Jeter's 3,000th hit boosts captain's legend
Future Hall of Famer hits milestone homer to join elite club in '11
NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter made a toss to the batboy near the Yankees' dugout, tapped each foot twice with his Louisville Slugger and stepped into the batters box -- an exercise he has more or less followed nearly 10,000 times in a big league uniform.
Bob Sheppard's recorded introduction of the captain played on a clear summer afternoon on July 9 at Yankee Stadium, prompting the crowd of 48,103 to pull out cameras and cell phones, and Jeter worked the count full against Rays left-hander David Price.
With both teams on the top step of their respective dugouts, the clock clicked to exactly 2 p.m. ET and Jeter connected, driving a 78-mph curveball over the left-field wall to enter the history books with a flourish.
"The thing that means the most to me," Jeter would reflect later, "is that I've been able to get all these hits in a Yankee uniform, and nobody's been able to do that before -- which is hard to believe."
Indeed, Jeter not only became the 28th member of the 3,000-hit club, but he was also the first to accomplish the feat wearing a Yankees uniform.
The Yankees had other 3,000-hit men pass through, with Wade Boggs, Rickey Henderson, Paul Waner and Dave Winfield making stops in the Bronx, but they logged the milestone with other teams. And no player had recorded his 3,000th at Yankee Stadium, old or new.
"The best thing for him is how he prepares himself, day in and day out," said Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. "He has done it for years. I am happy for him. He deserves it. And I hope he has another thousand or two more."
Who's going to tell him to stop? Jeter logged hits in all five at-bats that day against Tampa Bay -- including the game-winner in the eighth inning -- and the wonder of that afternoon hardly diminished as the Yankees went on to secure the American League East title.
From July 9 through the end of the season, Jeter batted .338 (90-for-266) with an .843 OPS, continuing a transformation that started when he returned from the disabled list in late June.
Jeter was batting just .260 when he strained his right calf on June 13. The time off helped Jeter reset, as he worked out at the Yankees' Tampa, Fla., facility and accepted key pointers from instructor Gary Denbo.
"You can get a lot more work in when you don't have to play games," Jeter said, "so I looked at it as a blessing in disguise."
Hitting coach Kevin Long noted this week that a Spring Training experiment to reduce Jeter's stride, in theory allowing him to better utilize the inside of the plate, never really worked out. Letting Jeter be Jeter turned out to be solid advice.
"I kind of just stayed out of his way [after June]," Long said. "It seemed like I was concentrating too much on his mechanics and trying to get everything square and more consistent. Sometimes that's not the best avenue. I think with Jeet, it was more, 'Let's just put him through his hitting drills and not focus so much on his mechanics.'"
Now, the Yankees wait with curiosity to see which Jeter 2012 will bring. The 37-year-old is heading into the second year of a three-year, $51 million deal, which includes a player option for 2014 that Jeter has already hinted he intends to pick up.
"To say that he's even close to done is not a fair assessment," Long said. "He's got a lot of game left. His body is holding up pretty good. His swing is still very, very efficient. He's still playing in the middle of the diamond. I'm sure he'll admit that he's probably slowed down a little bit, but the level that he's playing at is still very high."
Manager Joe Girardi said that there is no reason to consider any changes for '12 with Jeter. He will be New York's starting shortstop and, in all likelihood, its leadoff hitter as well.
"I don't think any of us could complain how Jeter played the last three months in the leadoff spot," Girardi said. "I expect him to be our leadoff guy."
Girardi added that one of his main concerns will be to keep a close eye on Jeter's health.
"Do I have a set number of games that I expect him to start at shortstop? No," Girardi said. "I might start him at DH one day to kind of give him a blow. I might do that. The big thing is to make sure he has life in his legs."
If Jeter's inside-out stroke continues punishing mistake pitches for years to come, more moments of glory seem probable. Jeter completed 2011 with 3,088 hits.
"He keeps chugging along," Long said. "What's he going to end up with? Let's say 3,500 to 4,000; that's pretty amazing, especially in this day and age. I think the pitching is outstanding these days, and he's still really putting together good at-bats."
Like that hard-fought plate appearance in the third inning against the Rays, which came 16 years, one month and nine days after hit No. 1, a single off Tim Belcher on May 30, 1995 at the Kingdome. Even in New York's spotlight, No. 3,000 lived up to the hype.
"I didn't want to hit a slow roller to third base and have it be replayed forever," Jeter said. "You just want to hit the ball hard and have a good at-bat. That's the only thing I was thinking about. I never envisioned what type of hit it would be. To me, all of them count."