“Perfect” — the most overused and inappropriate of all the sports hyperbole. Rarely is anything ever “without error, flaw, or fault, or excellent and ideal in every way” (Merriam Webster’s). Hardly is any sports feat truly perfect.
When perfection does happen, it’s immortalized — there have been 20 perfect games thrown in baseball, and each of those pitchers is labeled as the “man who threw the perfect game.” It’s remembered — unlike an all-time hits list, nobody who has thrown a perfect game will ever be bumped off. Perfection is perfection is perfection, and it can never be topped.
Or can it?
You can make the case that Derek Jeter’s day on July 9 of 2011 was better than perfect, and here’s how.
To start, topping perfection can only happen if the moment is bigger than the box score. If it’s September (or August) and the Astros are officially out of the playoff race and, say, Hunter Pence goes 4-for-4 with four home runs and 16 runs batted in, then that’s perfect. But it’s not better than perfect, because it really means nothing on a larger scale.
So the stage was set, before he ever stepped into the batters box, for Jeter’s Saturday in the Bronx to be perfect. The chase for 3,000 hits was still on, the Yankees only had two games left before the All-Star break, which would be followed by eight consecutive away games. So the pressure was on for Jeter to get hits No. 2,999 and 3,000 in front of the fans he grew up playing in front of. Those circumstances are grand enough.
Jeter needed two hits. He got five.
Before Saturday, he had hit 236 home runs — with just two this season, both coming on the same day earlier this year against Texas. So, in the middle of season No. 17 in the bigs, Jeter has averaged just under 14 long balls a year. It’s likely that he won’t get 10 this season.
That’s necessary information to know when looking at Jeter’s career. As almost anybody can tell just by watching him and by looking at statistics, he is the farthest thing from a power hitter. The single is his thing, an inside-outside swing with which he drives balls barreling toward him right back to right field. Before July 9, only 778 of Jeter’s hits were for extra bases. He doesn’t reach on triples very much, because he has played his whole career in Yankee Stadium — the new one has the same dimensions as the old one — which lacks the sort of gap capabilities triples require. He had 480 doubles, which seems like a lot, but nothing compared to 2,220 singles. Jeter has mastered the art of the single.
Hit No. 2,999 was a single; a slow roller through the third baseman and the shortstop. As he has gotten older and his skills have decreased, many of his hits of been weak rollers, finding some small hole in the infield.
Then Jeter turned back the clock 10 years and did something that you see only in movies: He belted a home run for his 3,000th hit, the second player ever to accomplish that feat. The pitch from lefthander David Price was a curveball on a 3-2 count. In his Yankee life, Jeter had hit just 6 percent of his home runs on a full count.
More hits were to come — a double, a single, and then the game-winning RBI in the eighth inning. The Yankees beat the Rays 5-4.
In his career, Jeter has gone long in every 40 at-bats. This season, he has hit a home run in every 95 at-bats.
Those numbers equate to some ridiculously low probabilities that Jeter’s 3,000th hit would be a home run on a 3-2 count off a curveball, when he was surely looking for a fastball.
Unlike most other historic Yankees, Jeter doesn’t have a true nickname — ‘Captain’ is more of a title, not really a moniker.
The Yankee Clipper is a nickname; The Iron Horse is a nickname. Mr. October is one, The Commerce Comet is one, Sultan of Swat is one. He is not known affectionately by just a single name, like Yogi, Whitey, and Billy.
He is not The Derek, or The Jeter — unlike The Babe or The Mick. He is just Derek Jeter, No. 2, shortstop, captain of the New York Yankees.
Except for that one night when, for a fleeting moment, he was Mr. November.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 delayed the start of that year’s baseball postseason, which meant the New York Yankees would play Game 4 of the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Halloween night, October 31.
A 3-3 tie took the game into extra innings, past midnight, and the scoreboard at old Yankee Stadium read: “Attention Fans, Welcome to NOVEMBER BASEBALL.”
In the bottom of the 10th, at 12:03 a.m., Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run to right field off Byung-Hyun Kim on — wait for the kicker — a 3-2 count.
It was the first non-exhibition November game in MLB history, and it made Jeter, for a night at least, Mr. November — a spin-off of Reggie Jackson’s Mr. October, which was given to him when he torched the Dodgers with three home runs in the deciding game of the 1977 World Series.
Taking Kim deep remains one of the most iconic memories of Jeter’s career. So, for a player not known for power, 3-2 count home runs were linked on Jeter’s 3,000th hit.
The 5-for-5 day Jeter turned in against the Rays Saturday was technically a perfect hitter’s box score. For every time he came up, he successfully came through.
So that makes him perfect, but not anything more.
What does make him better than perfection is this: His team won.
Jeter is not the best winner ever — Yogi Berra is. And he’s not the best Yankee ever. Even crazier, he’s not the best modern-day Yankee — that’s Mariano Rivera.
He’s not some once-in-a-lifetime talent. Honestly, he’s not. When you have almost 10,000 at-bats in your career, and if you remain healthy, you will most likely reach 3,000 hits. Just ask Craig Biggio. What he is a once-in-a-lifetime professional. He plays the game the right way. He handles the notorious New York media. He has handled all the criticism this season that comes with a nasty off-season contract dispute, and has for years listened to people call him “overrated.”
Given how much coverage he is given — it seems like if Derek Jeter wakes up in the morning and eats Cheerios instead of his usual Wheaties, it makes Sportscenter — he probably is overrated.
But he wins. He has enough rings to fill a hand and he will be in contention for more. He has been a part of 1,513 wins since 1996.
Winning, above all else, is what Jeter does.
Getting hit No. 3,000 made his day perfect. That it came off another unlikely 3-2 pitch did too. Going 5-for-5 made it perfect as well.
But winning the game, as usual, made Derek Jeter’s day better than perfect.