Mays impressed by Jeter's talent, leadership

09/14/2012 5:10 PM ET
By Jack Curry

Derek Jeter is one hit away from passing Willie Mays on the all-time hit list.(AP)

Willie Mays had watched Derek Jeter play for years, but he didn’t have a lengthy conversation with Jeter until they were together at the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco. After Jeter spoke with Mays, he had a simple request: He asked for one of Mays’ Giant jerseys. Within hours, Mays obliged and gave Jeter the No. 24 uniform.

One day after Jeter tied Mays with 3,283 hits, Mays recalled how impressed he was with Jeter when they spoke five years ago and how impressed he still is with Jeter. As early as Friday night, Jeter will collect one more hit and move past Mays into sole possession of 10th place on the all-time hit list. The amazing Mays said he is content with watching the amazing Jeter rumble ahead of him.

“When you have a record or whatever it may be, there’s always someone that’s going to pass you,” Mays said. “You can’t just stand still all the time. I don’t care what business you’re in or what sport you’re in. Someone is going to pass you. And you can’t find a better kid like that to pass you and enjoy what he’s doing.”

In a telephone interview on Friday, Mays, who is 81 years old, praised Jeter as a player whose value stretches beyond the statistics. But Mays’ most incredible compliment about Jeter came when Mays said Jeter plays the game the way he played it throughout a Hall of Fame career.

“I like Jeter because of this: He plays for the Yankees, he plays for the joy of the game, he plays for the team,” Mays said. “I think that’s what I liked to play for. Enjoy the nine guys you had on the field and make them better around you. I think that’s what he does.”

After Jeter’s run-scoring single off Junichi Tazawa on Thursday nudged him into a tie with Mays, which is a cool place to hang out for at least 27 hours, the shortstop called it “pretty special” to be associated with Mays. When I told Mays how humble Jeter seemed about tying him, Mays turned playful.

“First of all, Jeter wasn’t even alive when I was playing,” Mays said. “I think he’s 38, isn’t he? I retired in 1973. He didn’t see me play. It’s not about us. It’s about baseball and the fans and what they see in a player.”

In this instance, it’s about what Mays sees in the player, the player who is about to exceed his hit total. While Mays said that he doesn’t see Jeter that often, he gave a stellar scouting report. Mays explained how Jeter’s ability to hit the ball to right-center field helps make him an excellent No. 2 hitter. But, when Jeter is leading off, Mays said he noticed that Jeter tries to pull changeups and doesn’t shoot for right as often.

“It’s just that he understands the game more,” Mays said. “He’s 38, and he’s had time to look at the game more. I say it’s more power to him to move on and try to do what he can and get this behind him.”

Mays stressed that Jeter’s climb up the all-time hit list wasn’t connected to him, even though they now share 10th place. Even when I argued that Jeter’s pursuit was about Mays at least until Jeter records his 3,284th hit, Mays disagreed. Then I understood what Mays was saying. Jeter has other great hitters to chase. He has already caught Mays.

“There are some guys ahead of us,” Mays said. “Hopefully, he can go farther, rather than just saying he tied me. It’s not about me. It’s about him getting to 3,000 and going forward.”

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