The countdown to 3,000 hits resumed Monday night in Cleveland, and Derek Jeter went 0-for-4. What’s being branded as “DJ3K” is occurring now in greater earnest than it did before Jeter pulled up lame with a strained calf and landed on the disabled list on June 13. He’ll be the first Yankee to reach the milestone, and of all the great moments in his career, this may be the singular event that speaks to his consistency and longevity. He certainly didn’t “hang on” in an attempt to achieve this personal benchmark.
And he has handled the march to inevitability in a way that has stayed true to his professional mantra: as vanilla as possible.
The interesting thing about Jeter’s career is that as integral as he has been to the team’s success, in games when he’s reached personal milestones, the team lost. And in games where “Jeter was being Jeter,” giving maximum effort and playing his customary brand of instinctive baseball, and getting hurt in the process, they won.
I covered the game on May 26, 2006, against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium when he got his 2,000th hit. He reached first base on an infield nubber that was misplayed. According to multiple newspaper reports, even Jeter’s mother thought it was an error. The decision can’t be called into question now. The Yankees lost the game. Afterward, he gave his typical “It’s a nice accomplishment, we lost, I don’t care about stats” speech. Ho-hum.
The Yankees also lost the game against the Baltimore Orioles when he broke Lou Gehrig’s team record for hits. At least No. 2,722 was a no-doubter. Same speech. Yawn.
The two moments I immediately think of when I’m asked about Derek Jeter occurred in games the Yankees won.
1) Opening Day 2003, in Toronto. The Ken Huckaby collision. It wasn’t a dirty play, it was incidental contact. With one out and the Blue Jays employing an extreme shift with Jason Giambi at the plate, Jeter, always a great base runner, tried to catch the Jays napping. The description of the play, from eNotes:
Giambi hit a soft grounder to the pitcher, Roy Halladay, who threw to first baseman Carlos Delgado for an out. Jeter, seeing Toronto out of position, rounded second and ran to third. Huckaby ran up the line to cover third and fielded Delgado’s throw. Jeter dived headfirst into the bag, while Huckaby attempted to catch the baseball and block Jeter from reaching third. In do so, Huckaby fell onto Jeter; his shin guard driving into his shoulder.
The Yankees won the game and proceeded to start 20-5. In all, they went 26-11 without him, and went 3-11 in their first 14 games upon his return.
2) July 1, 2004, at Yankee Stadium, against the Red Sox. Depending on your perspective, it’s the “game where Jeter broke his face” after going head over heels into the stands to catch a Trot Nixon pop-up in the top of the 12th inning. The Yankees won that game also. The image of Jeter walking off the field, clutching his lip and his face swollen, is one that endures. I covered that game, too. It’s the greatest regular season game I’ve ever seen. We’re not allowed to root in the press box, and in particular, the YES booth, where I was situated. Those of us in the booth may not have been rooting, but we did not suppress our emotions and baseball fandom in that moment.
So where does that leave us now? The Yankees went 14-4 without him and won seven of eight prior to Jeter’s return. They’ve built a lead over the Red Sox and are in the hunt for the best record in baseball with the Phillies. They’ve adjusted to life without Jeter and the distraction of the four-digit elephant in the dugout. Is the current leg of the pursuit and his place in the lineup more of a distraction than an asset? If so, it’ll be consistent with the way these moments have gone throughout Derek Jeter’s career.
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]