"I don't think you can script it any better. This is already movie-ready." — Joe Girardi, Yankees manager
"If I would have tried to have written it and given it to someone — I wouldn't even have bought it, to be quite honest with you." — Derek Jeter
One thing that has typified Derek Jeter's 17-season major league career has been his mastery of the big moment, his ability to rise to the occasion when the spotlight is shining most brightly. The "Mr. November" home run in the 2001 World Series, the Jeremy Giambi flip play in that year's Division Series, the dive into the seats to catch a ball during a midsummer contest against the Red Sox in 2004, the .309/.377/.472 line he's compiled in 147 postseason games spread out over 14 runs through October, five of them culminating in world championships… the list goes on. Saturday afternoon, facing the Rays in front of a sellout crowd of 48,103 at Yankee Stadium, the 37-year-old shortstop added to the lore, producing a performance that will rank among his signature moments, one far out of context from the struggles that have typified his season.
Standing just two hits away from his 3,000th hit, with just two games to go before the All-Star break thanks to a somewhat controversial rainout the night before — the Yankees' final two home games until July 22 — Jeter wasted little time on Saturday in reaching the milestone. Facing David Price in the bottom of the first inning, he battled seven four-seam fastballs to a full count before chopping a clean single between third baseman Evan Longoria and shortstop Reid Brignac for hit number 2,999. The Yankee Stadium crowd erupted with the loudest ovation this reporter has heard since the team moved from "The House That Ruth Built" across the street two and a half seasons ago.
The Yankees trailed 1-0 by the time Jeter came up with one out in the bottom of the third inning, the Rays' Matt Joyce having interrupted an otherwise stellar opening foray by A.J. Burnett with a drive that must have cleared the 4 train platform beyond right field. Again he battled Price to a 3-2 count, this time with the Rays' ace southpaw mixing in his offspeed stuff. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Price hung a curveball, and Jeter drilled it into the left field bleachers for a home run. It was just his third homer of the season, his first since May 8 in Texas, when he hit two, and his first at home since last July 22, a span of 323 plate appearances.
"I don't believe what I just saw," tweeted the New York Times' Tyler Kepner, echoing the legendary Jack Buck's call of Kirk Gibson's 1988 World Series home run. Yours truly came up with something considerably less printable, though hardly out of character; what can I say, other than that I was staying within myself and trying not to do to much? Having watched hundreds of those hits in person from the stands as a fan — to say nothing of the thousands I have watched on television — it was nonetheless not all that difficult to substitute my clap-clap-clap for the press box-approved tap-tap-tap on my laptop, as this ain't my first rodeo. I will concede to silently getting a little verklempt while smiling throughout the on-field celebration, when the Yankee dugout and bullpen emptied to congratulate Jeter, holding up play for several minutes; Jorge Posada greeed him at home plate with a bear hug, and every other player, coach and member of the support staff within the vicinity hugged him as well. Then it was back to work for all of us.
In clearing the wall, Jeter joined celebrated slugger (and former teammate and noted equestrian) Wade Boggs as just the second player to reach 3,000 via the longball. As noted previously, he became the 28th player to reach the 3,000 hit plateau, the 11th to do so with a single team, and the second to do so while still playing shortstop; Honus Wagner was the first, while Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr. had moved to other positions by the time they reached 3,000. Just 13 days past his 37th birthday, he became the fourth-youngest player ever to join the club, behind Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, and Yount, and just ahead of Pete Rose. His career most certainly didn't need this embellishment to qualify as Cooperstown-worthy, but there he is, hanging with the immortals.
It is fitting that Jeter became the first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Mickey Mantle have the home runs, Joe DiMaggio the 56-game hitting streak, Yogi Berra the three MVP awards, the record of 10 World Series rings, and of course the quotes. Whether by numbers or by legend, Jeter doesn't quite match up with those guys. His spot on the pinstriped equivalent of Mount Rushmore is marked by the day-in, day-out persistence it takes to achieve such a number.
Jeter didn't stop at 3,000, either. By the time the dust had settled on the afternoon, he had collected five hits for just the third time in his career, and the first time since June 21, 2005. He's not the first player to pass 3,000 in such a burst; Craig Biggio, the last man to reach the milestone, did so in 2007. Jeter's fifth-inning leadoff double sparked a two-run rally that put the Yankees ahead 4-3, and put him in a position to hit for the cycle for the first time in his career. A sixth-inning single went for naught, as Curtis Granderson struck out after Jeter and Brett Gardner had pulled off a double steal to put two runners in scoring position. After reliever David Robertson surrendered the game-tying run in the eighth inning, Eduardo Nunez — starting at third base in place of the injured Alex Rodriguez after filling in so ably enough during Jeter's recent stint on the disabled list — ripped a leadoff double down the left field line against Joel Peralta.
A Gardner sacrifice bunt sent Nunez to third. Up came Jeter, the crowd on its feet once again, asking for one more hit but not daring to expect one. Jeter fell behind Peralta, but dribbled a 1-2 splitter up the middle, just to the left of second base — his least convincing hit of the afternoon — to plate the go-ahead run. You gotta be kidding.
For all of Jeter's efforts, the game was not won yet, and it fell to Mariano Rivera to close it out. While normally having the greatest closer of all time would count as money in the bank, the 41-year-old Rivera hadn't pitched since last Sunday, when he blew a save against the Mets and then remained sidelined by a sore triceps that led him to withdraw from the AL All-Star roster. Despite any anxieties about his fitness, Rivera struck out Sean Rodriguez looking, then used 400-some feet of center field real estate and the nimble legs of Granderson to retire Kelly Shoppach on a long flyball. Finally, he induced a routine grounder to Nunez to seal the victory, thus placing a bow on Jeter's extraordinary afternoon.
The venerable closer was certainly aware of what was at stake, knowing that another failure would dim the luster of a memorable afternoon for a player who has always emphasized team goals ahead of personal ones. "I don't want to tell you what was going through my mind," said Rivera after the game. "[This was] the first time that I pitched after Sunday when I got a little sore. Being in this situation, well, it put a little bit more pressure, a little bit more."
Jeter, of course, concurred. "It would have been really, really awkward to be out there doing interviews and waving to the crowd if we would have lost, so that was going through my head in my last at-bat there. After I hit the home run, I really tried not to think about 3,000 hits anymore and tried to focus on how we can win this game. If we didn't win, it would have definitely put a damper on things."
The normally unflappable Yankee Captain admitted that he felt pressure to get the 3000th hit in the Bronx. "I've been lying to you guys saying I wasn't nervous and there was no pressure. There was a lot of pressure to do it here… I don't know if you guys [the media] bought it when I told you, but after we got rained out, I was asked a question and I tried not to answer it. I was like, 'Damn, now we've only got two games.'"
He conceded that his first-inning hit took much of the pressure off, and admitted to having changed his approach as he neared the milestone. "It was a 3-2 pitch," he said of Price's first-inning fastball. "He could have thrown it in the dugout and I would have swung. I was not trying to walk. It's kind of a weird feeling, it's been like that for a few days. I tried not to have that approach but it was running through my head. So definitely after getting the first hit I was able to relax, because I think the first one is always the toughest one to get in a game."
For Jeter, the focus on his personal accomplishment ahead of the team has been a difficult one. "I'd rather the focus be on our team, but it's great our team has been winning. It's even better that we won today." Still, even he wasn't ready to completely downplay the significance of 3,000. "It's a number that's meant a lot in the history of the game, because not too many people have done it before. To be the only Yankee to do it — to be the only Yankee to do anything — is pretty special. If I was the leader in strikeouts, I'd be happy about it because so many people have played here."
The 5-for-5 performance lifted Jeter's season numbers to .270/.331/.354. After collecting just 12 extra-base hits in 62 games before going on the disabled list, he has five in five games since returning. His streak of four consecutive games with an extra-base hit is his first since May 2009. Unhappy with his first-half performance, he is looking forward to the second half. " I've felt good since I've been back but I can't change anything that's happened to this point," he said, noting that the time off may be helping his swing; the notorious opposite-field hitter pulled three of his five hits, including the homer. "I did a lot of work in Tampa. You can get a lot more work in when you don't have to play games. So I sort of look at it as a blessing in disguise."
I was supposed to attend Friday night's game, the washed-out one, as a fan. But sitting in the Yankee Stadium press box on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday afternoon, watching the entire tableau unfold as it did, felt like its own blessing in disguise. There are days that I love my job, and there are days that I LOVE MY JOB, and I'm grateful to have witnessed this small slice of history from the vantage point that I did.