Since he joined the Yankees in the latter stages of the 1995 season, a handsome 21-year-old rookie assigned a uniform number (2) that immediately put him in the single-digit company of franchise legends, Derek Jeter has been in the public eye. The most famous player on the most famous team in the hemisphere, front and center in baseball’s marketing campaigns and Nike’s sneaker ads, he has performed day in and day out in New York, New York. What’s more, his career coincides with the Information Age; his rise mirrors the explosion of our collective bandwidth.
Oddly, though, impressions of Jeter—who recorded his three-thousandth hit on Saturday—have rarely been byte-sized. His playing style, lacking elaborate theatrics or excessive verticality, is somewhat ill-suited to the “SportsCenter” age. He became the latest exemplar of how baseball, with its rhythms set to the long drags of seasons and their meandering summer evenings of games, prizes sustained competence as much as momentary brilliance. His career has always been depicted more aptly with the broad strokes of a purple-prose portrait than in the miniature sonic boom of a highlight reel.
Jeter had an orbit with some gravity, the baseball rhapsodists concluded, and he was lauded for his highly respected leadership of a sequence of five World Series-winning teams, a special tuning to the subtler frequencies on the skill-set dial (collectively known as “doing the little things”), a Madison Avenue-ready smile, and an apparent agreement with baseball’s implicit expectation of upright character. His critics countered that his worth as a ballplayer became woefully inflated by the journalistic platitudes. While occupying one of American society’s most glamorous roles, to many working-stiff fans, Jeter’s quiet professionalism and steady acumen nevertheless seemed relatable, admirable. Boston Red Sox fans just loathed the sight of him.
In this manner, Jeter became the player of this generation who best transcended the sport’s numbers infatuation. Even as the recent popularization of advanced statistical analysis, or sabermetrics, served to glorify baseball’s prodigious data matrices, he drew recognition for his unquantifiable attributes. He didn’t have the highest batting average or the most home runs or the fewest errors. The adjectival version of his name—Jeterian—most commonly refers to a single by a right-handed hitter to right field, among the game’s most rudimentary, prosaic feats. He did not have a few handy stats, the kind that baseball devotees are fond of reciting like chapter and verse, to attach to his name as did Yankees greats before him: Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, Lou Gehrig’s iron-man run of 2,130 consecutive games, Roger Maris’s 61 homers in 1961. So, for years, though the entire time he was compiling stats, hit upon hit, out upon out (and here is where some have suggested the three-thousandth hit will fill a void), the numeric row on the keyboard, when composing Jeter paeans, has been wholly optional.
None of this, of course, is to suggest Jeter is short of an athletic marvel; he is about as big and powerful as you can be while playing shortstop, the position with the most nimble requirements, with fluency. Nor is it to suggest that his designation as a kind of Mr. Intangible, an ultimate Captain, obscured the favorable lines of the statistical spreadsheet; he will go down, in the fantasied leather-bound ledger where such things are recorded, even to those who justly have presented data to debunk the overestimation of Jeter’s on-field value, as the best-hitting true shortstop in baseball history not named Honus Wagner.
Nor, finally, is it to suggest that Jeter did not produce his share of postcard moments before this weekend. There was the line drive shepherded over the Yankee Stadium fence for a home run by teenage fan Jeffrey Maier during the 1996 American League playoffs. There was the headlong dive into the stands to catch a foul pop during a July game against the rival Red Sox, from which he emerged, ball in glove, face bloodied, reputation for hustle and effort unquestionably secured. And there was the home run just after midnight in the Bronx to win a game begun on October 31, 2001, a replay always tinged with the heartbreaking recollection that it was the first World Series to linger into November because the baseball calendar was delayed by the calamity that struck the city that September just a few miles south, where some wreckage still smoldered.
But the canonical Jeter moment, to the baseball sophisticate, is a play known as The Flip, an underhanded relay to the plate from one-third of the way up the first-base line to secure a crucial tag out during a playoff game against the Oakland A’s. It was no sultanic swat, no stopwatch sprint, no acrobatic catch. It was a simple sideways toss, of no more than 30 feet, physically unremarkable, except: Who else would be so intuitive, ranging widely from his customary position in anticipation of a laggard outfield throw? Who else would be so in touch with those mystical messages that are transmitted to born winners? It was baseball, through Jeter, reminding viewers of its capacity to reveal new subtleties at any moment, like some new design on the wings of the emergent butterfly.
Now I’m getting carried away, and you can see how they do it, baseball writers, myth-makers of Homeric aptitude. Unlike some others in the three-thousandth-hit company, say a Robin Yount, or an otherwise forgotten pre-World War II standout like Paul Waner, reaching the numerical benchmark adds little to Jeter’s luster because he has already been polished so clean.
GETTING TO 3,000 hits may best be characterized as a feat of permanence, survival, and excellence in a mercilessly results-based profession for upwards of 15 years. Jeter outlasted baseball’s so-called Steroid Era, as the game’s brain trust ignored, then decried, then eliminated (if you take their word for it) the rascally scourge of performance-enhancing drugs from their midst. Jeter was pre-boom and post-bubble, outlasting the bigger-is-better, home-run ethos that prevailed on ballfields and corporate balance sheets. A line-drive single was something fading from fashion in 1995 that has returned to vogue, like flannel shirts and Newt Gingrich (kidding!). But who among us, in the Jeter retrospective, needs to be reminded that he’s still here?
We have been made constantly aware of Jeter’s presence on ESPN tickers, on tabloid back pages and above broadsheet folds, on talk radio and in the slippery celebrity rags, nearly since Day 1, Hit 1. Yet, throughout it all, Jeter’s public persona is a cipher. He’s a blank canvas of sorts, carefully scrubbed, but perhaps that is what is required to persevere as a major Sports Star these days. In upwards of 15 years operating out of the media capital of the world, he has not produced a single memorable sound bite. We know he has dated a slew of gorgeous women, but the rest of the romances are left to the immodest imagination. He remains inscrutable, showing little vulnerability or emotion, guarding his inner self as if behind the ramparts of the walled compound he has constructed in Florida. And he has remained standing, while the other North American sporting icons of his generation have been leveled by drug accusations or rape allegations or Letterman-fodder infidelities or nationally televised pageants of hubris.
If 3,000 hits is not an inherently significant number, then, it does function as a lens to examine those baseball fixtures who reach the fabled cutoff. But, in appraising Derek Jeter, with whom even the most casual sports fan is familiar and from whom even the most ardent Yankeeographer might feel distanced, the lens runs the danger of becoming one of those fun-house mirrors. Instead of seeing the superstar shortstop lining another single to right field, leaping and turning in the air to throw to first, or quietly pumping a fist to celebrate a Yankees victory, you see yourself, wearing a quizzical expression, trying to figure how much of the Jeter mythos is rooted in fact, and how much is merely projected onto him.
Jonathan Lehman is a sports writer and editor from New York City.