By Ted Keith
September 12, 2009

At 8:23 p.m. Friday evening, No. 2 became No. 1 when for the 2,722nd time in his Hall of Fame career, Derek Jeter delivered a base hit. Yet, for the first time in his career, Derek Jeter had no idea what to do next. In a historic and unforgettable run as the Yankees shortstop and centerpiece, Jeter had been defined by his preternatural calm, his corporate cool, and his quiet confidence. But after singling sharply into right field in the third inning at Yankee Stadium to surpass Lou Gehrig as the team's all-time hits leader, for the first time in his career, those characteristics deserted him. Suddenly, he was a man alone with his moment, and over 46,000 fans were singling him out for a prolonged ovation 14 years in the making, causing Jeter to temporarily feel what must be the most foreign of emotions to him: out of place on the field where he is normally completely at ease.

"I didn't know what to do," he admitted after the game.

So he stood there, drinking in the raucous cheers from a crowd that had endured an hour and a half rain delay to watch his chance at history. The new Yankee Stadium finally had a moment to resemble the old one, and it came courtesy of the man who, even if he didn't build this new ballpark, managed to at least give it a jolt of electricity like no has before. He waved to his mother, who almost didn't make it to the game in time from Tampa, and father sitting in a luxury suite, then accepted the hugs from teammates who came to join him on the field, once again catching him off guard. It was clear that Jeter looked just the slightest bit uncomfortable, just as he had when he got the record-tying hit Wednesday night and said he "felt kind of awkward" because he didn't know how to respond to the cheers that night either. And so he was not at all disappointed when after two and a half minutes and endless echoes of the "DEREK, JETER!" chants that the game resumed. He knew only that it was time to get back to work.

In so many ways, that -- as much as the impressive hits total -- encapsulates who Jeter is and why this achievement should be celebrated. Even in a moment that Jeter himself acknowledged was the greatest individual accomplishment of his career, his focus immediately returned to the task of winning. It is a goal that has famously driven and consumed him daily, so much so that even his teammates are in awe. "That's the only thing he wants to do," said Jorge Posada, shaking his head. "He just wants to win every game. It's unbelievable. He sets the standard so high."

"To see the drive, every day, to get after it and play the game hard and not give away at-bats ... it's a grind," said Andy Pettitte, who like Posada first met Jeter during the latter's inaugural season of pro ball in 1992. "I knew [then] that he was special, from the way he carried himself with a lot of class, a lot of charisma, a lot of confidence for such a young guy."

As the young Jeter gave way to the older version, such hosannas quickly began to grate on fans around the country who looked at this 200-hit machine and yearly winner who was described as perfect on the field and impeccable off it and still felt he was lacking ... something. His pursuit of Gehrig offered just another example. There was some debate as to whether this was getting too much attention, but a major Yankees career record is broken about as often as a new royal ascends to the throne in England, so if this was being treated as a coronation, so be it. At 35 years old, Jeter is back in the thick of the MVP discussion, batting leadoff, playing a demanding defensive position and doing both as well, if not better, than ever, and all for the best team in baseball. "I don't think he's ever played better," said Alex Rodriguez. "This is the best I've seen him play in six years. I've learned so much from him, he's motivated me and inspired me."

Rodriguez recently discovered that Jeter had not missed a single scheduled workout with the Yankees strength coach all season, a testament to his famous work ethic and dedication that left A-Rod in amazement. But even if Jeter's relentless pursuit of excellence may have been the standard by which his teammates measure themselves and is not new, it still has the capacity to amaze.

"It's unbelievable what he does," says manager Joe Girardi. "He's so consistent. He gets 200 hits a year, every year. They're normal Derek Jeter years, but all those normal years add up to greatness."

Now Jeter enters the next, and final stage of his career. He is still every bit a star today that he has been for so long, but his record-breaking single sends him into a new chapter. It is one where he competes as much as history and the greats who came before him as with any of the contemporaries with who he battles daily. Tonight, it was Gehrig and the Yankees career hits record that fell. Soon, he can make a full-on assault at 3,000 hits. Then, assuming he remains healthy and maintains the desire to do so, could be a realistic challenge at 4,000 and perhaps even Pete Rose's 4,256. And if he plays that long, who knows what else he might accomplish?

If nothing else, he will be changing the opinions of those who have made a sport out of searching for holes in his resume. They will soon have to concede, if they haven't already, that they are watching a truly unique player who will be considered, as Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said Friday, "one of the greats of his generation, if not all-time." Indeed, Jeter is not the perfect player or the perfect person, and the praise for him may have at times been excessive, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to view him so cynically when he continues to excel.

Even Jeter, that most stoic of stars, is trying to appreciate it. Posada called Jeter his best friend but also said "he doesn't really open up." Indeed, Jeter has rarely allowed glimpses into his true thoughts or reflected too deeply or too publicly on his feelings, but after tying the mark on Wednesday, he said, "I've had a tough time in my career enjoying things as they happen. I'm always so focused on the next game. I've been told to try and enjoy these things but it's still kind of hard."

If Jeter has a hard time admiring the masterpiece he is painting, those closest to him do not. Posada says they take his greatness for granted, and Rodriguez calls his relentless success, "like a machine, like a robot." Adds Pettitte, "He's been extremely special to watch."

Fans everywhere should feel the same way.

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