NEW YORK (Reuters) - On a team famous for its home run hitters, Derek Jeter made it cool to hit singles and used that talent to become the first New York Yankees player to reach the milestone mark of 3,000 career hits.
Relying on an inside-out stroke to slice balls through the infield or line shots to right field, Jeter carved himself a place among Yankees greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle with a combination of bat-handling skill, longevity and consistency.
While those sluggers punched their tickets to the Hall of Fame on the strength of power hitting, Jeter did his damage in smaller bites and from the top of the lineup in becoming the 28th Major League Baseball player to join the 3,000-hit club.
That is not say Jeter is without clout. Besides a career .312 batting average and a franchise-leading 330 stolen bases, the 12-time All-Star has 236 career home runs, hitting double digits 15 times, and drove in 70 or more runs in 11 seasons. And his 3,000 hit, which he got against Tampa Bay, came off a home run.
The 37-year-old Jeter, the Yankees captain and shortstop who oozes class and grace on the diamond and off, owns five World Series rings with hopes for more and is a virtual lock to join those other luminaries in Cooperstown after he retires.
The Yankees decided early that Jeter could be a special talent, making him the sixth overall pick in the 1992 amateur draft out of Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan.
The son of an African-American father, Dr. Sanderson Charles Jeter, a substance abuse counselor with a Ph.D in sociology, and Caucasian mother Dorothy, an accountant of Irish/German descent, he spent a semester at the University of Michigan before embarking on a professional baseball career.
In 1994, Jeter stormed through the Yankees farm system from Class-A to Double-A and Triple-A hitting at a combined clip of .344 with 50 stolen bases and was named Minor League Player of the Year by leading baseball publications.
When the slender shortstop made his first appearance with the Yankees in May 1995 he wore his now familiar No. 2 jersey.
All Yankee single digit numbers have been retired save 2 and 6, including the No. 3 worn by Ruth, the No. 4 of Gehrig, the No. 5 graced by DiMaggio and the No. 7 worn by Mantle.
“They didn’t give him that number by accident,” Johnny Damon, of the Boston Red Sox, once told Reuters.
Jeter’s ability to rise to the occasion brought him nicknames such as Captain Clutch and Mr. November, which he earned in dramatic fashion during the 2001 World Series.
The 2001 postseason was delayed due to games postponed after the September 11 attacks, and Game Four of the Fall Classic between the Yanks and Arizona Diamondbacks was played October 31.
The game went into the 10th inning tied 3-3. At midnight, the Yankee Stadium scoreboard read “Welcome to NOVEMBER BASEBALL” -- the first MLB game played in November.
Moments after the message was displayed, Jeter drove a pitch from Diamondbacks reliever Byung-Hyun Kim over the right-field fence for a game-winning home run, and a fan in the stands held up a sign with the words “Mr. November.”
Statisticians argue about how to measure clutch hitting. Baseball insiders say they know it when they see it.
“The most underrated skill most people mis-evaluate is the head,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia told the Los Angeles Times when asked about Jeter. “His head is off the charts. It allows him to keep himself in a certain frame of mind under any circumstances.”
“A clutch hitter is a hitter that can maintain his approach under circumstances which are critical to a team winning or losing a game. Some guys struggle in those situations.”
Jeter excelled by delivering at his usual high caliber regardless of the stakes.
After playing the equivalent of a full season’s worth of playoff games, Jeter has a .309 batting average, .377 on base percentage and .472 slugging average in the postseason.
On defense, Jeter won five Gold Glove awards for his sure-handed consistency. Still, Jeter had a flair for the dramatic, and two plays stand out - “The Flip” and “The Dive.”
“The Flip” helped save the day for the Yankees when they faced elimination after losing the first two games of their 2001 first-round playoff series against the Oakland Athletics.
Jeter preserved New York’s 1-0 lead in the seventh when he saw an outfield throw sail over the head of the cutoff man and bound toward foul territory off the first base line.
He dashed across the infield to snare it and while racing away from home plate, backhanded a toss to catcher Jorge Posada who applied the tag on unsliding and unsuspecting baserunner Jeremy Giambi, who was tagged out. New York won the game 1-0, went on to win the series and reached the Fall Classic.
In a 2004 game against Boston, Jeter showed his unbending resolve in the 12th inning with the score tied 3-3, Red Sox runners on second and third and Trot Nixon at bat.
Nixon hit a foul pop down the left field line. Jeter sprinted after the ball and made an over-the-shoulder catch an instant before arriving at the railing bordering the stands.
Jeter launched himself over the rail and landed three rows into the seats, cutting his chin and bruising his face. “The Dive” ended the inning and the Yankees won it in the 13th.
Rookie of the Year in 1996, a driving force in four World Series titles in a five-year span from ‘96 that included a Fall Classic winning streak of 14, and the classy team leader who never wilted under the glare of the New York City spotlight.
And now, the only Yankee ever to amass 3,000 hits.
Editing by Frank Pingue