip through the channels and all of a sudden you see something, you hear something real quick and you change it, but you can't avoid all of it."
Just then former pitcher David Wells, an ex-teammate visiting Jeter at his locker, adds, "Some guys are thick-skinned and some are thin-skinned. Kenny Rogers ... love him to death, but he couldn't handle it. Now, you go date Mariah and... . "
Jeter, who once dated Mariah Carey, cut him off quickly and without a chuckle: "Easy ... easy."
Wells fell awkwardly silent; if only it were that easy for Jeter to bring his critics to heel.
Jeter swings a bat like a man in a phone booth trying to swat away a bee. He keeps his hands very close to his body—what hitters call staying inside the ball, because the hands never cross the imaginary line of the flight of the pitch—for a very long time as he brings the bat and his torso around. "It's really unique," says Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long. "I don't know if I've ever seen it where a guy can stay that tight to his body."
Jeter also hits with a leg kick and a long stride, and he tilts his upper body toward home plate. Jeter rarely breaks down his swing with video, but he has two key checkpoints when he does: his stride (to make sure his front foot doesn't land too close to home plate) and his tilt (to make sure it isn't too pronounced). It is, he says, his natural swing.
"I worked on staying inside the ball in the minor leagues and pretty much every offseason in Tampa with [coach] Gary Denbo," Jeter says. "But he didn't teach it to me. That's just how it was: Keep my hands inside the ball. It's still the same thing. A lot of people stay inside the ball, but I don't know about to that extreme."
Jeter's hands-in approach relies on making contact with the ball so late—farther in its flight path—that he can hit even inside pitches to the opposite field with authority. Entering this season, on pitches he hit to rightfield, Jeter had a .479 average and a .718 slugging percentage.
"All these years he's stayed true to what he does best," O'Neill says. "He had a year or two where he started to gain some strength and turned on some balls, but for the most part he is an example of taking something you do that is good and making it great. In a time when there was pressure in baseball to hit more home runs, he never caved in to that."
Jeter's style relies heavily on timing and hand speed, and those attributes lagged last season, when Jeter batted .270 and slugged .370, both career worsts. Instead of driving doubles and home runs, he pounded more ground balls than ever before. Jeter had finished third in the AL MVP voting only the previous year, but the Yankees saw his down 2010 season as an opening to take rare public shots at their captain in contract negotiations. General manager Brian Cashman pointed out the club's concerns over his performance and age and encouraged him to shop for a better deal.
Jeter eventually signed a three-year, $51 million deal that also allows him to exercise an option for a fourth year. Cashman knew the negotiations wounded Jeter. Before Jeter spoke to the media about the deal last Dec. 7, Cashman says he told him, "Give them the truth. I don't care if it makes our relationship look bad. It doesn't bother me."
Jeter agreed. He told reporters, "To hear the organization say, 'Go shop it,' and I just told [them] I wasn't going to... . Yeah, to be honest with you, I was angry about it." Jeter now says he's moved past the contract squabble. "It's over with," he says. "It was over after I addressed it, and I don't want to address it again."
Of his relationship with Jeter, Cashman says, "I'm fine. I have a job to do and I'm doing it. I think we have a good relationship."
In questioning Jeter's skills and value, the Yankees helped turn him into an open target, a position of vulnerability almost never before experienced by him. Three days into spring training, for instance, there were already news reports about hitting ground balls in each of his first six plate appearances, only one of which went for a hit.
Even Jeter himself appeared to have concerns about his 2010 season. In a rare concession, and with the help of Long, he changed his natural hitting style. He junked his leg kick and stride for a no-stride style. The mechanical adjustment was designed to give him more time before the ball got on him. "I didn't play the way I wanted to," he says. "Yeah, it was an all-around bad year."
About three weeks into this season, however, Jeter declared the no-stride approach a failed experiment and returned to his usual style. Says Jeter, "It wasn't a change of swing. It was a change of stride—or eliminating it. And ... it didn't work.
"In theory I guess it was worth a try. I wasn't comfortable with it. It's tough for anybody, but especially for me, to try to hit thinking about too many things. When you hit you want everything to be second nature, and it wasn't. So I went back. And going back was an adjustment too."
At week's end Jeter was hitting .259 and spraying ground balls even more frequently than last year, when he led the majors in ground-ball percentage. (He's again the most ground-ball-heavy hitter in the game this season—65.9% of his balls in play.) His opposite-field punch has withered further (.333 on balls to rightfield, including no home runs). "People talk about his bat speed slowing down," Cashman says. "I don't know. I don't have anything to measure that. That could be the case. It might not. He's still an above-average player at his position."
Jeter will become only the second player to reach 3,000 hits while still playing shortstop, joining Honus Wagner (1914). When Long was asked what concessions a player of Jeter's age must make at the plate, he said, "Obviously, you have to be as short [to the ball] as you can. You've got to eliminate as many movements as you can. That's all part of it. Better strike-zone discipline. Got to be a little bit better at some of the finer things. Maybe pick a spot here and there to bunt. Take your walks, especially now more than ever.
"But his overall swing, I don't know that he's going to change there. We already tried to change his mechanics somewhat, and I don't think that's going to be a big part of the equation."
The combination of movement in the swing and advancing age would seem to conspire against Jeter. "There is some movement in his swing," Long says. "He's been able to hit like that for a long time. It's going to be harder [with age], there's no doubt about it, especially now that pitching is better than it's ever been."
Indeed, the return to prominence of pitching is yet another element complicating Jeter's days. The major league batting average (.252) and slugging average (.391) are the lowest they have been since 1992. Jeter is trying to revive his hitting as he ages in the toughest hitting environment of his career. Many other former All-Stars are struggling in the Great Runs Depression, including Ichiro Suzuki (.258), Jason Bay (.211), Chone Figgins (.189), Vernon Wells (.189), Dan Uggla (.183) and Adam Dunn (.180).
"Guys are coming out of the pen throwing hard, and the ball moves," says Long. "Derek and I have talked about it many a time. I asked him, 'How many straight fastballs did you used to see?' He said, 'Everybody had a straight fastball.' Nowadays no one does. So it's different. He's been able to adjust with the times pretty well. He doesn't get enough credit for that."
Jeter is a career .312 hitter, but only two shortstops 37 or older ever batted .300 in a season (Wagner and Luke Appling), and none since 1949. "I think he has another run in him," says former teammate David Cone. "I think once he gets to 3,000, the spotlight on the individual milestone—which he doesn't like—goes away. I think he's going to feel a sense of freedom once all that goes away, and I can see him hitting .300 again."
At his parents' home, Jeter keeps a collection of baseballs saved from milestone hits: his first, his 1,000th, the 2001 World Series Game 4 walk-off homer, the hit that broke the record for the most hits at the old Yankee Stadium and the hit that broke the franchise record for hits set by Lou Gehrig. It was upon reaching 1,000, in September 2000, that Jeter began to think about 3,000.
"I thought if you play long enough and you're consistent enough, I don't see why that would be out of reach," he says, "but I didn't set it as a goal. It was just sort of matter of fact. Like, you've got a thousand. You're a third of the way there. You've got to play for a long time and be consistent, but it's not out of the question. My mind says anything is possible."
So Jeter will get there with the same P72 model bat, the same inside-out swing and the same craving for simplicity. The milestone is the confirmation of the strength and success of his ways. But it gets complicated too. As Jeter approaches 37 and tries to recapture more of the doubles in the gaps and home runs into the rightfield seats, the quest for 3,000 becomes an Escher tessellation, in which at once Jeter is chasing history and history is chasing Jeter.
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JETER IS DEVOTED IN HIS GAME TO REFINING THE QUALITY THAT DA VINCI CALLED THE ULTIMATE SOPHISTICATION.
TO O'NEILL, JETER "IS AN EXAMPLE OF TAKING SOMETHING YOU DO THAT IS GOOD AND MAKING IT GREAT."
LIFE AFTER 3,000
Jeter could become the third-youngest player to join the 3K club. Here's are the ages at which the other members hit the milestone and how many hits they had afterward.
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
CAP ANSON | AGE: 45 year, 92 days 81
HONUS WAGNER | 40,105 415
NAP LAJOIE | 39,22 242
TY COBB | 34,244 1,191
TRIS SPEAKER | 37,43 514
EDDIE COLLINS | 38,32 315
PAUL WANER | 39,64 152
STAN MUSIAL | 37,173 630
HANK AARON | 36,101 771
WILLIE MAYS | 39,73 283
ROBERTO CLEMENTE | 38,43 0
AL KALINE | 39,279 7
PETE ROSE | 37,21 1,256
LOU BROCK | 40,56 23
CARL YASTRZEMSKI | 40,21 419
ROD CAREW | 39,307 53
ROBIN YOUNT | 36,359 142
GEORGE BRETT | 39,138 154
DAVE WINFIELD | 41,348 110
EDDIE MURRAY | 39,126 255
PAUL MOLITOR | 40,25 319
TONY GWYNN | 39,89 141
WADE BOGGS | 41,53 10
CAL RIPKEN JR. | 39,235 184
RICKEY HENDERSON | 42,286 55
RAFAEL PALMEIRO | 40,294 20
CRAIG BIGGIO | 41,196 60
Photograph by CHUCK SOLOMON
MONUMENT ARC His contract fight and plate struggles have brought Jeter intense scrutiny, but Cone expects his ex-mate to rediscover his mojo after he reaches 3,000.
DIAMOND IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES
MAN OF STEADY HABITS Jeter has always used the same model bat, from the day he reported to the Yankees in 1992 (left) to his chase this year for 3,000.
[See caption above]
NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY COOPERSTOWN,N.Y. (ANSON)
TONY TRIOLO (CLEMENTE)
NEIL LEIFER (ROSE)
CHUCK SOLOMON (YOUNT)
TOM DIPACE (MOLITOR)
BOB ROSATO (BIGGIO)
CHUCK SOLOMON (JETER)
KEEPING IT TIGHT Jeter's inside-out swing has helped him wait on pitches—and approach 3,000 at an unusually young age.
SHORT LIST Jeter will become only the second player to reach the 3,000-hit milestone while still playing shortstop: Honus Wagner is the other.