Cal Ripken Jr. is watching closely as Derek Jeter enters Thursday's home game against the Chicago White Sox needing one hit to tie him for 14th place on the all-time hits list with No. 3,184.
What impresses the Hall of Famer the most about the Yankees' captain is how he is getting to that next milestone on the hit charts. Jeter turned 38 on Tuesday and leads the American League with 95 hits -- still jump-throwing from shortstop like he did in his prime.
"When you're getting up in age, you're still scrutinized, at a higher level, but you can't be there just on reputation," Ripken said Wednesday. "The problem with some players, when you look at Jeter, you're comparing him now to a younger Derek Jeter, instead of looking at him now and saying, 'Would I want a winning shortstop on my team like him who makes all the right decisions?' Of course you would. Just look at his value now rather than comparing to earlier.
"I often laughed when you had Randy Johnson late in his career, people talking about his fastball coming down, and he was still hitting 93 or 94 [mph]. You'd put that pitching line down and if someone asked if you would still be happy with that line on your team, I think you'd be ecstatic. Sometimes it's unfair when we compare a guy like Jeter to his younger self. There was so much talk last year about losing range and maybe declining at his position. I'm sure he internalized last year, worked harder in the offseason.
"You don't hear any talk about that now and just based on what he is doing, you don't think about his age. He's a fantastic player and has been fantastic for a long time."
Ripken's 3,184th hit was a line-drive single to left off Frank Castillo of the Red Sox, and it came at the age of 41, two games before his finale. At the rate Jeter is going, he may penetrate well into the career top 10. Next up will be Nap Lajoie, who was 41 when he collected No. 3,242 -- the next target.
Ripken played in 21 seasons for Baltimore, an All-Star selection in the final 19 of those. Jeter is in his 18th season for New York, and based on voting totals is a lock to have Ripken discussing his 13th All-Star selection when the Iron Man is in the studio for Sunday's 2012 All-Star Game Selection Show presented by Taco Bell, at 1 p.m. ET on TBS.
Ripken's studio partner for that broadcast, eight-time All-Star John Smoltz, shared in the amazement over what Jeter has been doing for a Yankees club that has baseball's best record.
"I'm a big believer that age is just a number," Smoltz said. "Sometimes we get too carried away. Each player gets to a point in the career where things diminish. [Jeter] has a lot of pride. I know there was that contract situation. He has basically lived up to everything you think of when you think of Derek Jeter. He's still a leader, he's still a pest at the plate, still plays his position. The Yankees are being rewarded from a guy who doesn't rest on his laurels."
One day down the road, there is a very good chance Ripken and Jeter will be mentioned in the same breath again. At the 2007 Hall of Fame Induction festivities -- with fellow one-teamer Tony Gwynn also being enshrined -- Orioles fans poured into upstate New York and shattered the Cooperstown induction attendance records. There was speculation that week that one active player has a chance to surpass that year's Hall crowds, thanks to massive nearby fan base, and right now he is one hit away from tying Ripken on the all-time list.