Derek Jeter laughs while warming up for an ALCS game...

Derek Jeter laughs while warming up for an ALCS game in 2010. Credit: John Dunn

For a major-league batter, the holy grail is getting 3,000 career hits. Three-thousand is the number that makes someone a lock for the Hall of Fame, the number that defines a hitter and shapes his legacy. Except if the batter is Derek Jeter.

Oh, the 3,000-hit landmark will be on Jeter's plaque in Cooperstown and his monument beyond the centerfield fence at Yankee Stadium. It just won't be the first line, or even the second. Better play will go to words such as "championships" and "captain" and, obviously, "Yankees" -- words that describe his career better than any statistic ever could.

That is irony that comes with Jeter having reached one of the most cherished numbers in baseball. It is just another occasion to notice that Jeter just can't be captured by numbers.

No figure can detail his knack for making the perfect play at just the right moment. Some of those moments have even developed their own titles: The Flip. The Dive.

No bar graph explains what it meant for his team when, the night after the Mets won a game in the 2000 World Series and had visions of gaining momentum, Jeter hit a home run on the first pitch of the next game.

There is no scale of 1 to 100 to tell what it meant to see Jeter become the first Mr. November in World Series history, hitting a game-ending shot in the post-9/11 postseason.

There is no quantifying how natural it was that one of the most fabled homers of the current Yankees era, the one caught in 1996 by Jeffrey Maier, was hit by Jeter. Nor is there any tabulating how confident the Yankees have always been when the opposing team hits a ground ball into the hole, or when the game is on the line and Jeter is at bat.


Clutch and consistency

"He's the best clutch player in baseball," his friend and teammate, Tino Martinez, said after Jeter hit a walk-off home run against the Red Sox on April 5, 2005. "It's tough to describe it to people that don't see him all the time because the stats aren't there. But if you see the day-in, day-out performances, he's the best."

Not that Jeter has been overlooked as the Yankees' shortstop. Jeter has been the Rookie of the Year, the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player, the World Series MVP, a five-time Gold Glove winner and the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. He has had major endorsements by the dozen. He is talked about so much that his major-league peers voted him third in a recent anonymous poll to name the most overrated player in the big leagues.

Jeter was not amused. "Consistency is underrated," he said, with the emphasis on the first part of the last word.

That's the point. There is no putting a figure on Jeter making all the small plays as well as the big ones, and on playing hard every day. What the years have shown -- since he was an injury-replacement call-up in May 1995 and hit a fifth-inning single against Seattle's Tim Belcher -- is that no statistic can measure Jeter.

He never has won a batting title. He is not a slugger, having never hit more than 24 home runs in a season or led the American League in runs batted in. He never has led the league in stolen bases, either. And still he is an icon.

"It's not like there is one thing that comes to mind, like Babe Ruth's 714 home runs or 60 home runs in 1927, or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak," said Bob Waterman of the Elias Sports Bureau, the official statistical organization for Major League Baseball. "I don't think there is a single number for Jeter -- even though his statistics are quite good.

"The statistics go along with how he carries himself. When you think of all the things that the Yankees are known for or that they stand for," Waterman said, "he is the embodiment of those."


Iconic image

Marc Ganis, president of the Chicago-based sports consulting firm SportsCorp, has studied Jeter's unique appeal for years. "What has made him an icon is that he is not what typically makes a great baseball player great. Baseball is a sport of numbers, and he is not about numbers," Ganis said. "With him, it is a combination of the way he carries himself and the style of play he has. He is the voice of the Yankees and has been for quite some time. When there is a major event, Jeter takes the microphone. When someone has got to accept a trophy, Jeter does it. When it was time to give George Steinbrenner his championship ring in his box, Jeter did that."

Jeter was significant enough to have Steinbrenner once publicly chide him, as the owner did with other stars, only to turn it into a TV commercial spoof. The image of Steinbrenner as the caboose in a Jeter-led conga line was another public relations victory for Jeter.

After Jeter broke Lou Gehrig's record for most hits as a Yankee in 2009, the club issued this statement from Steinbrenner: "For those who say today's game can't produce legendary players, I have two words: Derek Jeter."

Is he a legend like Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio? History will decide. It can't be denied that his stature is not all about performance. It owes at least something to the team he plays for, the market he plays in and other factors. "Never underestimate the importance of physical attractiveness," said Ganis, a marketing expert who knows that the gossip pages never hurt anyone's Q rating.

"The guy has not lived the life of a Trappist monk, but he also doesn't have controversies," Ganis said. "He understands that he is captain of the Yankees, 24/7 and 365, and he acts accordingly."


Comparable to Bill Russell

Substance stands behind Jeter's style. In an informal conversation a few writers had with Mets manager Bobby Valentine during the 2000 World Series, someone suggested to Valentine that there was less to Jeter's game than most people think. Valentine didn't buy it. "He's a great player, a . . . great . . . player," he said.

Jeter is a rare breed of athlete whose best skill is helping his team win. Bill Russell was like that for the Celtics, not averaging 20 points or shooting very well. Yet more than four decades later, he remains one of the most towering figures in NBA history. Jeter isn't the transcending athletic or social figure Russell was, but he does share the center's penchant for titles and storehouse of intangibles.

Maybe Jeter is more comparable to a point guard such as Jason Kidd -- someone whose job is to make everyone else better (although Kidd doesn't have Jeter's five rings).

In identifying so strongly with one franchise, Jeter is like Jean Beliveau of the 1960s Canadiens, Bryan Trottier of the 1980s Islanders or Nicklas Lidstrom of the 2000s Red Wings. All of those players had good statistics, but the statistics seemed superfluous compared to heart and leadership.

Joe Torre, Jeter's longtime manager and "friend for life," had yet another comparison. Torre, a winter resident of Maui, was allowed inside the ropes at the 2004 Mercedes Championships on the PGA Tour. He got to talk with all the pro golfers, including Tiger Woods.

Torre told a reporter that, when he saw the intensity in Woods' eyes, "I said, 'That's Jeter!' " That was the best compliment he could come up with. Jeter obviously never was as dominant in his game as Woods was in golf, but Torre believed there was just something about both guys. Years later, The Gillette Company agreed, bringing the two together with Roger Federer for a series of commercials.

What Jeter has in common with those athletes is that numbers don't describe him as well as images do:

Hitting a home run on Opening Day in 1996 after being named the everyday starting shortstop (the first Yankees rookie to homer on Opening Day since Jerry Kenney in 1969).

Leaping in the air to make a strong, accurate throw, like a 1950s jump-pass quarterback.

Racing from shortstop past the first-base line, gathering an overthrown relay from rightfield and backhand-flipping the ball to catcher Jorge Posada to retire Oakland's Jeremy Giambi and preserve a 1-0 lead in an elimination game.

Crashing chin-first into the stands after catching a fair ball in the 12th inning of a July 1, 2004 game against the Red Sox, a play that landed him in the hospital for stitches.

Speaking unscripted after the final game at the old Yankee Stadium -- "Now, the great thing about memories is you're able to pass it along from generation to generation," he said.

There is no category for that sort of thing in fantasy baseball, no column in the welter of modern baseball statistics.

Three thousand is a nice, round number. But it doesn't say all that much about the guy who just recorded it.

"I do understand it's a game of numbers and people are going to pay attention to your numbers, say you did this or that," he told The New York Times in 2006. "I would love to hit .400 . . . But that shouldn't be your main focus. Your main focus should be whether you win or lose."

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