By no means is this journal either Yankee- or Jeterphilic. But the whisperings have already begun to turn to demands, in more than a few places, that—with Jeter coming off the disabled list and back into the Yankee lineup, six hits away (at this writing) from his three thousandth major league hit, all in a Yankee uniform—he simply must get the milestone knock at no place less than Yankee Stadium.
Jeter himself says he’d “love to do it at home.” But that isn’t quite the same as saying he must do it at home. Jeter is too experienced and too honest a competitor to say that, which doesn’t mean others aren’t trying to stir a drumbeat on that behalf.
Jon Paul Morosi of Fox Sports is emphatic on the point. After chatting with former manager Phil Garner, who admitted cheerfully enough that he did his best to manipulate Robin Yount (with the Milwaukee Brewers) and Craig Biggio (with the Houston Astros) toward getting number three thousand before the home folks, Morosi—observing that Yankee decisionmakers would love nothing more than Jeter doing likewise—says there’s absolutely nothing wrong with manipulating that net result.
After all, Garner says, “if they don’t work it so that he gets that hit in New York, boy, the papers are going to grill ’em. They’ll have no mercy. They’ll be all over (Yankee manager) Joe Girardi.”
That would be quite a generational change for the New York sports press. When Stan Musial was gunning for his three thousandth major league hit, his St. Louis Cardinals were in Chicago, playing the Cubs, and Musial got his 2,999th his first time up. That was his only hit of the day. With one more game in Chicago before returning home to St. Louis, manager Fred Hutchinson decided to let Musial rest unless he was needed to pinch hit. Hutchinson’s dilemna was enunciated best by W.C. Heinz, the former New York Sun sports columnist turned to magazine writing, chatting to Red Smith and a few other writers, including no few from New York, at a dinner gathering:
Maybe I’m speaking out of turn, but it seems to me Hutch is sticking his neck out. His team got off to a horrible start and now it’s on a winning streak and he’s got a championship game to play tomorrow, without his best man because of personal considerations. Not that the guy hasn’t earned special consideration, but from a competitive point of view I think it’s wrong. If the Cardinals lose tomorrow, Hutch will be blasted. He’ll be accused of giving less than his best to win and it will be said the club rigged this deliberately for the box office, gambling a game away to build up a big home crowd.
As things turned out, Heinz had his concern for nothing. Even if it came by way of something close to sheer fortune. With the Cubs up 3-1 and a Cardinal rookie on second, Hutchinson called on Musial to pinch hit. He hit the sixth pitch for an RBI double and—after Hutchinson walked to second base to make a small show of giving Musial the ball, with photographers snapping happily—came out for a pinch runner. Here came the fortune: the Cardinals kept the rally alive and went on to win the game.
Musial got his milestone the right way, after all. The following night, the home folks gave him a thunderous ovation his first time up, and Musial thanked them with a drive over the right field pavilion.
Sixteen years later, Hank Aaron opened the 1974 season in a small cloud of controversy not of his own making. The Atlanta Braves made it plain as day that they planned to keep Aaron out of the opening weekend lineup in Cincinnati, the better to let him tie and pass Babe Ruth before the home audience. There erupted a press war over it, with the Atlanta writers—led by the Journal-Constitution‘s Furman Bisher—inviting the “meddling Manhattan ice-agers” (Bisher’s phrase) to kindly butt the hell out of it and let the Braves do “right” for their fans.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn stepped in and ordered the Braves not even to think about sending out a lineup that didn’t include Aaron. Smith recalled it thus: He explained to [Bill] Bartholomay what self-interest should have told the Braves’ owner, that it is imperative that every team present its strongest lineup every day in an honest effort to win, and that the customers must believe the strongest lineup is being used for that purpose. When Bartholomay persisted in his determination to dragoon the living Aaron and the dead Ruth as shills to sell tickets in Atlanta, the commissioner laid down the law. With a man like Henry swinging for him, that’s all he had to do.
Compared to his previous year’s torture, with hate mail and death threats ramping so voluminously that he was under FBI protection, it was child’s play for Aaron to vapourise the controversy his first time up. He sent a Jack Billingham fastball over the left field fence. With one swing, Aaron tied Ruth, vindicated Kuhn (who gave him a charming commemoration after he finished his trip around the bases), and made clowns out of the pro-dumping reporters.
Manager Eddie Mathews sat him out of the second game but Kuhn ordered him back into the lineup for the series closer. Aaron missed fair and square, when Cincinnati’s Clay Kirby struck him out twice and lured him into a ground out. Home went the Braves, and in the first game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Aaron walked and scored on an error in the second, then squared up former Yankee Al Downing in the fourth to pass Ruth.
A little over a decade later, it was Pete Rose’s turn. Like Musial almost three decades earlier, his moment of truth was set in Chicago, in the final game of a set before returning home. His owner, Marge Schott, wanted nothing more than for Manager Pete Rose to bench player Pete Rose and save his milestone knock for the Cincinnati faithful. Manager Rose put player Rose into the lineup. By the ninth inning, Rose had tied Cobb with two hits on the day, but now he faced a huge problem. In his inimitable fashion, he recalled afterward that he had “thirty thousand yelling here and one lady back in Cincinnati, every time I got a hit, kicking her dog.”
The game was tied, the Reds had first and second, nobody out, with Rose due up and Dave Parker, a power hitter, on deck. A mere fan would think of a sacrifice. Rose thought only that that would take the bat out of Parker’s hands, the Cubs all but guaranteed to put him on and leave the big hitting to smaller bats, and wreck the Reds’ chance to win a game in a pennant race in which they remained by a thread barely short of snapping.
Rose swung away. His best swing of the at-bat was a hard foul. He struck out. Fair and square, trying to win. Two nights later, he measured the tortured Eric Show in the bottom of the first and lined a 2-1 pitch into left field. He added a triple in the seventh for good measure. “I’ve rooted for you for a long time,” said President Ronald Reagan, calling Rose after the game. “Come to think of it, I used to root for the fella that once held that record.”
Tony Gwynn got his three thousandth hit on the road. In Montreal. “No disappointment,” says Kevin Towers, then the San Diego Padres’ general manager and now in the same job for the Arizona Diamondbacks. “We certainly didn’t want to sit him in Montreal, and Tony wouldn’t have wanted it that way.” Cal Ripken got his three thousandth on the road, too, in Minnesota. Biggio got his in Colorado; Wade Boggs got his on the road, too, in Cleveland.
Jim Thome, who’s seven short of six hundred home runs, bagged his five hundredth at home (he was with the White Sox then) after hitting three bombs in three games against the Angels. “What happens,” he tells USA Today, “is everybody wants you to do it. It’s a milestone. It’s a nice thing. (The fans) are all rooting for you. It’s being talked about. As a player, you want to accomplish your goal, but you also have to let the process happen. Just play the game.”
Derek Jeter has enough struggles on his hands right now. Since last season began he’s been anything but the player he was for so many years, so many pennant races, so many postseasons. The debates continue as to how long, even allowing his current contract, the Yankees can continue to be viable with Jeter in the lineup, and Jeter is too proud a competitor to accept too readily the idea that he may be seeing the end of his productive career a lot sooner than he hoped.
That pride must inform Jeter and the Yankees alike that there’s only one right way for Jeter to get his milestone hit. Above and beyond anything else, say what you will about or against the Yankees, but the truest cliche about them is that they don’t like to lose. They’re as image conscious as the next team, maybe more so, but they’ve rarely if ever been vulnerable to charges that they don’t field the lineup they think gives them the best chance to win.
Jeter’s going into the starting lineup against Cleveland today, with the Yankees opening a three-game set there. The Indians’ starter is Josh Tomlin, a pitcher against whom Jeter is 2-for-6 lifetime. While Jeter was away, the Yankees may have seen their shortstop of the future, going 14-4 with Eduardo Nunez in the lineup, even though Nunez showed excellent range but inexperience enough at shortstop. The smart thinking says the Yankees need to keep Nunez in the lineup (assuming his hamstring ding isn’t terribly serious) by whatever ways they can think of even as Jeter returns in search of a milestone at least.
But the smart thinking also says that there’s only one way for Jeter to reach his milestone as honourably as he’s played the game for all these years. And that way says it doesn’t matter whether it’s on the road or in the South Bronx. Even Phil Garner appreciates the point: If someone questions you, just say, “Look, we’ve got to win. This is not the Derek Jeter 3,000 Hit Show. When the season is over, we want to raise the flag.”