As Rose watches, Jeter keeps closing in
By JOSHUA PRAGER
The New York Times | August 19,2012
Derek Jeter is slightly more than 1,000 hits behind all-time leader Pete Rose. The question is can Jeter hang on long enough to surpass Rose’s 4,256?
Derek Jeter stood on first base. His single in Seattle had pulled the rookie to within 4,255 hits of baseball’s career leader, Pete Rose. The ball was retrieved. He was 20 years old.
Jeter is now 38 and a baseball immortal. Even before he steps to the plate for his next at-bat, he is rounding third and heading for home — more than three-quarters of the way to 4,256. Jeter, going into two weekend games against the Boston Red Sox, was 1,008 hits behind Rose.
A thousand hits. Can he do it? Jeter amassed his fastest 1,000 in 749 games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. His slowest, meantime, took 801 games over five seasons, a stretch that ended this summer. Barring the miraculous, Jeter would be far slower still to the next thousand. That would put him at age 44 or 45 when he reaches Rose, if he is still playing. It is no coincidence that in the history of baseball, only one man had 1,000 hits after turning 38: Rose himself.
Still, in this, his 18th season, Jeter has found his inner rookie; he is batting .319 and leading all of baseball in hits with 160. (He also has the most at-bats.) And the four primary factors that beget hits — beyond monumental talent — are all in Jeter’s favor.
First, Jeter is in great physical shape and has sustained just one bad injury in 18 years. Second, he plays (and always has) toward the top of a lineup on a great offensive team, which gets him more at-bats. Third, he hustles each at-bat. Fourth, he plays shortstop, a position that demands just modest offense and so, his legend aside, he will be less prone to be replaced even if his production declines.
But that last proviso is a big one. Shortstop is a demanding position made for young legs. Just three men have played more games at shortstop than Jeter.
Omar Vizquel has played the most, 2,709. But Vizquel, the senior Blue Jay, who will retire come autumn at the age of 45, has played just nine of those games this season and 34 at five other positions. Vizquel, the oldest ever to play shortstop, said there comes a disconnect between the mind, which thinks it can make a play, and the body, which can’t. He said that Jeter “just has to wait for his body to let him know.”
Jeter has played 2,497 games at shortstop, 43 at designated hitter and zero elsewhere. Looking ahead, where should he play?
There are many opinions. The retired pitcher Jim Kaat, a baseball analyst for the MLB Network, suggests that in time Jeter will DH a lot, adding, “The only other logical place would be first base.” But Rob Neyer, a columnist and editor for SB Nation, points out that Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira is signed through 2016 and says that Jeter’s inevitable decline as a hitter will render his use as DH nonsensical.
Third base, he says, might fit Jeter (were Alex Rodriguez to DH more), as might left field. But Kaat said he believed that left field would prove too much ground for Jeter to cover well.
Brian Cashman, the Yankees’ general manager, is not so sure.
“I’m not proposing this,” Cashman was careful to state first, “but his skill set, his athleticism, is like a Robin Yount.”
Yount, of course, moved to center field from shortstop.
But Yount left shortstop at age 29, and Cashman says he will not know what Jeter is capable of and where he might fit best until his contract expires next season. (Jeter will have the option to remain with the team in 2014 at a substantial pay cut.)
Whatever position he might move to, it will be a difficult decision. On the one hand, Jeter is hitting very well and fielding adequately, and the mere suggestion of shooing him from short borders on blasphemy.
On the other hand, in the history of baseball, according to Elias, just three men age 40 or older have played at least 100 games at shortstop in a season: Honus Wagner, Luke Appling and Vizquel. And so someday soon it will be apparent to even Jeter that if he wants to keep hitting, he will have to yield his position.
Such prognostication, of course, is predicated on two assumptions: that Jeter will wish to keep playing when his contract expires at age 40, and that the Yankees and their captain will come to agreement on a new deal.
At least one Jeter fan is sure that they will. Says Pete Rose: “He’s not the kind of guy who’s going to play for another team.”
Rose was that kind of guy. He played for three teams (at six positions). Anywhere to keep getting hits.
“I’d like to always be the hit king,” Rose said, speaking last Tuesday from Las Vegas. “I would. Because I worked hard.”
But he added that he admired Jeter and his constant effort, and he admitted to following his pursuer very closely.
“I’ll watch him tonight,” he said, hours before Jeter singled to left and singled to center. “I watch him every night.”
To watch Jeter is to see a Michelangelo with a bat.
“I don’t think very many people understand how unique he is, as a hitter,” Bill James, the father of advanced baseball statistics, wrote in an email.”At-bat after at-bat, he is able to hit the ball to right field NOT by swinging late, but by just clipping the inside of the baseball, hitting the ball off-center so that it flares off his bat to right field. Other people do it once in a while by accident, but I’ve never seen anybody other than Jeter do it constantly.”
Indeed, his infield hits aside, Jeter has, according to Elias, 1,083 hits to right field, far more than to left (897) or center (852).
Rose, 71, has given much thought to whether Jeter might catch him. Over the phone, he offered up a remarkable impromptu analysis, weighing Jeter’s career and current statistics against the inevitable decline that had befallen, said Rose, even “me, Willie, Hank,” the last two being Mays and Aaron.
It will, Rose said, come down to whether Jeter gets the number of at-bats that Rose himself compiled.
“That’s what’s going to be difficult.”
At the close of this season, Jeter will have had about 10,500 career at-bats, some 3,550 fewer than Rose’s career total, 14,053. If Jeter plays, as Rose did, another seven seasons until he is 45, he will have to average roughly 140 hits in 500 at-bats per season, or a .280 batting average, for a thousand more hits.
“The last thousand are a lot harder to get than the first 3,000,” said Rose, who in his final seven seasons batted .274, with 884 hits in 3,229 at-bats. “When you deteriorate, it can go fast.”
One of the few ballplayers to ever approach 4,000 hits was, on a recent day, rolling his foot back and forth over a bumpy blue ball and contemplating decline.
“The toughest thing about baseball is you don’t know why you’re doing — or not doing — this or that,” the player, Ichiro Suzuki, said.
Suzuki, the Yankees outfielder, had at that point amassed a combined 3,830 hits in Japan and the United States, a remarkable if unofficial total. But his annual hit total was set to decline for the third straight season. Was age to blame?
“It’s not that your physical body gains weight, but that your thinking gains weight,” said Suzuki, who is 38. He tightened a belt about a waist that had been 31 inches all his career and explained that expectation was a burden that only grew. The outside world always let you know when a milestone was within reach.
Did he know Rose’s hit total? Suzuki thought and spoke the number slowly, pausing before each digit: “Four thousand ... two hundred ... eighty ... six?” Close.
It was then that Jeter appeared at his locker. Eight months younger than Suzuki, he was, on this August afternoon, still squarely in the extended prime of a career, well on pace for 200 hits this season, something only three others at least his age had done: Sam Rice (twice), Paul Molitor and Rose. He started to dress. Could he catch Rose? Could he get a thousand more hits?
“I don’t pay attention to prognostication, prediction,” he said, putting on socks, jock, pants, jersey. “One of the worst phrases in sports is `on pace for.”’
And yet, Jeter appreciates milestones. He recounted that several years ago in spring training, he and a group of players were reading the media guide and “were all shocked that no Yankee had ever had 3,000 hits.” Now one has. And asked if he knew how many career hits Rose had, he allowed that he did and spoke aloud the last two numbers of that total after this reporter spoke the first two: “56.” Jeter knew how many more hits he had to go. A thousand hits.
Jeter put on his cleats and cap, and said that he did not know when he would retire, did not know when the voice of Bob Sheppard would introduce him for the last time over the public address system: “Now batting for the Yankees, No. 2, Derek Jeter, No. 2.”
Jeter explained: “I don’t know how you’d sit around and think about the end of something.”
He did know, though, that that end was not near.
“I’m having fun,” he said. With that — at 4:02 p.m., three hours, three minutes before he would run to short for the start of the game — he smiled, grabbed his glove and was gone, off, as always, to face the very first pitch of batting practice.