My 3,000th Hit

Derek Jeter gave me the only baseball I ever got at a game. It was spring training in Tampa, and I was watching the Yankees practice from behind the dugout. Jeter jogged in with a ball, about to give it to the crowd. At first, I started to wave for it, but then, noticing the other 20 similarly aged kids around me doing the exact same thing, I figured it was pointless. I just sat there with a wry smile as Jeter looked around to see which pair of frantic, gesticulating hands seemed most deserving. But none of them got it. He looked at me, matched my expression, and flipped me the baseball.

That moment says very little to me about Jeter. It could have happened with any player and any personality. Imagine Barry Bonds doing the same thing. "Of course that jackass gives the ball to the least-interested kid," the parent two seats away would have said. I don't know Jeter. I won't draw any conclusions about his personality from this moment, just as I won't draw any conclusions about his abilities from the leadoff home run in the 2000 World Series or his November walkoff in 2001. They are all small sample sizes.

So was Saturday. Going by his career norms, Jeter's 3,000th hit shouldn't have been a home run. He shouldn't have had the best offensive day of his life. It was a coincidence. That is far from a knock on the Captain; it's a criticism of the people who think it is possible for a player like that to exist. He treats every situation the same, we're told, and yet he also rises to the occasion. He was always a great fielder, yet he deserves credit for correcting a severe, long-standing fielding flaw. He ages less than a year per year. Jeter has always been too many fantasies at once.

He was lucky this weekend, just as he was lucky that Jeremy Giambi didn't slide after The Flip and that he fell to the sixth spot in the '92 draft, and there's nothing wrong with being lucky. He's also really good. The problem with The Derek Jeter Story is that it doesn't concern itself with making that distinction. It treats his getting drafted by New York ("He wanted to play for them since he was a kid!") in the same way that it treats his ability to hit to the opposite field about as well as anyone ever has — as a matter of Jeter bending the universe to his will. This media-driven phenomenon clouds his true value, which is that he's one of the 100 best players ever, one of the five best Yankees ever, one of the five best shortstops ever. It's the Ecksteinification of a Hall of Famer. Conflating serendipity and skill does a disservice to the skill.

Then there's the other crime: It ignores the joy of the fluke itself. When the 3,000th hit landed in the seats, I probably wasn't happier than the people who genuinely thought he would homer, but I felt like I was: I saw something improbable. Michael Kay merely saw Derek Jeter do what the Derek Jeter of his imagination always does. It was one of the best games of Jeter's career without any context, a performance that would have been a one-in-a-thousand thing in his prime. The beauty of the moment wasn't that it should have happened, but that it shouldn't have.

Saturday says little about Jeter and more about the frantic, gesticulating media around him. In their hands, it's another piece of a phony narrative that obscures the player being wreathed in praise. In mine, it's something else. I still have that ball.