Three hundred wins. Five hundred home runs. Three thousand hits. All of these statistical milestones are said to be the benchmarks for no-doubt status as a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer.
Every eligible member of the 300-win club is in the Hall of Fame. The only three eligible members of the 500-home run club not enshrined — Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro — have steroid allegations, and the only players with 3,000 hits not in Cooperstown are Craig Biggio (hasn’t been retired long enough), Palmeiro (steroids) and some guy named Pete Rose (who I’d put in the HOF, but that’s another story for another time).
As Derek Jeter approaches the 3,000-hit plateau, his Hall of Fame status is imminent. A contract extension this summer would make him the face of the world’s most successful franchise for a nearly 20-year period. Love him or hate him, Jeter will go down as one of the most successful athletes in history, in terms on-field production, championships, and I guess what Rod Tidwell called “the quan”: “Love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The entire package.” Derek Jeter is Mr. New York Yankee, and soon enough he may be Mr. First Ballot Hall of Famer.
Jeter is in a tier with immortals of our sporting culture: the Larry Birds, the Mario Lemieuxs, the John Elways. When I think of these players, the next word to come to mind is “greatness.” It’s a greatness that goes beyond statistics, though they have the numbers to back it up, anyway.
Maybe it’s the quan, or perhaps even the eye-test, but these players also have the respect that goes with being great. Just as Bird certainly isn’t Michael Jordan, Jeter is not Babe Ruth, yet their names are idealized as if they were the greatest to ever play the game. Is Barry Bonds the best hitter ever to walk the Earth? You could argue that. But is he the greatest to ever play? Few people would support you there, largely because he also happens to be one of the biggest jerks ever to put on a uniform. Greatness cannot be achieved without respect, and it’s a trait Jeter has by the boatload. It also happens to be just as important as stats when looking back on a player.
An awful big deal is being made about Jeter’s quest for hit No. 3,000. It’s a marketing opportunity for the Yankees, but as a student of baseball (and even as a guy with Jeter’s face on my bedroom wall), I’m really not sure it matters. Currently sitting on 2,998, he’ll have one more hit than before when he gets 2,999, and one more than that when he reaches 3,000.
This is Derek Jeter we’re talking about. He’s not a borderline guy like Mike Mussina, whose HOF stock would’ve drastically improved had he reached a major milestone like 300 wins. Even if he gets in an accident on the way to Yankee Stadium this weekend and can never play again, Derek Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who goes down as one of the best to ever play the game.
Even those who knock Jeter’s defense can’t argue against how great his offense was and is, especially in a position that was not known for hitting. Jeter’s offensive wins above replacement is the third-best ever among shortstops, only behind Alex Rodriguez, who switched to third base so Jeter could play shortstop, and Honus Wagner, whose rookie season was 1897. In terms of regular WAR, even with his weaker defensive abilities in a normally defensive position, he is still 55th all-time, and every player ahead of him a Hall of Famer, save Pete Rose (banned), Bill Dahlen (rookie season 1891), Barry Bonds (steroids), and the players who haven’t been retired long enough yet to qualify.
In the movie Mr. 3000, Stan Ross comes out of retirement to collect the last three hits in his 3,000 that were taken from him when a counting mistake was uncovered after he went of the Hall of Fame ballot.
The sportswriters didn’t vote him into the HOF probably because he was a jerk, and without 3,000 hits they could point to that as a reason for rejection. He needed the last three base knocks to potentially elevate his Cooperstown status, as well as secure the chain of “Mr. 3000” stores he owned in Milwaukee.
Derek Jeter doesn’t need any of that. All he has left to do is pick out a head shot for his plaque in Cooperstown, and,this may just be a hunch, but I don’t think he’ll have to worry about money after retirement. Unlike Stan Ross, Jeter is married, and has his life together. The spotlight has never been too big for him and he has always handled the media very well.
Another milestone for Jeter is like buying a Christmas present for someone like him: what do you get a man who has everything? Three thousand hits is nice, but not only does it not matter to Jeter, it doesn’t mean that much to anyone else in his position who achieves the feat. Anyone who gets that far already has a slew of achievements, and the 3,000-hit club is the least exclusive of three major milestones.
There was hardly as much fuss about 3,000 hits when Craig Biggio became the club’s 27th member; most of the hype is because the player is the captain of the Yankees, not because it matters that much.
Twenty-five players have hit 500 home runs and 24 players have won 300 games. When Jeter becomes the 28th player with 3,000 hits, you might say 28 isn’t that far from 25 and 24, but it is when you take into account the differences in today’s game. Baseball may never have another 300-game winner. CC Sabathia currently has the best shot, but he is just over halfway there. It looks as if a few players could surpass 500 home runs, but with steroids finally on the way out, long ball totals will taper off, as we are already seeing this season.
However, 3,000 hits is a milestone that will be passed again. A-Rod, for example, will be in the chase towards the end of next season. Will anyone care?
If a lesser player (say, Johnny Damon) ever achieves the milestone, he may need to have “3,000 hit club” flashed next to his name on ESPN to give him credibility when they’re discussing his name for HOF potential. For players like Jeter and A-Rod? ESPN will have a hard time fitting that one in.