We choose the things we celebrate in sports and in life. Birthdays. Anniversaries. Weddings. Retirements. Why celebrate 3,000 hits? Why not? We all want a moment to celebrate.
Of course, Derek Jeter did not really get his 3,000th big league hit last Saturday under a clear blue sky at Yankee Stadium. No. He actually got his 3,184th hit ... then 3,185 ... then 3,186 ... then 3,187 ... then 3,188. That would be if you count his postseason hits. But we don't count those. Why not? Well, why don't we celebrate a player for, say, reaching base 4,000 times? (Jeter passed 4,000 times on base last year.) Why don't we celebrate 500 doubles or 2,000 RBIs or 4,000 innings pitched? Why don't we celebrate the Directors Guild Awards instead of the Oscars?
We choose the things we want to celebrate in sports and in life. We choose 3,000 regular-season hits as something to treasure. That was why Yankee Stadium on Saturday felt charged with excitement and nervousness and the buzz of anticipation. You don't need an irreproachable reason for a celebration. You need only a consensus.
Saturday was a good day to celebrate Derek Jeter for being one of the most splendid players in the game's history. It was a day game—baseball always seems a little bit better when it's played during the day. It was in New York, which is a great place to throw a party. A waft of a cool breeze blew. The game was sold out. Derek Jeter was nervous. He would not admit that part until later—"I've been lying to you guys for a long time," he would say after the game—but the nervousness wasn't hard to pick up. No Yankees player had ever reached 3,000 hits. Jeter visibly felt the burden of Yankees history.
Jeter led off for the 790th time in his career and engaged Tampa Bay starter David Price in an interesting little eight-pitch tango. Price threw eight fastballs, each from 92 to 95 mph. On the sixth and seventh pitches Jeter fouled the ball into the stands, way late on both, though the crowd roared with expectation even on those. It is something to be in a full stadium where everyone in the place is rooting for the same thing. Finally, on that eighth fastball, Jeter chopped a ground ball that bounced between the Rays' shortstop and third baseman for a single. That was hit 2,999.
Jeter smiled as he stood at first base, as the loud cheers roared around him. "It was huge," he would say. He had worried—seriously worried—that he would not get the two hits he needed last weekend at Yankee Stadium. He was worried about a lot of stuff. He told everybody that he wasn't nervous. As he said: He was lying.
Derek Jeter got his actual 3,000th big league hit—counting postseason hits—in June of last year against Houston's Wandy Rodriguez. It was a home run. He hit another home run that day. And those were the last over-the-fence home runs he hit at Yankee Stadium for more than a year. This has been the most jolting part of watching Jeter the last year or so—the ball has stopped jumping off his bat. It thuds. Since that June day against Houston, he had slugged .323. That's slugging percentage. The young Derek Jeter had six seasons where his batting average was better than .323.
So, there was a vision of how he would get that 3,000th hit. A bloop over the second baseman was one possibility. A ground ball with eyes was another. "I just wanted to hit the ball hard," he would say. He stepped up to the plate against Price in the third inning, and the stadium filled with those loud cheers that people make when they are really cheering for themselves and a moment to remember.
Jeter stepped in. He touched his helmet. He held up his right hand to the umpire. He dug his cleats into the dirt. He arched his back. How many times have we seen this routine? How familiar has it become to fans who love Jeter and fans who despise Jeter and ... well, those two options more or less cover everybody. This time Price decided to show his repertoire. He got a called strike with a changeup, and Jeter fouled off another change. Jeter fouled off a fastball into the stands on the first base side, at least 50 feet foul, but still people cheered with hope. It was, as Vin Scully likes to say, as if they were seeing the game with their hearts.
At exactly 2 p.m., with Jeter expecting fastball, with the crowd in high pitch, Price threw a 78-mph curveball that hung over home plate the way the sun hangs over Key West. And Jeter did the last thing anybody expected—including himself. He turned on it. He crushed it. As Jeter broke out of the box, he did not know if it would clear the fence. But he did know that nobody was going to catch it.