A 5-year-old & the Meaning of Jeter

This entry was originally written in July 2011 as New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter approached his 3,000th career hit, a milestone that the boy wonder, Ian, had become transfixed by the number, why it was such a big deal, and how one player could possible have that many base hits all by himself.

***

TOWER GROVE — The difference between 2,999 hits and 3,000 could be the reaction time of one third baseman, the decision of an official scorer, or the deluge that washes out a first-inning single. In the scope of a career, it’s infinitesimal, and yet 3,000 looms so large, so historically significant, so, well, round that the distance between 2,999 and 3,000 is a hundred hits if it’s one.

Ask a 5-year-old.

My son Ian and I were walking to a nearby park this past week with our baseball gloves for a throw. Each glove had a baseball tucked inside because, you know, keeping a pocket formed is something we’re required to pass from generation to generation. From the night I came home from the 2006 World Series reeking of champagne crossfire to a visit to condemned Yankee Stadium to the spring trainings spent away, baseball has always been a presence in my son’s life. Only recently has baseball become an interest. He asks a lot about the players. He offers play-by-play during games. He wants to know what team to root for when Arizona and Minnesota meet in interleague play (don’t we all?). And several times in the past month, he’s stirred in the middle of the night to creep downstairs and watch the late game with me.

One recent night he poked me on the shoulder until I woke up so he could ask, “Daddy, can we go watch the highlights?”

It was 3:15 a.m.

On the way to the park, I told him about Derek Jeter nearing 3,000 career hits. Jeter was just back from the disabled list and he was speeding toward the milestone, ready to become the 28th major-league player in history to eclipse 3,000 and the first since Craig Biggio in 2007. The size of the number struck Ian in a way 2,999 or even 3,017 wouldn’t have.

“Wow, that is a lot,” he said. “That is a lot of singles.”

“Well, there were also some doubles and home runs in there, too,” I explained. “A base hit is a single or a double.”

“And a home run?”

“And a home run.”

Ian’s first favorite player was Ryan Howard, the brawny slugger for the Philadelphia Phillies. Ian liked that Howard was from St. Louis; that gave them something in common. Most of all, he also liked the homers. One of Ian’s first video games, “MLB Power Pros,” featured blocky caricatures of the players and equally exaggerated homers. Ian’s favorite thing was to play Home Run Derby and put Howard in the box at Yankee Stadium and swing away. The only thing he enjoyed more than launching homers into the seats was when his cartoonish Howard struck out, because he did so spectacularly. The cartoon Howard would pirouette on his front foot and fall on his bum, spirals replacing his eyes and stars orbiting his head. Ian cackled every time it happened because his view of baseball was simple – swing big or don’t swing at all. Kids dig the long ball.

Over time his list of favorite players grew to embrace Albert Pujols, the local star who hit so many home runs, and Matt Holliday, who hit harder than anyone Ian had ever seen. If asked, he might say his favorites include Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle, because he saw one in a favorite movie (“Everybody’s Hero”) and knew the other from a stack of baseball cards I keep on my desk. When Ian was assigned No. 7 in tee ball, he said: “Oh! It’s Mickey Mantle!” He knows Stan Musial is the greatest Cardinal and likes to point out Musial’s sidewalk star on The Loop. He asks about Ian Kinsler and Ian Kennedy and Ian Desmond for obvious reasons, but not one of the Ians has captured him, at least not to the point that he remembers anything more than the team they play for or, maybe, the number they wear.

Early home runs made his heroes. This is what he saw on the highlights. This was the biggest part of any baseball game he played. When he visited the All-Star Game Fan Fest and took his Prince Fielder-like swing off the tee in a batting cage, there was no sign that said “single” or “double.” But if he knocked it over a red line, the attendant confirmed, “That’s a home run.”

Gradually his understanding of the game has grown and returned from over the wall to the confines of the ballpark.

He asked about how the players warm up and what a pitcher can do with the ball. He asked about all the moving parts of a double play, and he cheered diving catches in the outfield. When Pujols laced a ball to center field, Ian said with the enthusiasm he once only knew for homers, “Oh! He really got that single!”

That brings us back to Jeter.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Joe Posnanski recently wrote that “Jeter is almost unquestionably the most SEEN player in baseball history.” There are no secrets to Jeter’s game. The evolution has been televised. It feels like we’ve watched everyone of his swings and can recreate his at-bats from the moment he wiggles into his box, windmills his bat, toes the dirt with that front foot, shin always guarded – all the way until he finishes his swing, leaning toward first base and exhaling from those puffed cheeks as the ball skips through the infield. But being the most broadcast player in history does not equal automatic appreciation. Once the faucet of World Series titles that drowned his early career turned off, it became vogue to shred Jeter. Careers have been made out of revealing the truth about his defense, demystifying that poster-perfect jump throw to expose a lack of range. Even the New York Yankees joined in this past winter to nitpick The Captain. Ian doesn’t know or see any of that. He still thinks the jump throw rocks.

On the walk to play catch, it dawned on me that Ian’s fondness for Jeter has increased with his fondness for the game. The more he learns and understands about baseball, the more he asks about Jeter. I wonder if this is how it’s going to go for Jeter’s legacy. Sluggers will get the highlights, 100-mph fastballs will delight new fans, but Jeter is the payoff, a ball fan’s ballplayer. While he has enough singular moments to program a network, his is not a career understood in snapshots. It’s a series of inside-out swings, first-to-thirds and October cutoffs that is better appreciated in bulk, like a season itself. That’s the gravity of 3,000 hits. It shows the steady glow of a career, not the supernova of brief celebrated star. Power comes and goes. Baseball is truly about consistency of quality, about showing up every day and performing and winning. It’s the root of the game’s appeal. It’s what defines Jeter, right down to the difficulty we all have doing it as we get older.

When we went to pick out the glove that Ian took to the park, he picked one with Jeter’s signature because that’s who he wanted to watch catch grounders. When he trotted out to the field for an early tee ball game he was told to play shortstop and responded, “like Jeter.” We watched a replay of the 2001 World Series Game 4 at Yankee Stadium this past week, and Ian turned around from his action figures to see Jeter bunt into a groundout and slip to 0-for-4 in the game. I told him to stick around, watch a bit longer, wait, wait …

And then he saw it: the Mr. November opposite-field, line-drive home run that won the game.

“Awe. Some,” he said.

His wonder came full circle.

“Did you know, Ian, that Jeter is the only Yankee with 3,000 hits?” I asked as we got close to the park.

“Not Babe Ruth?”

“No. Not the Babe or Mickey.”

“How many Cardinals have 3,000 hits?” he asked.

“Two.”

“Albert?”

“No, Stan Musial and Lou Brock have 3,000 hits,” I explained. “Only Musial has all 3,000 with the Cardinals.”

“Of course,” Ian replied. “Albert hits home runs, not singles. He probably has lots of home runs. Stan only hits singles.”

“He hit home runs, too.”

“Not anymore. He hits a lot of singles now. I think he’s too old to hit home runs.”

-30-

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