Jeter a Yankee great, legend of MLB

Greatest Yankee shortstop passes Gehrig
09/12/2009 1:20 AM ET
By Jon Lane /

Derek Jeter eyes history as he singles to right field, passing
Lou Gehrig on the Yankees' all-time hit list. (AP)
NEW YORK -- Let the record show that it was 9:23 p.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009 -- eight years before the most horrible day in this country's history -- that Derek Jeter provided the new Yankee Stadium another new great moment. In the confines of what history may one day decree "The House that Jeter Built," Jeter poked a single down the right field line off Baltimore Orioles rookie right-hander Chris Tillman that moved him past Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig and atop the Yankees' all-time list with hit No. 2,722.

Jeter rounded first, stopped and clapped his hands once, his clean single assured. While saluting his parents watching from a luxury box, he was caught off guard by his teammates' spontaneous decision to leave the dugout, walk to first base and extend their congratulations while fans stood for 2 ½ minutes and roared at ear-splitting levels. Jeter's always been one to keep emotions in check when it comes to personal accomplishments. That's the fans' job. Those who chanted his name when the tarp was removed at the tail end of a one-hour and 27-minute rain delay. Those who kept asking him, "When?" and pleading with him to do it on their birthday, for their mother, whatever.

During an 0-for-12 slump that stretched into Tuesday many wondered, "What's wrong?" Slumps are routine during a long season, but Jeter isn't a routine player.

"He went 0-for-12 and you're like, 'What's wrong with you?'" said Jorge Posada. "We take him for granted sometimes. He is that good and set the standard so high that when he doesn't get any hits you're like, 'Hey man, what's going on?'"

Funny thing was, Jeter didn't care about the record. That was until the Yankees returned from their road trip with Jeter three hits from tying Gehrig. Wednesday he pulled even and allowed himself to enjoy the journey. Once he became the franchise hit king, it was time to let go and enjoy the moment, to celebrate a milestone that stands out bigger than any other personal accolade due to the person he passed.

"Being a former captain and what he stood for ... you mention his name to any baseball fan around the country, it means a lot," Jeter said.

"It's still hard to believe. It really hit home after we got back here after our last road trip. Before we left I didn't care much about it. But then when we got back, the way the fans treated me around the city, every person I've come in contact with ... being a Yankee fan, this is something that I never imagined. I never dreamt of this. This wasn't really a part of it. The whole experience has been overwhelming."

There was all that chatter about Jeter buckling under the pressure of chasing another personal milestone. He was asked about 100 times how he felt about passing Gehrig. Each answer was the same, provided with a smile and a shrug suggesting it's nice but that he could care less. Winning has truly been everything and the only thing to Derek Sanderson Jeter. He wears four World Series rings and has one for the thumb in direct sight. He's played in 123 postseason games, on five AL pennant winners and in meaningful October games in each of his 14 full Major League seasons except one.

You know he's going to Cooperstown five years after retirement to be enshrined as one of the game's all-time bests, yet a compelling case can be made that Jeter may be the best shortstop in history. He became baseball's hits leader at the position when he passed Luis Aparicio (2,673) August 16 in Seattle. His name is also in many of baseball's major top-10 lists, including hits, home runs, RBIs and games played at shortstop -- all this and 3,000 hits a realistic goal by 2011.

There's one person, never shy about voicing an opinion, who's ready to anoint Jeter at such a level.

"For those who say today's game can't produce legendary players, I have two words: Derek Jeter," said Yankees principal owner George Steinbrenner in a statement. "Every Yankees' era has its giants. It's thrilling to watch Derek as he becomes one of the greats of his generation, if not of all time."

This season alone, Jeter is competing with Joe Mauer and teammate Mark Teixeira for his first league MVP award. Entering Friday he was second in hits (186), tied for third in runs (97), fifth in batting (.330) and sixth in on-base percentage (.397) thanks to a 10-game run in which he went 21-for-43 with nine RBIs during the Yankees' 7-3 road trip August 13-23.

Only because it occurred during this season of lofty standards and four hits from Gehrig's record did coverage of Jeter's slump reach panic levels. The way he ended it was typical Jeter, noting that Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was playing deep and laying down a perfect bunt single to start Wednesday's game.

If you judge "Most Valuable Player" by the true letter of the words, Jeter is your choice. He's produced at the plate; his 17 home runs are his most since 2004 (23) and '05 (19). He's excelled as the Yankees' leadoff hitter; 25 stolen bases are the most since he swiped 34 in 2006. His so-called diminished range has actually improved; his .986 fielding percentage and seven errors are to date career lows over a full season. And anyone who's played with or against Jeter knows he validates his role as team captain -- his way.

"Given everything he's meant to that team, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the year he wins the MVP award," said Red Sox outfielder Jason Bay in August. "I can't imagine he's going to go his whole career without winning one."

He's come close twice, finishing third in 1998 behind Juan Gonzalez and Nomar Garciaparra and second in 2006 behind Justin Morneau. Jeter's .343 average was second in the AL, but Morneau trumped him in both homers (34-14) and RBIs (130-97) in leading the Twins to the AL Central Division title on the season's final day. The ones with the glitzy and gaudy numbers have historically attracted voters -- Dustin Pedroia debunked that notion last season -- but what one does that's sight unseen should also be considered in the title of Most Valuable.

"For those who say today's game can't produce legendary players, I have two words: Derek Jeter."
— George Steinbrenner on Derek Jeter

"To have the drive -- he's an everyday player -- to see Derek every day just get after it and play the game hard and never give at-bats away, it's a grind," said Andy Pettitte. "You have to have people to push you. Georgie and Derek have that in them. They push and push and push and keep it going, and that's special."

All that and more from someone who, at age 35, was supposed to be at the beginning of a downward slope to a career in which he's played in at least 149 games every season except 2003 when a dislocated shoulder sidelined him for 37 games.

"Forty, 50, 60 years from now, fans are going to read the back of his baseball card and see a lot of hits," said Alex Rodriguez. "That's pretty amazing, but that won't capture not even 50 percent of him. Georgie and I have had the privilege to watch him play and really enjoyed it."

His next chapter is doing it again in October, where he's been this generation's answer to Reggie Jackson. Jeter is baseball's record holder in postseason hits (153), singles (128), at-bats (495) and runs scored (85) to go with a .309 career average with 17 homers and 49 RBIs while batting .409 to earn MVP honors in the 2000 World Series. And throughout next season, unless Jeter and the Yankees nip it in the bud, the talk over a new contract, and how much he'll be worth at age 37 and beyond, will be endless and irritating. But what Father Time won't take away is Jeter's role as captain. He'll still be kneeling on the top step, delivering a message without wasting words and defying any eroding skills to win a game.

That's for another day, another moment, when time will judge Jeter's rightful place in history. On a night a city and country were reminded they're both still healing from the pain of 9/11, Jeter -- again -- provided a respite, a thrill at precisely the right time. Said Rays manager Joe Maddon: "He carries himself in a manner that's worthy of passing Gehrig."

Jon Lane can be reached at comments