Thursday, May 31, 2007
Mike Vaccaro: Jeter is Already One of the Greats
[Flashback...'cause I missed this one last week. - jtf]
The New York Post
May 24, 2007 -- THE old-timers don't want to hear this, of course, because the sacrilege is so extreme as to knock them out cold where they stand. It doesn't matter that the final sentence the great Red Smith ever wrote spoke of his belief that he would one day see another Joe DiMaggio.
"There was only one DiMaggio," is what they tell you.
Of course, every year there are fewer and fewer eye-witnesses to the feats of the great DiMaggio. Mostly, we rely on oral history and tales told from father to son.
And here's the thing: If you listen closely to those words, if you follow closely to those stories, they all have a familiar ring to them. They speak of an athlete of such grace that he seemed to be playing in 3/4 time while everyone else was at 4/4. They talk of effortlessness while playing a game that demands supreme effort out of most mortals.
"The thing about Joe," Phil Rizzuto once told me, "is that you could bring someone to the stadium who'd never seen baseball in his life, and the first thing they'd do is point to him and say, 'Who's that one?' "
Derek Jeter collected a couple of base hits in his first two plate appearances last night, part of the Yankees' assault and battery on Curt Schilling, part of the early crush that helped salt away this 8-3 victory before it could ever reach a critical moment. The first one was the 2,214th hit of Jeter's career. That tied Joe DiMaggio on the Yankees' all-time list.
The second was No. 2,215. That put Jeter alone in fifth place in Yankees history. He is a month away from his 33rd birthday, and it's becoming clear that he's not only a cinch to cruise to 3,000 hits - becoming, quite remarkably, the first Yankee to ever reach that forever milestone - but has a wonderful chance to become only the third man ever born to reach 4,000.
It's always been fashionable to say that the numbers don't define Jeter, but the fact is they do define him, they have to. His lifetime batting average entering last night was .318. In club history the only men north of him on that list have names like Ruth and Gehrig and Combs and, yes, DiMaggio.
"I won't lie," Jeter said. "When you hear your name mentioned with Joe's . . . that's pretty incredible."
What may be most remarkable is the season he's strung together in 2007. With warnings of a falling sky every few days, with everyone else on his roster suffering bouts of self-doubt and self-loathing (save for Jorge Posada - no coincidence they are the most inseparable Yankees), Jeter has been an absolute beacon of consistency. He has played 44 games. He has hits in 41 of them, and in one of the three hitless games he was forced to leave after the first inning with a wrist injury.
It's enough to hearken to DiMaggio, again. It was DiMaggio's brother, Dominic, who described best what it was like to watch Joe during May, June and July of 1941, when he assembled his fabled 56-game hitting streak.
"Most people who play this game, good as they are, it's still something of a pleasant surprise when you see them get a hit," Dominic said last year. "But in '41, whenever my brother made an out, that was the surprise. That's the kind of groove he was in."
And that's how Jeter looks, and has looked, all season long. He is never going to be as spectacular as Alex Rodriguez was in April, not even for a little while. But there really is something magnificent in the simple things he does so well, and so much better than most of the other people who play this game. There is something joyful about watching all of that.
Leading off the seventh inning last night, Jeter hit a ball to the left-center gap. When Jose Reyes hits one there, you see flames on the basepaths. With Jeter, there was just an easy glide. But he wound up on third base, too, career hit No. 2,216. And you get the sense, if someone was at Yankee Stadium watching his first baseball game, he would have pointed to Jeter, and he would have had to ask his neighbor a question.
"Who's that one?"