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Jeter 3,000: Mind over (numerical) matter

Getty Images/Michael Heilman

The 3,000th hit was one of many magical baseball moments for Derek Jeter on Saturday afternoon.There’s one more thing I want to bring up pertaining to Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit.

This is one of those cases in sports in which the psychological aspect of the game overtakes the statistical aspect.

Think about the chances of Derek Jeter getting five hits in any game at this stage in his career, let alone the game in which he reaches a historic baseball milestone. The odds are significantly against him.

But sometimes, the mind can will the body to do extraordinary things.

I am a stories guy. I love a great story. Some stories are told best in numbers. Some are told best in words. Some are done justice by neither.

When I think of the story of Jeter’s 3,000-hit day, I am reminded of something obscure to you, but noteworthy in my sporting life-- Game 7 of the 2001 East Coast Hockey League’s Northern Conference Finals between the Trenton Titans and Peoria Rivermen.

Long story short: The Titans, whom I covered for a local newspaper, had a coach,Troy Ward, who was a smart man when it came to both the statistical and the psychological. He coached his team to the best record in the league and the Titans had a 3-1 series lead on Peoria, on the verge of clinching the conference title.

But then, disaster. Trenton blew a lead in the final seconds of Game 5, lost that game in overtime and lost Game 6 to force Game 7.

In the final moments of regulation of Game 7, with the score tied, the puck ended up on the stick of a rugged Trenton defenseman, Kam White.

White was a physical enforcer with very limited skill, the stereotype that some might have for a minor league hockey player. If we were calculating his offensive value for Wins Above Replacement, it would have been a negative number.

The puck ends up on the stick of White with the clock ticking down. He executes the deke of the season around a Peoria defenseman, and feeds one of his teammates for the conference-championship winning goal.

After the game, I asked Ward what White was doing on the ice at such an important moment. He explained with this story:

After Trenton’s Game 5 overtime loss, Ward stormed out of the arena, composed his thoughts, and then gathered five players in his hotel room.

The five shared the common bond of being “Original Titans,” who played in the team’s first season and lost to Peoria in the conference finals the year prior.

Ward apologized to them for not putting them on the ice in the final seconds of regulation in that crushing defeat and promised he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.

White was one of the Original Titans.

That promise meant something to him. The evidence of that was in the part he played in the victory.

As Ward said afterwards: “I knew it would mean more to (those five guys) to be on the ice than anyone else on the team.”

It was a case of the perfect form of motivation meeting the perfect opportunity, with a little bit of magic thrown in for good measure.

That brings us back to Jeter, who certainly had no shortage of motivation-- quieting the whispers of his decline, his desire to win an inevitably unwinnable matchup against aging, and the wish to record his 3,000th hit at home.

Opportunity came Saturday in the form of an opposing pitcher, who (as his manager noted) didn’t have his best fastball, and chose to throw a slow breaking curveball on a 3-2 pitch because Jeter had shown he could catch up to the fastball, at least for one day.

It came four more times, the final time in the form of a pitcher who couldn’t bury a two-strike splitter in the dirt in a key moment and an opposing manager who couldn’t cover every opening on the diamond with which he was concerned.

The result was something that was both magical and appropriate given the player and the magnitude of the accomplishment. And it’s hard to use either numbers or words to try to explain it.