07/12/11 - 03:23pm
Nineteen years ago on the west coast of Florida, an 18-year-old kid with the body of a corn stalk and no clue about the adventure that was ahead of him began his career as a professional baseball player.
He was a shortstop from Kalamazoo, Mich. a small city east of Lake Michigan situated between Paw Paw and Climax, a place known mostly for being a stop on the Underground Railroad and being featured in the title of a Glenn Miller song ("I've Got a Girl in Kalamazoo"), and producing a big-league ballplayer every hundred years or so.
Jeter hit .508 in his senior year at Kalamazoo Central - and struck out only once. In his rookie ball opener, the Yankees played a doubleheader in Sarasota against the White Sox. Jeter went 0-for-7 and struck out five times. He would wind up hitting .202 for the season, or 147 points behind the Gulf Coast League batting champion, Johnny Damon.
The Yankees don't worry about statistics in rookie ball; the whole point is just getting acclimated to playing in the pros. Denbo saw Jeter's insatiable work ethic - Jeter and teammate Ricky Ledee were the two kids who took more BP than anybody else - but admits that he had no real read on Jeter's ultimate potential.
A few years later, in big-league camp, then-Yankee coach and former All-Star second baseman Willie Randolph was struck by how comfortable Jeter seemed with himself, how he looked as though he belonged. Randolph had no doubt Jeter would be in the big leagues before long. You ask Randolph what sort of offensive player he thought Jeter would grow into.
Two decades later, Derek Jeter has completed his push for precisely that. Jeter, who turned 37 on June 26, has forged an iconic career out of lunchpail durability, big-time performances, and batting nearly 1.000 in the saying-and-doing-the-right-thing department.
Jeter never preens or plays to the cameras to make you know how great he is. He just plays, plays hard and smart, and then smacks another ball into right field.
Lowe pitches for the Atlanta Braves these days, but he spent eight years in the heat of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, and of course was the man who shut down the Yankees in Game 7 when the Red Sox completed their historic comeback from an 0-3 hole in the 2004 ALCS. Lowe has personally given up 21 of Jeter's hits, in 73 at-bats, so he knows whereof he speaks.
"To me, Derek Jeter is along the same lines as Greg Maddux was as a pitcher. He's not a power guy," said Lowe. "Not a Barry Bonds fearful guy. He's a guy who will just find ways to outsmart you, again and again. Maddux could figure out how to get a guy out by how he took a pitch. Jeter is the same way - always thinking. He is a winner - and there's a lot to be said for that."
Exactly how did Derek Jeter, skinny kid from Kalamazoo, get to 3,000 hits? Follow him along the way.
Hit No. 1
Date: May 30, 1995
Pitcher: Tim Belcher
Tim Belcher was a sturdy righthander who pitched in both leagues and won 146 games, and had a habit. Belcher, a former No. 1 pick of the Yankees himself, was a meticulous note-taker and diary-keeper, writing down thoughts and observations after every start. In Jeter's second big-league game - he'd gone 0-for-5 in the opener the night before after getting called up from Columbus - Belcher struck him out looking in the top of the second.
The Yankees asked for the ball and got it. Later, Jeter hit a fastball up the middle for Hit No. 2, out of the ninth hole. Afterward Belcher wrote, "Kid's not Babe Ruth. Pound him in, go up the ladder," though he came to amend his opinion in short order.
"Appears to be more able to get to the ball inside," said Belcher, who would strike Jeter out twice in a victory over the Yankees 10 days later. Soon the advantage would swing to Jeter, who had a .360 career average (9-for-25) against Belcher. Belcher believes being surrounded by so many potent hitters and seeing many more pitches as a result aided Jeter's cause tremendously, but he came to appreciate Jeter's adaptability and willingness to learn.
"He's a great situational hitter. He's going to do whatever the situation calls for. Like all great hitters, you can't do any one thing too often against him."
Belcher was right: the kid wasn't Babe Ruth. But he never wanted to be.
Hit No. 500
Date: July 20, 1998
Pitcher: Bryce Florie
Site: Yankee Stadium
They played eight hours and 35 minutes of baseball at the Stadium on this Monday night, a doubleheader that began with a 17-inning opener that went for nearly six hours, before the Tigers' Joe Randa drove in the winning run off the seventh Yankee pitcher, Darren Holmes.
The last of the hits came off Tigers starter Bryce Florie, who would find himself in headlines, and film clips, for a far more catastrophic reason two years later, after his cheekbone and eye socket were crushed by a line drive off the bat of the Yankees' Ryan Thompson. Florie's career ended a year later.
For Jeter, the night's final hit, a single, was No. 500. It came in his 413th big-league game, and it was a milestone for Paul Bako, too. Bako was the Tigers' rookie catcher. He caught the last 12 innings of Game 1 after starting catcher Raul Casanova got injured, and all of Game 2.
"As a rookie getting to play for the first time at Yankee Stadium. I wasn't going to complain," Bako said.
Bako said the Tigers' plan against Jeter was to get him out with stuff low and away, the thinking being that he was so adept at keeping his hands inside the ball, fisting pitches the other way, that he would be vulnerable on the outside corner.
"He'd kind of run out of bat if you put the pitch in the right place," Bako says. "That was the thinking. But there weren't many places to go to get him out. When he was going right, having normal Derek Jeter at-bats that he's been having for 15 or 20 years, you had a very small margin for error."
Nobody needs to remind Florie of that; Jeter had six hits in 11 at-bats against him. Juan Gonzalez, Frank Thomas and Derek Jeter were the toughest hitters he ever had to face, Florie once told a reporter.
Hit No. 1,000
Date: Sept. 25, 2000
Pitcher: Steve Sparks
Site: Yankee Stadium
At the end of the 2000 regular season, the Yankees - two-time defending world champions - were a team in a horrific downward spiral. They lost 13 of their last 15 games, including their last seven - a stretch in which they were outscored, 68-15.
You never would've known it to see Derek Jeter against the Tigers in the Bronx where Dwight Gooden and a succession of relievers were getting rocked in a 15-4 defeat, and Jeter was picking up his 1,000th hit in the bottom of the fifth against knuckleballer Steve Sparks, running hard to first on a bouncer to third, and beating the play when Tigers third baseman Dean Palmer couldn't field it cleanly. The score was 9-3 at the time.
When the milestone went up on the scoreboard, Jeter got a big ovation. Sparks smiled to himself; he had a son who was reading Jeter's newly published autobiography and rated him as his favorite player. The father was not far behind.
Through Jeter's first few years in the American League, Sparks wondered if Jeter was more lucky than good. "He hit me really well, but a lot of the hits were ugly - soft balls over the first baseman's head, or six-hoppers through the shortstop hole," Sparks says. "But he kept doing it and kept doing it, to me and everybody else, and I soon realized it wasn't the product of luck, but of a tremendous approach."
Jeter hit .417 (15-for-36) against Sparks, who took note of how Jeter would try to get pitchers to change how they attacked him. According to Sparks, the best way to go at Jeter was to throw him down and in - come up and in early in the count, then get him out late by going down and in. Jeter's response was turning and driving balls to left - just enough to discourage guys from coming inside.
"He was good at messing up scouting reports," Sparks says. To Sparks, the ultimate proof of Jeter's cerebral approach to the game came in Game 3 of the 2001 playoffs against the Oakland A’s, when Jeter made his now-fabled flip, sprinting from shortstop to the foul territory beyond the first-base line, scooping up Shane Spencer’s air-mailed throw and shoveling it to Jorge Posada, who tagged out Jeremy Giambi
"That was the No. 1 instinctual play I've ever seen," Sparks says. "Maybe it wasn't the flashiest play, but to be so into the game to do that, to be in that spot at that time, you realize the caliber of the guy you are competing against."
Hit No. 1,500
Date: Aug. 16, 2003
Pitcher: Pat Hentgen
Site: Camden Yards
Jeter hit in the third slot in 35 games in 2003, more than any other year in his career. One of the occasions came on a hot Saturday night in Baltimore, four and a half months after Jeter's season began in Toronto with the worst injury of his career, a dislocated shoulder caused when he tried to go from first to third on a Jason Giambi groundout and wound up slamming head first into the shinguard of Blue Jay catcher Ken Huckaby who hustled to cover third and dove into Jeter to apply the tag.
Jeter would miss six weeks. When Huckaby, a minor-league lifer, went to the Yankee clubhouse two days later to apologize, Jeter refused to speak to him.
Against the Orioles, Jeter was batting behind Alfonso Soriano and Nick Johnson, facing righthander Pat Hentgen, who won the AL Cy Young award in Jeter's rookie year (1996), and was thoroughly familiar with the danger Jeter presented, even without the power of the prototypical No. 3 hitter.
"The biggest thing was keeping him off the bases, because of the 4-5-6 guys in that lineup. Jeter, as great as he is, benefited from the lineup around him."
When he first saw Jeter in '96, Hentgen was impressed with his quickness, arm strength and lateral range afield, and sought to test him at the plate.
"You are attacking him the way you would any rookie," Hentgen says. "That was my first instinct: make him hit the ball. Come at him and see what he's got." Pat Hentgen got his answer without much delay; Jeter hit .378 off of him (14-for-37) in his career.
Hit No. 2,000
Date: May 26, 2006
Pitcher: Scott Elarton
Site: Yankee Stadium
Scott Elarton, a 6-7 righthander, was taken in the first round of the 1994 draft by the Astros, two years after the club had the No. 1 pick and passed on Jeter (a decision that so incensed Hal Newhouser, the Hall of Fame pitcher and longtime scout who tracked Jeter, that he retired from baseball on the spot). Elarton was nearing the end of a 10-year career when he took the Stadium mound for the woeful Royals, who had won just 10 of their first 45 games.
Pitching against Mike Mussina, Elarton took a 3-0 lead against the Yankees into the bottom of the fourth.
"It was probably the ugliest of his (3,000) hits," Bako says. Elarton wasn't sure if he agreed with the official scorer.
"I guess if anybody deserves hometown scoring, it's him," Elarton says. "He's one of the all-time greats. I'm not going to hang my head over giving up his 2,000th hit."
To Elarton, Jeter's offensive genius was how "he would tempt you to come inside to him, the way he'd stand off the plate and kind of dive into the ball.
"He invites you in there, and a lot of guys think they can get him in there, and he's gotten a boatload of hits from guys doing just that," Elarton says. "A lot of times I'd think I'd have him set up for something in, and tell myself, ‘Now's the time I can sneak one in there.' And it never was the time."
Jeter had five hits in 15 at-bats against Elarton overall, the first of them coming at Jacobs Field, a first-inning home run when Elarton was pitching for the Indians in 2004.
It happened to be the 1,000th run of Jeter's career. It was the only home run Jeter would hit off Elarton, and the pitcher, who speaks of Jeter with near-reverence, may have respected that most of all.
Hit No. 2,500
Date: Aug. 22, 2008
Pitcher: Radhames Liz
Site: Camden Yards
Jeter thus joined Babe Ruth and Lou Gerhig as the only Yankees to get to 2,500 hits, not that he was exactly gushing over it. After the game someone asked him if this got him thinking about the next milestone.
"Yeah, 2,501," Jeter said. "That's what I'll be thinking about Wednesday."
When Jeter got to first base, he was greeted by Kevin Millar, who got a lot of looks at Jeter during Millar's three years - 2003-05 - with the Red Sox. Millar says he has long admired that Jeter "plays the game the way you would teach your kid to play," as well as Jeter's poise.
Two seasons removed from his 12-year playing career - one in which he hit more homers against the Yankees (21) than any other club - Millar still sounds astounded at the memory of one of the most unimaginable events of his career: hearing Jeter getting booed at Yankee Stadium. It came in late April of 2004, when Jeter was in the throes of an 0-for-32 stretch, one that included an 0-for-14 performance in a three-game sweep by the Red Sox.
"It was the first time I ever saw Santa Claus get booed," Millar says. "It just didn't make any sense. (I thought), 'If he can get booed, my time is coming, because I'm not (even) a good player.'"
Jeter's average was still in the .180s at the end of May, almost a third of the way into the season. He finished the year with 23 homers, a career-high 44 doubles, 111 runs, 23 steals and a batting average of .292.
Hit No. 2,722
Date: Sept. 11, 2009
Pitcher: Chris Tillman
Site: Yankee Stadium
On the eighth anniversary of the worst day the city had ever known, the Yankees and Orioles waited out an 87-minute rain delay, and then Derek Jeter knocked a 2-0 pitch from Orioles rookie Chris Tillman into right field to lead off the third inning, flashbulbs popping, fans standing, the celebration beginning before Nick Markakis the Baltimore right fielder, had even thrown the ball back into second.
The hits would keep coming, and now, some 21 months later, Derek Jeter is the first Yankee to have 3,000 hits, and even though he wasn't there to see it in person, Denbo sure did watch all the highlights and revel in the moment and think about the man inside the No. 2 uniform. And why wouldn't he?
After Jeter passed Gehrig with the hit off Tillman, the shortstop signed the ball, dated it - and then gave it to Denbo, an unsolicited and wholly unexpected thank you for all Denbo had done for Jeter when he was still a homesick kid doing a lot more crying than hitting. Even now Denbo gets choked up talking about it, thinking about the player and man Derek Jeter has become.
"I feel privileged to have worked with him," Denbo says.
Hit No. 3,000
Date: July 9, 2011
Pitcher: David Price
Site: Yankee Stadium
On May 17, a quarter of the way into perhaps the most mentally grinding season of his career, Derek Jeter was hitting .253, an average that included five extra-base hits, and a steady drumbeat of criticism.
He had just gone 2-for-13 in a Yankee Stadium sweep by the Red Sox. Doubters grew louder by the day, saying that Joe Girardi needed to move him down in the order, that he was hurting the team, that he was aging by the day and that the Yankees never should've signed him to the new contract in the offseason.
When Jeter strained a calf muscle and went on the disabled list on June 13, his pursuit of 3,000 hits – the narrative that had dominated the entire Yankee season – stood six hits short. The Yankees went 14-4 with Eduardo Nunez playing shortstop in his absence, and suddenly the chorus became that much louder, centered on an almost heretical notion: could it be that the Yanks are a better club without their captain?
He went hitless in his first game back, then knocked two hits, and one each in the next two games, to get to 2,998. More important, he was driving the ball, hitting gaps, his bat looking noticeably quicker, though he had only two games left to reach the milestone at the Stadium, and it didn't seem to help the cause any that in the first of them, the Rays would be throwing David Price, one of the best young lefthanders in baseball.
With the Stadium packed on a sun-splashed Saturday – a day when people were lining up for tickets for hours before first pitch – Jeter got eight straight fastballs from Price in his first at-bat. On the last of them, on a full count, he drove a 95 mph pitch between third and short for No. 2,999.
Price kept throwing heat, and Jeter took him to another full count. Price decided to try a curve, and here it came, in and a little up. Jeter wasn't looking for it, but somehow he stayed back and squared it up and belted it hard toward left.
By the time Jeter hit first base, Rays first baseman Casey Kotchman was tipping his hat, and the Stadium was louder than you have ever heard it, and the Yankees were moving en masse toward home plate, and soon the whole bullpen was running toward the plate, too. Everybody wanted to be in on this, the celebration of a man whose great attributes include a humility that makes him not want to be celebrated or singled out.
"That was his time right there. I didn't want to be standing on the mound."
Before it was over, he would have three more hits, finishing 5-for-5, including two runs, a double and the game-winning single in the bottom of the eighth inning, and by the afternoon's end, the Yankees had a 5-4 victory and their first 3,000-hit man, and no one was talking about Derek Jeter's age or how much better his team was without him.
Later, in a hallway beneath the Stadium, moments before Jeter would meet the press, Joe Torre, who knows a few things about Jeter's makeup, talked about how he wasn't surprised that the day unfolded the way it had.
The former manager, his arm in a sling after his recent shoulder surgery, talked about his shortstop and the four championships they won together, and offered one other insight into Derek Sanderson Jeter, who started this whole journey 19 years earlier, a 160-pound kid who cried and was homesick and was worried if he'd ever get out of the Gulf Coast League.