Number 2 in the Program, Number 1 in our Hearts

After Derek Jeter got his 3000th (and 3001st, 3002nd and 3003rd) hits on Saturday afternoon, Kim Jones interviewed Alex Rodriguez. Jeter’s teammate, fellow future Hall of Famer and frequent object of comparison said “I can think of only one person who could have a day like that, Derek Jeter. Speechless.” When asked if this day made him think about his possible 3000th hit, Rodriguez, who has improved so much in the PR department, smiled and said “A day like this makes me think about how special Derek Jeter is.”

Derek Jeter is special. Not just special because he’s really good at baseball, because guys like Alex Rodriguez, and Albert Pujols, and Troy Tulowitzki are better than him right now. And not just special because he has 3000 hits, though it is such an exclusive club.

Derek Jeter is special because he is the only athlete left that retains some of the aura of the DiMaggios, of the Ruths, of the Aarons. In this day and age of sexting scandals, steroids abusers and press conference expletives, Derek Jeter has never lost his dignity and class from the moment he stepped on the baseball field in Tampa.

There will be a multitude of written works saying Jeter has class, and dignity, and presence, and all of them of true. He does. But it’s not just class, because other players like Tim Wakefield or Chipper Jones are as classy as they come.

The year leading up to Jeter’s 3000th hit has not been his best; in fact I would say it has been his worst year in professional baseball since he spent his first year crying on the phone every night, begging his parents to let him quit and come home. He has looked slow, sluggish, off-balance and the worst of accusations to throw at an athlete: old. The season was full of choppers towards shortstop, ground balls safely scooting by in to centerfield and weak infield singles. I know I, along with many other Yankees fans I talked to, just prayed his 3000th hit was a legitimate base hit that could be put on the highlight reels for eternity.

And was it ever. After a solid single through the hole between short and third in the first for number 2999, Jeter led off the third inning with a towering fly ball to left field. It cleared the first set of stands and landed in the first row of the bleachers. No question about legitimacy on this one. After the celebration, Jeter didn’t do much, just drill a double down the left field line (turning a single in to a double because he hustled out of the box, as usual), smoke a single to the right in the trademark Jeter fashion, and finally, in the 8th inning, after former Yankee Johnny Damon tied the game, Jeter put a bow on his day with a groundball single up the middle, past a drawn-in infield to score Eduardo Nunez, the young shortstop prospect so many were clamoring for during his recent struggles. After the conventional 1-2-3 9th inning by closer extraordinaire and possible deity Mariano Rivera, Jeter walked off the field to chants of his name, and with a brief point towards the suite where his father Dr. Charles Jeter and girlfriend (fiancée??) Minka Kelly were cheering, the Yankees captain disappeared down in to the clubhouse.

The game was a 3 ½ hour Jeter love-fest. The man could do no wrong. When he was thrown out stealing 2nd to end the 8th inning, even that felt okay – the Yankees had the lead and Jeter wanted the game to end. Once he hit the homerun, those of us on Twitter spent the game basking in Jeter’s awesomeness.

For that is what makes Jeter different than other superstars. He has kept that bond with his fans where they feel his successes and his failures. When he goes 0-5 with 3 double plays, those of us who grew up with Jeter feel each out. And on days like today, when Jeter shows that he still has it, we are euphoric. By the end of the game, which just felt fated, a Yankees Classic in the making, I had reached an almost religious state of ecstasy. And for an atheist, that’s saying something.

It is remarkable that Jeter has managed to hold on to this connection with his fans. Even players that stay relatively clean from scandal are seen as distant millionaires with none of the common problems of everyday folk. This is clearly seen in the current NFL lockout, where billionaire owners are seen to be fighting with millionaire players.

But I think Jeter has maintained our loyalty because he plays like we all think we would play. He treats the game with respect. He knows his history – he quoted Tony Gwynn’s comments that the last 10 hits to 3000 were the hardest. He knows the power and presence of the uniform he wears. More than any other player, he embodies the essence of the quote by Joe DiMaggio, who when asked why he hustles on every play said “There is always some kid who may be seeing me for the first or last time, I owe him my best.” Jeter never wants to take a day off. He fights through every injury.

Paul Simon wrote the line ‘where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you,” in the song Mrs. Robinson. The song is about the end of an era, and DiMaggio’s status as the last hero in America. A player that seemed less a player and more a god.

In the modern day, where 140 characters can spark emotional Twitter confrontations with fans, people with journalism degrees psychoanalyze ballplayers and a single misspoken word can label a player lazy, cheater or convict, Derek Jeter is the modern-day DiMaggio. He never misspeaks. He never puts anything before the team.

28 hitters have 3000 hits. 2 of them have hit a homerun as their 3000th. But only Derek Jeter could have hit a HR for his 3000th, gone 5-5 on the day, knocked in the winning run and scored another. Just like Alex Rodriguez, we’re simply speechless.

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