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Milestone can be a millstone for players nearing 3,000 hits

Derek Jeter is a sure thing to reach 3,000 hits when he comes off the disabled list, but others who have achieved it say it's still a relief.

July 02, 2011|By Kevin Baxter
  • Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter signs autographs for fans prior to making a minor league rehab start with the Trenton Thunder in Trenton, N.J., on Saturday.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter signs autographs for fans prior to making… (Mel Evans / Associated Press )

Look at the video of Tony Gwynn's 3,000th hit.

Study his face as he rounds first base at Olympic Stadium in Montreal. The expression isn't one of joy or celebration. It's more a look of … well, what exactly was it, Tony?

"Relief," Gwynn says with a chuckle. "When you finally get there, you don't realize it. It's just a relief."

Dave Winfield can relate.

"It's not that you're nervous. Can I get it?" says Winfield, who finished his Hall of Fame career with 3,110 hits, 31 fewer than Gwynn. "The toughest part is not so much 3,000 because it's inevitable. It's going to happen."

It's going to happen soon for Derek Jeter, who is expected to come off the disabled list Monday needing six hits to join one of baseball's most exclusive clubs. Since 1900, more players have 500 homers than 3,000 hits.

Plus, nobody in the long and storied history of the New York Yankees has done what Jeter is about to achieve.

"It's so unbelievable that he's the first to do it with the Yankees with all that history," says Gwynn, now the head baseball coach at San Diego State. "That's such a testament to how good a player he is."

It's also likely to add to the circus atmosphere sure to surround Jeter this week, one that figures to make his milestone hit among the most watched and recorded in baseball history. Winfield expects that will only heighten Jeter's sense of relief when the whole thing is finally over.

"Certain things are similar for each person, but certain things are different," Winfield says. "Knowing Derek like I do, he would like to get the focus back on his team and not him, not his individual performance. They're in a championship mode. Each hit, to him, is very important from that standpoint.

"A championship season is elusive and your contributions to that are in the moment. Three thousand hits is a long-term achievement."

And it's one we might see again before too long.

After Jeter, the hit leaders among active players are Washington's Ivan Rodriguez and the White Sox's Omar Vizquel. Both came into the weekend needing less than 175 hits to reach 3,000. But both are part-time players and aren't likely to get enough at-bats to reach the milestone.

However, if Jeter's Yankee teammate, Alex Rodriguez, stays healthy, he could reach 3,000 late next summer. Tampa Bay's Johnny Damon, still productive at 37, has an outside chance to get there by the end of 2013.

For Jeter, the only intrigue now is will the hit come at home? The Yankees begin the week in Cleveland before returning to New York for four games against the Tampa Bay Rays. They also play their first eight games after the All-Star break on the road.

"I know he'd prefer to get it at Yankee Stadium," says Winfield, who spent nine seasons in pinstripes but got his 3,000th hit as a member of the Minnesota Twins. "He's in his 16th season. He's the captain of the team. No Yankee has ever done it.

"He'd prefer to get it there. Seems only right. So that would be the only pressure."

Winfield, who played for six teams, got his 3,000th hit with a ground-ball single to left off future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley, earning a Metrodome standing ovation that lasted more than three minutes. He pumped his fist running to first and then, smiling sheepishly, doffed his batting helmet several times in an effort to quiet the crowd.

He still considers that hit, and his subsequent induction into the Hall of Fame, to be his greatest individual accomplishments.

"It's an achievement that was really important to me because no would have expected it from a kid who was primarily a pitcher in college," says Winfield, now an executive vice president with the San Diego Padres.

Gwynn, also a Hall of Famer, sees 3,000 hits as being more important to his legacy than they were to Winfield's. While Winfield was a slugger who hit 465 homers during a 22-year-career, Gwynn was a singles hitter who had more than 10 homers only four times in 20 seasons. And he never won a World Series title.

But he won eight batting titles and finished with a career average of .338, 11th-best in baseball's modern era.

"I felt like getting to 3,000 justified everything I did," says Gwynn, whose 3,000th hit came Aug. 6, 1999, his mother Vendella's 64th birthday. "It wasn't really until after I retired that it hit me."

Jeter's experience and sentiment about the accomplishment might not be as strong, Gwynn says.

After all, Jeter is a five-time World Series champion.

Says Gwynn: "He's accomplished so much in his career."

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