Jeter on cusp of Yankees' hits record
Shortstop four shy of breaking Gehrig's franchise mark
Derek Jeter grew up worshipping the rich history of the Yankees, studying the championship rosters from seasons when flannel uniforms and sleeper cars were still considered the norms of big league life.
Four World Series titles and thousands of at-bats later, Jeter has worn the Yankees uniform with aplomb, not only starring as one of the franchise's modern-day talents, but earning his place in standing with the all-time greats.
Yet still somewhere within his 35-year-old frame is the young boy from Michigan who leafed through baseball biographies and followed his favorite club from afar. He may soon glance at the leaders for most hits in franchise history and spot his name ahead of Lou Gehrig's. That reality will be difficult to accept.
"It's not something that you sit around and think about, you know what I mean?" Jeter said. "I think that's something that you think about later on. While we're playing, I don't really get a chance to sit around and collect someone's place in history."
The statistics show that there is no debate that Jeter belongs. His name is as synonymous to the teams of the 1990s and this decade as Babe Ruth and Gehrig were to theirs, destined to someday share company in Monument Park with the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
Jeter boarded a charter flight from Toronto to New York late Sunday owning 2,718 hits in a Yankees uniform, needing just three more to tie Gehrig's final total of 2,721. Four hits will have Jeter eclipse the Iron Horse, standing alone and continuing to build upon a tally that quite possibly could never be shattered again.
"You're going to look at Derek Jeter's name and see him on top of the list of all the great Yankees players who have played," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You look at guys like Yogi [Berra] who come through the clubhouse, and Reggie [Jackson] and Whitey [Ford]. That's pretty unbelievable."
The company makes it all the more uncomfortable at times for Jeter, who has often said that personal accomplishments and achievements are not important when compared to team goals. For him, that is winning the World Series, the goal that fuels him from the first day of Spring Training to the last day of the season.
All-time Yankees hit leaders
|Derek Jeter is on the verge of surpassing Lou Gehrig and setting the record for most hits by a Yankee. Here are the top 10 Yankees leaders in hits.|
The attention surrounding an individual record, as hallowed as it may be, is glaring even to a media-tested superstar like Jeter. Yet his parents, Dr. Charles and Dorothy Jeter, have urged the 10-time All-Star to try to enjoy these events as each one passes.
"It's always been hard, just because we're trying to win games, so that's the only thing I think about," Jeter said. "If and when this comes about, then maybe I'll try to enjoy it for a minute."
Jeter's use of the word "if" only further belies his nature. Already having eclipsed Mantle's 8,102 at-bats, Jeter's .317 career batting average ranks fifth on New York's ledger, behind Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Earle Combs.
He needs 28 steals to break Rickey Henderson's club stolen base record and he could break Mantle's record for most games played near the end of the 2011 season. In short, he has had the type of career worth celebrating, yet finds it awkward to do so.
Team-by-team hit leaders
|Here is a look at the hit leaders for all 30 Major League clubs, through games of Sept. 11, 2009:|
|Red Sox||Carl Yastrzemski*||3,419|
|Orioles||Cal Ripken Jr.*||3,184|
|White Sox||Luke Appling*||2,749|
|Blue Jays||Tony Fernandez||1,583|
|* Member of the Hall of Fame|
"It's not in his nature, at all," said David Cone, a former teammate and current YES Network broadcaster. "Jeter has always been about the next at-bat, the next game, putting things behind you and moving on. Keeping your eye on the ball, so to speak. I can understand why his family is telling him to stop and enjoy this a little bit, because this is a pretty remarkable achievement."
"I sure hope he can appreciate it," teammate Johnny Damon adds. "It's a big thing, being the Yankees' all-time hits leader. He's not into all the stats except possibly winning another world championship, but it's a tremendous feat he's coming up to. He'd rather have a fifth ring, but I think when the season is over or when his career is over, he will appreciate it."
Certainly, Jeter's monumental moment will be a happier tale than that of Gehrig's 2,721st hit, coming just before he benched himself with fading skills on May 2, 1939, unaware that the degenerative disease to bear his name was ravaging his muscular body.
His life marked by grace, courage and a farewell speech that still resonates among the greatest in American history, Gehrig would pass away by June 1941, just shy of his 38th birthday. It is a time when Jeter expects to be continuing his march toward 3,000 hits and Cooperstown, while still playing shortstop for the Yankees.
"I know a little bit, just from being a fan of the Yankees growing up," Jeter said. "The thing with [Gehrig] is consistency. He went out there and played every day and was consistent. Sometimes that's something that gets overlooked, but it's hard to do. I think that's the thing that stands out the most with him."
Jonathan Eig, author of a critically acclaimed 2005 Gehrig biography titled "Luckiest Man," believes that Gehrig would not have only approved of Jeter's upcoming standing atop the hits list, but would have considered Jeter a worthy successor of the Yankees captainship.
"I think Gehrig would have loved Jeter -- personally and professionally," Eig said. "Gehrig didn't have a lot of friends, but I suspect Jeter's the kind of guy Lou would have invited home to have dinner with the folks. And he certainly would have been proud to see Jeter step in as captain and handle the job so gracefully."
Despite their differing eras, Eig was able to draw parallels between Gehrig and Jeter, citing their shared obsession with winning and leading by example.
"[Gehrig] wasn't one to holler at teammates or criticize anyone in public," Eig said. "But he carried himself in a classy, professional way -- entirely different from Babe Ruth -- and the younger players followed him. DiMaggio was hugely influenced by Gehrig's quiet leadership. I think a case can be made that the entire Yankee image or calm, cool, ruthless competitiveness can be traced directly to Gehrig.
"And Jeter fits the mold perfectly -- better than any player since DiMaggio. Jeter and Gehrig had a great deal in common. They were quiet off the field. They avoided scandal. They played for the team first and for individual records second. They performed brilliantly in the clutch. And they were winners."
Along with George Steinbrenner, Jeter has done as much as anyone since 1996 to fuel the notion that a Yankees October without a championship is akin to a lost season. Perhaps therein lies one major difference between Gehrig and Jeter.
"Gehrig was not entirely unconcerned with his numbers," Eig said. "He loved the consecutive game streak and nurtured it proudly. And he wanted badly to be the league's leader in RBIs each year. He was a fierce competitor above all, and, let's face it, numbers are one more way of competing.
"He wanted as many records as he could get, and though Jeter might be too modest to admit it, I'm sure he's proud of topping Gehrig's record for hits. And he should be."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.