Three knocks in one night, and the crowned king of Yankeeland is tied with Lou Gehrig for career hits by a Yankee and that much closer to passing Harold Baines, Al Oliver and Vada Pinson among the all-time hits leaders. These are good times for Derek Jeter.
His team is on pace to win 105 games. His defense, long mocked by more or less everyone save Yankees fans and Gold Glove voters, is as good as it's ever been, maybe better. And perhaps most impressively, he's hitting as well as he always has.
As of Thursday, Jeter is hitting .330/.397/.470. Thirty-five-year-old shortstops aren't supposed to do this. Other than the peerless Honus Wagner, the only shortstop who has ever even hit .300/.350/.450 at this age or older was Pee Wee Reese, who did it in 1954. You almost wish that Jeter had been playing quietly all these years in Detroit or Kansas City, because people would just now be discovering him, and the praise would carry some weight. As is, the superlatives that his play deserves are totally void of meaning.
This being so, let's stipulate that Jeter is great, as winning a winner as ever won, and get to the three big interrelated questions raised by his historic season. In no special order: Does he have a shot at Pete Rose's hits record? How long is he going to play shortstop? And what are the Yankees going to do about his contract, which runs out next fall?
If the first question is the easiest to answer ("NO"), it's worth bearing in mind that easy answers are often wrong. Jeter doesn't have much of a chance, to be sure, as he would have to rack up more than half again as many hits as he already has to get the record, but he does have a shot. Rose didn't have much of a chance at 4,256 hits, either. (He ended his age-35 season with 2,762; right now Jeter's 41 behind at 2,721.) The unlikely is not the impossible.
Including this year, when he's on pace for 215 hits, Jeter's established level is 200 hits a year. Most likely, as shown in this quite plausible projection of the rest of his career, that number will decrease rapidly as he ages over the next few years. It's not impossible, though, that he could keep it up for a few more years. Randy Velarde, of all people, hit safely 200 times at age 36; four men have surpassed 195 hits at age 37, and three at age 38. Assume -- and of course it's a big assumption -- that Jeter has something like 3,350 hits going into his age-39 season. Is it conceivable that he could then make a real run at Rose?
Actually, it is. Say he ran up 170 hits at 39 (nine men have done it, including Omar Vizquel three years ago), 155 at 40 (six have done it), 135 at 41 and 120 at 42 (seven have done each of these things). This would leave him just over 300 hits away, close enough to the mark that if he was sufficiently shameless he could doubtless wrangle the playing time needed to give it a go. And if athletes like Brett Favre, Ronaldo and Michael Jordan have taught us anything, it's that great players are nearly always more shameless than you can imagine about playing on years after they're toast.
As improbable as it is that Jeter would enjoy seven straight seasons of near-historic significance, it can at least be imagined, because he's the ideal player in the ideal situation. Other than a freak mishap on the bases in 2003, he has never been seriously injured. Not counting that season, he has garnered fewer than 188 hits in a season just twice in his career. He hits at the top of the lineup for a team that will have a great offense for the foreseeable future. And most important, the Yankees can run him out on the field no matter what.
This last point, which also relates to our second question, is probably the biggest thing that Jeter has going for him aside from his own talent. There have been lots of 40-year-olds in baseball history who could have run up 155 hits in a season; that's about a .260 batting average over 150 games. The problem is that teams won't play them full time, because they're usually lousy on defense and because the time and money are better spent on a kid with a future.
A player of Jeter's stature, though, can lay claim to about as much playing time as he wants, given his health and some minimal competence. And the Yankees, who always have a terrific offense and have played the likes of Tony Clark, Doug Mientkiewicz and Andy Phillips at first base, are uniquely able (and at times bafflingly willing) to punt a lineup spot.
Jeter isn't quite as assured as Rose was of being able to get at-bats once he's an irrelevant hitter, but he's about as close as you can get without being your own manager. The real issue is how many of them he might get at shortstop. Since integration, only 13 shortstops have qualified for the batting title at age 36 or older, and they've done it a total of 26 times, with none turning the trick more than four times. Given this history, it's a safe bet that Jeter will be moved off the six by 2012 at the latest.
This is an issue that people make too much of, however. In strict baseball terms it isn't going to kill the Yankees if Jeter hangs around in the middle infield after he has started to rot; statistically wretched defensive play at shortstop has never kept the team from winning its annual 95 games during the Jeter era. And as famously ugly as the ends of some shortstop tenures have been, Jeter, to be cynical about it, has a lot invested in his image as a gracious team player and isn't likely to make things unpleasant for the poor schmuck -- perhaps Jose Reyes, whose contract with the Mets is up after 2011? -- who has to replace him. (Yes, Alex Rodriguez, who got no such love from Jeter upon coming to New York six years ago, might beg to differ, but moving from shortstop at 40 is a lot different than moving at 30.)
This brings us to our third question, which to my mind may be the least interesting in baseball. Jeter is never going to play for any team other than the Yankees. When the time comes they'll sign him to a new contract for more money than his on-field contributions will be worth, and no one will think twice about it. I'd guess that Jeter will sign for an annual salary near the $22.5 million AAV that Manny Ramirez is making, and that he'll get an extra year or two atop the two that Ramirez got from the Dodgers. Considering that the Yankees spent around $40 million on Kyle Farnsworth, Jason Giambi and Carl Pavano last year, it's hard to see how the dollars matter much. They can afford it, and even if Jeter instantly turns into Skeeter Newsome upon signing a new deal it won't keep the Yankees from doing other things to improve the team. It's all a non-issue.
What is an issue, more than the hits record he isn't going to break or the controversies over his inevitable move off of shortstop and his contract that aren't going to materialize, is Jeter's legacy. For such a revered winner, Jeter has presided over a lot of failure as captain, from the worst collapse in playoff history to a nearly decade-long run during which absurd payrolls that routinely neared or exceeded $200 million bought not one world championship.
All of this is less his fault than anyone's, but there are probably college freshmen with no clear memories of the last time Jeter won a ring. It would be nice to think he doesn't have anything left to prove. But is it really true?