Hit No. 3,000 was a big enough deal for Roberto Clemente that he couldn’t sleep after a scorer’s decision cost him the mark. Still, a crowd of just 13,117 turned out in Pittsburgh when he doubled for what would be the biggest and final regular-season hit of a Hall of Fame career.
They didn’t show up knowing the career would be cut tragically short.
What stood for ceremony on Sept. 30, 1972, was a simple doff of the cap at second base and a shake of the umpire’s hand. Later, fellow 3,000 club member Willie Mays — then playing for the New York Mets — would visit the opposing dugout to offer his congratulations.
Contrast that to what probably will happen in the next few days at the house that George Steinbrenner built. Trailed by an HBO documentary crew and watched carefully by reporters from outlets Clemente never would have imagined, Derek Jeter will reach the milestone that defines true hitters in baseball. He’ll be the first one in pinstripes to get his 3,000th hit, and the new Yankee Stadium will have some history of its own.
Nothing wrong with that, even if it promises to be over the top in the way only New York can deliver. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with Jeter being feted as the Yankees hero that he is, even if he still might have some hard feelings over a contract the club gave him just so he would be around for this moment.
There’s little about Jeter that hasn’t been said: He’s a one-team player in an era where players change teams more often than their socks.
There will be a day in the not too distant future when he will get his own plaque in Monument Park. He has five World Series rings, and the odds are good he will add at least one more before his current $51 million deal expires in three years.
That he’s not nearly the player he once was is hardly his fault. Age cruelly chips away at greatness, and at 37, Jeter is a shortstop with limited range. He’s a singles hitter who doesn’t hit enough singles. Once he passes the 3,000 hit mark, the debate will be renewed in New York about the wisdom of keeping him at the top of the lineup.
Cheer now, because the next time there’s a similar outpouring of love for Jeter, he’ll be taking the field for the final time in his career.
If you need another reason, remember the next Yankee to chase a record will be Alex Rodriguez, who plays next to Jeter in the Yankees’ infield. Some fans might find it awfully hard to root for A-Rod as he goes after the greatest baseball record of them all — the career home run mark that still rightfully belongs to Hank Aaron.
A-Rod is the anti-Jeter, a petulant player with tremendous skills who seems to play the game only for himself. He conned the Yankees into taking him on after three steroid-fueled years in Texas during which he hit 156 home runs, then got a new $275 million deal before he was finally outed as a user of performance-enhancing drugs.
As part of that deal — negotiated by A-Rod himself — he will get a $6 million bonus when he catches Mays on the home run list, and $6 million more for each player he catches after that. There will be another $6 million when he passes Barry Bonds to become the all-time home run leader, giving him $30 million total for setting the mark.
And he probably will. In the next few weeks, he could catch Ken Griffey Jr. at 630 home runs, putting him among the top five of all time. From there, it’s 30 home runs to Mays, and then the chase is really on.
That it’s a fraudulent chase might not matter in New York. It certainly won’t matter to the Yankees, who will surely use it to peddle those expensive seats behind home plate they can never seem to sell.
For those who care about the game, though, it will be distasteful. Baseball already has one steroid user atop the home run totals, and it hardly needs another. And A-Rod as the focal point of the home run chase during the next few years will be a daily reminder of all that went wrong with the sport and the people who stood by and allowed it to happen.
All the more reason to celebrate Jeter as he goes after the last few hits he needs for entrance in a club that includes only 27 other major leaguers. Unlike the guy playing next to him, there never has been a whiff of scandal around Jeter.
Jeter heads home today for a four-game series against Tampa Bay at Yankee Stadium, where he and Yankees fans everywhere hope he gets hit No. 3,000. Unlike Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh 39 years ago, the stadium figures to be packed.
That it comes just before the All-Star break makes it even more delicious. Jeter can be feted over the weekend, and again in Arizona when he starts at shortstop for the American League.
He’ll get the kind of celebration Clemente never got.
The kind of celebration A-Rod should never get.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.