Derek Jeter sat about three feet away from me and we were the only two people on the private plane, which was the perfect setting for an interview. For as long as it took us to travel from Tampa to New York, Jeter couldn’t escape my questions. Actually, that was our plan since we were collaborating on a book more than a decade ago.
I learned a lot about Jeter on that day, about his family and his friends and what motivates him. But, whenever I tried to get Jeter to speak in specifics about the future, he didn’t bite. He just wanted to keep on playing baseball for the Yankees. Discussing specific career goals, the type of chatter that thrills fans and interests sportswriters, didn’t interest Jeter. He was worried about the next game. That’s it.
As Jeter has compiled a renaissance season as a hitter in 2012, I’ve thought about that interview on the plane. Part of Jeter’s success as a player is his ability to simplify things. On the field, Jeter has the innate ability to slow the game down. Off the field, Jeter has the impressive ability to ignore distractions and focus on the next pitch, the next play and the next game.
Before Tuesday night’s game against the White Sox, Jeter led the Major Leagues with 167 hits and was on pace for 222 hits this season, which would be a career high. Jeter has 3,255 hits, which is tied with Eddie Murray for 11th place on the all-time hit list. Willie Mays, who had 3,283 hits, is Jeter’s next target. Jeter is chasing and passing baseball royalty.
At the age of 38 and now playing his 17th full season, Jeter is playing as well as at any point in his career. Across Jeter’s last 45 games, he is batting .368. He has played in 18 straight games, ignoring the valid notion that a soon-to-be 40-year old could use a rest in August. When I mentioned to Jeter that he hasn’t had a day off in a while, he said, “Wouldn’t be the first time.” And then Jeter ran on to the field to field some grounders.
Because Jeter is performing like the Energizer Bunny of shortstops, there has been speculation about whether he could reach 4,000 hits or if he could even challenge Pete Rose’s record of 4,256. Both of those elusive goals are a long way off. If Jeter finished this season with 3,300 hits, he would need to average 175 hits for the next four seasons to reach 4,000. Jeter is signed through 2013 and has a player option for 2014, which he will surely exercise.
But, rather than focus on the sexy topic of 4,000 hits or the even sexier subject of 4,257 hits, I think there should be some attention on another number: four. There is a very realistic possibility that Jeter will, at the very least, end up with the fourth most hits in history. Let’s stick with 3,300 as Jeter’s hit total after this season. He would need to notch 331 hits in 2013 and 2014 to reach 3,631 and surpass Stan Musial for fourth place, behind Rose, Ty Cobb and Hank Aaron. If Jeter avoids injuries and plays full seasons in 2013 and 2014, he is bound to average at least 165.5 hits a year.
So, while it is fascinating to wonder if Jeter can hunt down Rose, it is a lot more realistic to theorize that he can overtake Musial and put himself in a very special place. Obviously, it would be beyond incredible if Jeter made a run at 4,000 hits or the Hit King. But it would also be incredible and much more probable for Jeter to vault himself behind three of the greatest hitters ever. That pursuit continues with Jeter’s next at-bat, which is as far into the future as he will stare.
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES