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Jeter not defined by number 3,000

NEW YORK -- Flashbulbs and standing ovations accompanied Derek Jeter's every at bat Thursday night on his quest for 3,000 hits, but here's some unfortunate news:

Jeter already has 3,000 hits.

Well, sort of.

Though the widely recognized counting number is limited to Jeter's regular-season hits, no appreciation of the Yankee captain's career would be complete without inclusion of his playoff success. He has roughly a full season of hits and heroics under his belt in October and November, playing 147 postseason games and smacking 185 hits, meaning he has easily eclipsed 3,000 even if the almanac currently gives him credit only for his 2,998 in the regular season.

So, readjusting his career numbers accordingly, Jeter's 3,000th meaningful major-league hit -- spring training and All-Star games aside -- happened on June 12, 2010 in a home game against the Astros. Unknown to all assembled, he entered with 2,999 regular- and postseason hits and smacked a 2-0 pitch from the Astros' Wandy Rodriguez over the left-centerfield wall for a first-inning home run, the first of two homers he hit that day.

But for as long as regular-season hits are the sole number worth counting, Jeter remains two hits away from the milestone achieved by only 27 other players in baseball history. On Thursday he smacked the first pitch he saw for a double, though he finished 1-for-5 thanks in part to Tampa Bay third baseman Sean Rodriguez diving to rob him on a ball down the line and later scooping a slow bouncer for the game's final out.

"That hurt my feelings a little bit," Jeter joked about Rodriguez's diving stop, before noting that the first at-bat double gave him confidence that he could reach the magic number in this game. "After the first one, I'd be lying to you if I said I didn't think it was attainable today."

Jeter has three more games at home against the Rays before the All-Star Game and a road trip to Toronto after the break, though he says he's not putting any undue pressure on himself to get to 3,000.

"My focus most of the time is trying to get a hit anyway," Jeter said.

The chase suffered an unexpected hiatus when a calf strain sent him to the disabled list for 18 games, but Jeter has swung the bat well in his last three games, tallying four hits with three of them doubles -- the first time all season he's had three straight games with an extra-base hit.

But otherwise this major milestone isn't coming in the midst of the season Jeter probably envisioned. After an acrimonious offseason contract negotiation, Jeter owns career lows in batting average (. 257), on-base percentage (. 321) and slugging percentage (. 329).

Little of that matters here and now, as the celebration commemorating Jeter's 3,000th hit will be deservedly grand. Many recent career milestones across the sport involved tainted home-run totals. This achievement can be lauded guilt-free.

Jeter is already the record holder for hits by a shortstop and hits by a Yankee. The latter is improbable given the legends in franchise history -- Lou Gehrig reached 2,721, Babe Ruth got to 2,518, Mickey Mantle stopped at 2,415, Bernie Williams had 2,336 and Joe DiMaggio finished his career with 2,214 -- and the former is indication of the rigors of playing his position, which he still does surehandedly even though he's lost a step or two of range.

"Whenever you talk about someone with 3,000 hits," New York manager Joe Girardi said, "you have to talk about consistency and longevity."

Girardi was one of several who paired those two words in describing the milestone and, implicitly, Jeter, who has averaged 152 games in his 15 full seasons.

"One thing I always wanted to do was for the organization to have a pretty good idea who was going to play shortstop," Jeter said. "I take a lot of pride in going out there every single day, and that's why I like to play every day. Probably the most difficult thing to do in our sport is be consistent."

Five years after he was in rookie ball, several members of the Yankees brass, including Dick Groch, the scout who signed him, gathered in the organization's offices in Tampa and compared the play of Jeter and three other players to their first professional season. And what, in the interim, had changed about Jeter?

"Not a darn thing," Groch said.

Groch, who attended Thursday night's game as a guest of the Yankees even though he's now a special assistant to the general manager for the Brewers, noted that Jeter was bigger, stronger and wiser but his form remarkably stayed the same.

The longtime scout said that Jeter was the greatest player he ever scouted. The first time he laid eyes on the star from Kalamazoo Central High was at an all-star showcase in Michigan. Groch was standing next to a baseball coach from Michigan State, who marveled at Jeter's athleticism and remarked that he needed to send the teenager an information packet, to which Groch quipped, "Save your postage."

The Yankees made Jeter the No. 6 overall pick of the 1992 draft, and when he tried using his scholarship offer to Michigan as leverage in negotiations, a few front-office personnel grew concerned they might lose him, though Groch assured them otherwise.

"The only place Derek Jeter's going is to Cooperstown," Groch said.

That spot is already assured for the 11-time All-Star and 2000 World Series MVP, but it's worth noting that the only three members of the 3,000-hit club not enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame are Pete Rose (for gambling on baseball), Rafael Palmeiro (primarily for a positive steroid test) and Craig Biggio (not yet eligible for election)."

Along with "longevity" and "consistency," the fellow apt descriptors deployed regularly in summary of Jeter's career are "professional" and "clutch."

"I've always been impressed at how hard he runs to first base," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "That's always stood out to me. I've even seen him hurt with leg injuries, but for that 90 feet he would put it together and run to first base. I really appreciate that about a major-league baseball player as much as anything, a position player, that guy chooses to run hard to first base all the time. That really impresses me."

Even a player like Evan Longoria -- the Rays third baseman, like Jeter, was AL Rookie of the Year as a 22-year-old and is one of the few both young enough and established enough to potentially make a run at the milestone -- was struck by the enormity of 3,000 hits.

"It's kind of unfathomable," Longoria said. "It really is an incredible number. It's an incredible number. I've never actually done the math for it, but it's a ridiculous amount of hits for a lot of years."

The math is staggering. Jeter himself noted before the game how difficult it is to get 200 hits in a season, something he's done seven times and whose repetition would seem to be a prerequisite for 3,000.

"In order to get to 3,000 hits, you have to do that for 15 years," Jeter said of 200-hit seasons. "So to be on that list, you have to play for a very, very long time."

Jeter will continue to play for a while longer -- his current contract runs through 2013 with a player option for 2014 -- and so he'll pass this milestone and onto others, such as becoming the first player with a different sort of 200-hit season: the first to have 200 career hits in the postseason. He'll undoubtedly demur in celebrating that admittedly more obscure milestone, but it's worth acknowledging as part of Jeter's total legacy. While he deserves the forthcoming accolades for 3,000 hits, it's only part of his Hall of Fame career.

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