By Ben Bolch and Kevin Van Valkenburg, Tribune Newspapers
6:38 PM PDT, July 4, 2011
He is Mr. November, and every other month in which Major League Baseball is played.
He has more hits than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, a higher career batting average than Mickey Mantle and a higher postseason average than Joe DiMaggio.
And it won't be long before Derek Jeter is a new lord of New York Yankees lore.
With six more hits, the shortstop will become the first player to collect 3,000 hits while playing exclusively with the most storied franchise in baseball. He resumed his pursuit Monday against the Cleveland Indians after spending the last three weeks on the disabled list with a strained right calf.
"Some of the best players to ever play this game have worn the pinstripes," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "So you would just assume that a few of them would have gotten to 3,000 hits. But it just shows you what elite company it is."
It is a group that includes 27 players, only 10 of whom have reached the milestone with one team. Every member of the 3,000-hit club is a Hall of Famer with the exception of the recently retired Craig Biggio and scandal-tainted Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro. Biggio is expected to be a first-ballot inductee when he becomes eligible in 2013.
Jeter, who turned 37 late last month, will become the sixth youngest player to reach the threshold, trailing only Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Robin Yount, Rose and Tris Speaker.
One of a kind
What puts Jeter in even more exclusive company is his near-universal appeal. He possesses a personality suitable for all audiences, a squeegee-clean image unsullied by steroid accusations or unseemly moments documented on YouTube or Twitter.
"I've seen girls cry when he's given them batting gloves in the stands, and that's not even in Yankee Stadium," Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson said. "That's in road ballparks. Everywhere we go, you see a huge number of signs for Derek Jeter, or jerseys with No. 2 on them. That just speaks to the kind of person he is, and what he means to people."
Jeter's popularity is also attributable to his reputation as a gamer who plays through injuries — his recent trip to the disabled list was his first since 2003 — and a gracious teammate reluctant to criticize others in the clubhouse. He avoids controversy by refusing to say anything contentious, or much of anything at all.
Asked about his legacy before the Yankees played Cleveland last month at Yankee Stadium, Jeter said, "I don't think about it, and I don't know what people are saying. I got nothing for you, buddy."
What about your sustained success?
"I don't know, man," said Jeter, a career .312 hitter who had never batted worse than .291 in a full season before 2010. "I really don't think about those kinds of things. My job is to try and come here and help us win. That's pretty much all I think about."
Jeter's clubhouse locker is, in some respects, a reflection of his personality. He keeps his shoes — everything from his cleats to his flip-flops — perfectly aligned. His clothes hang neatly from plastic hangers. Designer T-shirts are on the left, batting practice warm-ups and game jerseys in the middle, pants on the right. There are no pictures of his family, fiancée Minka Kelly or friends on the inside of the locker.
He left one black sock on the floor when he went out for batting practice prior to the game against the Indians, but snatched it up immediately when he returned, as if he hoped no one would notice it had been there.
Smooth off the field
Jeter has made a habit of cleaning up the rare messy moment. When the late George Steinbrenner famously criticized his star player in 2003 for partying into the early morning hours in Manhattan, the duo teamed up to shoot a Visa commercial in which they conga danced together at a nightclub.
"I think he is the blueprint of a Yankee player," said Larry Bowa, who spent two years in New York as the team's third base coach under former manager Joe Torre. "He realizes he's representing the Yankees not only for nine innings but 24 hours a day. He's aware of how big he is and he's sort of left a legacy of how to handle yourself on and off the field."
In the unofficial biography "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter," the shortstop credited his ability to avoid saying anything worthwhile to Dodgers manager Don Mattingly, his former hitting coach with the Yankees. Mattingly said he took that as a compliment.
"Obviously, here and there both, there's a lot of attention about what the team's going through and everybody wants to make a story right then," Mattingly said. "I think you have to be able to avoid that. Basically, say nothing. Or bore you to death."
Smooth on the field
There's little chance of Jeter doing that between the lines, or even outside them. His flip from foul territory to catcher Jorge Posada during the 2001 American League division series to get Oakland's Jeremy Giambi at home plate is regarded by some as the infielder's equivalent of Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series.
Jeter's walk-off home run off Arizona's Byung-Hyun Kim in the 10th inning at 12:04 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2001, at Yankee Stadium in Game 4 of the World Series earned him the nickname Mr. November, one of several monikers for a player who also went by Captain Clutch because of his sustained postseason prowess. Jeter has hit .309 in 30 playoff series while helping the Yankees win five World Series titles.
"He never feared the consequences of failure," Ian O'Connor, the author of the recently released biography on the Yankees' captain, said of Jeter's postseason success. "He also never let the magnitude of the moment get too big."
Not that Jeter has been a slouch during the regular season. He has had 15 seasons with at least 150 hits, and his lowest career batting average in any month is .296 in May.
Those who marvel at Jeter's consistency say it is partly a reflection of a swing that hasn't changed much since he made his major league debut in 1995.
"Derek has pretty much been the same hitter his whole career," Teixeira said. "You'll see guys who might change their stances, their setup or where their hands are, but their swing is still pretty much the same. Well, Derek hasn't even changed that. His stance, his hands and his setup probably look exactly the same as they did" when he was a rookie.
Though Jeter, who stands at 6 feet 3 and 195 pounds, was not endowed with the physical gifts of chiseled teammate Alex Rodriguez, O'Connor said the shortstop was bestowed with something equally impressive: an inner drive to go all out no matter the situation.
"He sort of honored that DiMaggio credo of playing every game as if there's someone in the stands who has never seen you play," O'Connor said.
Present and future
Jeter's statistics have taken a significant downturn the past two years. He hit a career-worst .270 in 2010 before enduring a contentious offseason in which he signed a three-year, $51-million contract that was widely viewed as more reflective of service rendered than potential future value.
This season, his slump has deepened. Jeter is hitting .260 with two homers and 20 RBIs, putting him on pace for career lows in each category. General manager Brian Cashman has also acknowledged the possibility of moving the five-time Gold Glove Award winner to center field before his career ends if his range at shortstop diminishes.
Jeter said the increased media scrutiny that followed his new contract has not bothered him.
"I don't know what people write," he said. "I really don't. I really don't sit around and read newspapers. I've got other things to worry about."
One thing that has never concerned him is reaching 3,000 hits. O'Connor, who received some assistance from the shortstop in researching his biography, said Jeter's primary goal since joining the Yankees has been to surpass Yogi Berra's 10 World Series titles, a feat that is likely unattainable for a player only halfway there in his 17th major league season.
Of course, that won't keep Jeter from surpassing the expectations of those who have seen him play.
"He'll be right up there with all the greatest players to ever play shortstop in an atmosphere that expects nothing less than playoffs and World Series titles, which makes it doubly tough," Bowa said. "It's one thing to accept the challenge, but to meet it the way he has is another."
Bolch reported from Los Angeles; Van Valkenburg reported from New York. Tribune reporter Dylan Hernandez contributed to this article.
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