Pride of the Yankees II: Jeter's journey to 3,000

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NEW YORK (AP) - Hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Derek Jeter didn't think he would get a single hit in the big leagues.

A skinny teenager in the low minors, he would spend lonesome nights calling his parents back in Michigan, crying that he was totally overmatched at the plate. His fielding was worse - fans behind first base would start ducking when balls bounced to him, afraid the scatter-armed shortstop would zing another throw into the seats.

From failure to the face of perhaps the most famous franchise in sports, the Kid from Kalamazoo and captain of the New York Yankees is two hits away from becoming only the 28th player in baseball history to get No. 3,000.

All in a blink of those cool, green eyes. At least it sometimes seems that way.

"It wasn't a goal of mine. I didn't set out for that," Jeter said as he approached the milestone. "You set out to play. You set out to get here and you try to stay as long as you can and try to be consistent."

Trying times lately. His frame a bit thicker and his hair a bit thinner, the hits are harder to come by. The Steroids Era never shadowed the Jeter Era, and at 37 it's not natural for players to get better with age.

Jeter got his 2,998th career hit Thursday night, lining a double his first time up against Tampa Bay. New York has three games left at Yankee Stadium before the All-Star break, and he definitely wants to do it at home.

What's next once he gets there? We'll see. He could be dropped in the batting order. Maybe he gets more days off, replaced by hotshot Eduardo Nunez. A position shift? That's possible.

Also hard to predict is where exactly Jeter winds up in the pinstriped pantheon.

He's a five-time World Series champion, a 12-time All-Star and has gotten more hits than anyone in team history. In an age of straying free agents, he has stayed true to the Bronx.

That said, lots of ardent Jeter fans readily admit that he's absent on the team's Mount Rushmore. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle probably are at the top.

Still, to many of this generation, Jeter represents all that is good about the game.

He called his manager "Mr. Torre" without sounding corny. He told then-President George W. Bush to throw a ceremonial first ball from the mound and "don't bounce it" without sounding cocky. He talked to young boys and girls from the on-deck circle without sounding phony.

He's remained grounded, as much as anyone could while growing into a Yankees great.

Umpire crew chief Tim Welke, raised in the same hometown, recalled a game when there was a pitching change and Jeter was on second base. As the new reliever warmed up, Jeter wanted to talk sports with Welke. Not baseball, but high school football.

"What about the new coach at Kalamazoo Central?" Jeter asked.

Relaxed, seemingly oblivious to pressure. The all-time leader in postseason hits, in fact. It's a routine that's become an October ritual: He steps into the batter's box, raises his right hand to ask the umpire for time to get set, waggles his shiny black bat, and then whacko!

"We've always tried to keep things in a positive perspective - that doesn't mean we're not realistic," said Charles Jeter, Derek's dad.

Of course, no one bats 1.000, on or off the field.

There are critics, some in Queens and Boston, who holler that he's always been the most overrated player in baseball. They are the same ones who shout that he doesn't deserve a plaque in the Hall of Fame any more than a ball boy.

Chances are, those boobirds would trade places with Jeter in a jiff.

He's dated a string of starlets - actress Minka Kelly is his steady, sitting far off the field - yet manages to stay out of the tabloids.

Jeter drew plenty of looks way back when he got cozy with Mariah Carey, but that fizzled when both stars focused on their careers. And when late owner George Steinbrenner worried that his young star was spending too much time on the town, Jeter diffused any controversy by making a playful TV commercial with the Boss.

That's part of the legacy of Derek Sanderson Jeter: Playing uptown from Broadway, his career has been relatively drama-free.

OK, there was a time years ago when he was icy toward longtime pal - and future teammate - Alex Rodriguez after a perceived verbal slight. He wasn't pleased, either, when last winter's contract negotiations with general manager Brian Cashman went public and grew contentious.

"For a while we weren't even talking about baseball around here. You can't enjoy anything when you're not talking about baseball," Jeter said.

This pursuit of history, however, put the emphasis right back on the field.

It's a climb Jeter started in 1992 in the rookie Gulf Coast League and includes 550 hits in the minors, two of them last week while recovering from a strained calf.

He made it to the majors in 1995 and started 0-for-6 before grounding a single to left field in Seattle's old Kingdome against Tim Belcher. Since then, he's added 10 hits in All-Star games and 185 more in the playoffs and World Series.

Throw in the sparkling plays, too - the backhanded flip against Oakland, the diving catch into the stands against Boston.

Quite a resume. No wonder most everyone in New York was busy buzzing about Jeter reaching 3,000. Well, most everyone except the man himself.

"No other Yankee has ever done it. That right there tells you what an accomplishment it is," longtime teammate Jorge Posada said. "I'm pretty sure he just thinks about 'Go out there and win a ball game' and everything takes care of itself."


AP Sports Writer Howie Rumberg contributed to this report.


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