What Does ‘3,000 Hits’ Really Mean?

The New York Times

July 7, 2011

By Doug Glanville


The Yankees released me from my contract in 2005. Several years later, I texted Derek Jeter, who still had the same cellphone number, to ask whether he would inscribe a bat to my newborn son. (It arrived the next day; this is the Derek Jeter I know.) Now a few more years have gone by, and Jeter, 37; my son, 3; and my daughter, nearly 2, all find themselves very much tangled up in ... numbers.

Jeter, after a stint on the disabled list, returned this week to the Yankees lineup, where he had a date with his 3,000th career hit. The children are in the early stages of learning to count. My son can safely get to 20, though he always skips 15, and 15, as it happens, is exactly where my daughter tails off (for her, six is the number that apparently has cooties and gets skipped). My kids don’t attach a lot to what these, or any, numbers mean.

Yet their father’s life in baseball was very much about numbers. I was evaluated according to my batting average, my stolen-base percentage, my salary. Even retroactively, sabermetric terms measure previously unheard-of abilities, like my B.A.B.I.P. That’s Batting Average on Balls in Play, which I certainly didn’t take to arbitration when I was a player.

But it wasn’t until I retired six years ago and had the luxury of reflection that I started to understand how all these numbers fit into the big picture, beyond how I performed for someone’s fantasy team that week. And I’ve concluded that I owe it to my kids to teach them that numbers can tell a story, especially in the game that meant so much to their father.

Jeter’s march to his 3,000th hit has brought this world of numbers into focus. There has been no skipping of steps for him. He couldn’t go from 5 hits to 15, from 2,000 to 2,400, in a single day, let alone a single moment. Baseball doesn’t grant you six points for reaching the end zone, or two points for a bucket. Getting hits in baseball is the ultimate stroll in the park: you go from point to point, at-bat to at-bat, and even when you succeed, you advance in increments of just one.

A hitter’s accomplishments are therefore cumulative. Even if you’re talented and lucky, you ooze your way to greatness. Along the way, you are never sure exactly where you fit into the landscape of other players’ journeys — past, present or future. You spend much of your time just hoping to keep the ooze moving forward, worrying that it may swallow you whole the minute you let up.

I amassed 1,100 total hits at the major league level, over almost nine full seasons. Only once did I surpass the single-season magic number of 200 hits, something Jeter has already done seven times. To get 3,000 hits, you have to average 200 hits for 15 seasons — a phenomenal career. By the time Jeter turned 25, he was in his fifth year and working on his second 200-hit season. I didn’t even arrive in the major leagues until I was 25.

And Jeter has done it all outside the taint of the steroid scandal. His name is absent from subpoenas, and the Mitchell report on illegal substances, and leaked lists of suspect players. Most major leaguers who play a long time experience a bell curve in the arc of their careers. You spend a few years figuring out how to be a peak performer, reach the top of your game for a little while, then fall into a slow, downhill drift to retirement. Your only braking mechanism is the resistance that comes with denial. Rarely do players voluntarily ride into the sunset. Instead, a seasoned manager will find a way to put your pink slip into words, or you might end up licking your wounds after having failed to catch on with a team in Mexico.

Jeter’s career has been more like a plateau curve. He came on the scene at 20, made a near-instant impact, then stayed remarkably consistent and virtually injury-free year in and year out, cruising on a plane of excellence. In many respects, he spoiled us. When you progress on a flat line, outside observers are lulled into the tacit expectation that this is how it’s supposed to be. Players like this produce so deceptively that we miss the escalating work ethic required to stave off age, the sheer dominating focus it takes to be so steady at such a high level.

Now we are watching him slow down, finding out that not even Jeter can avoid the human condition. The fact that the Yankees won 14 of 18 games during his recent time on the D.L. is a reminder that even great personal accomplishment stands on shaky ground when it comes to a humming team machine. So Jeter has two ways to go. He could take his foot off the pedal and ride gravity down the gradual curve to the bottom. Or, it could end much as it began for him and he’ll go down as precipitously as he rose in the game, though his superhero status in the eyes of his supporters may grant him a parachute to soften the landing.

Meanwhile, we’ve enjoyed the counting, hit by hit. And once my kids start to learn about numbers in the thousands, I will tell them that the story of Derek Jeter’s journey to 3,000 wasn’t about numbers at all. It was really about the infinite nature of human possibility.


Republished from The New York Times


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