Jeter brings fans back with 3,000th hit

NEW YORK -- The ball was in the air, disappearing into the kind of white clouds Norman Rockwell loved to paint, and Derek Jeter watched it the way a child watches a runaway balloon floating across a midsummer sky.

He was young again. We were all young again. After all those years of resisting temptation, of honoring the better angels of his nature, the captain of the New York Yankees had finally sold his soul to the devil.

Was this Faustian bargain worth it?

Were you in the ballpark at 2 p.m. Saturday when a diminished 37-year-old athlete forever struggling to get the ball out of the infield sent David Price's 78 mph curveball going, going, gone for his 3,000th hit?

Hell yeah it was worth it.

The script was so wonderfully absurd, the shortstop said, "I wouldn't have even bought it."

Jeter didn't merely become the 28th major leaguer and first Yankee to reach 3,000 hits, and the only man not named Wade Boggs to do so with a homer; he turned the afternoon into a this-is-your-life review of his greatness, claiming five hits and the winning RBI against the Tampa Bay Rays and choking the life out of the non-stop talk of his imminent demise.

One last time, with feeling, Jeter was No. 2 in your program and No. 1 in your heart.

Funny how things work out. Tall and strong, fast and fearless, Price was supposed to be the very pitcher who would overwhelm Jeter, make him look older than dirt.

But Price lost the duel for No. 2,999 in the first inning, when the shortstop singled through the hole near short on a 3-2 pitch. "He could've thrown it in the dugout," Jeter said, "and I would have swung."

No, the captain couldn't afford a walk. He finally confessed to feeling immense pressure to secure his historic hit in the Bronx ("I have been lying to you for quite some time," he said in a peace-in-the-Middle-East-sized postgame news conference), pressure that multiplied tenfold after Friday night's game was rained out.

"I was like 'Damn, now we only have two games,'" Jeter said.

So he wasn't up there to accept ball four, not with the first eight games after the All-Star break scheduled for the road. In the third, with Jeter facing another 3-2 count, the Yankees dugout was overflowing with players, coaches and support staff, all of them ready to jump to the rail as if to celebrate the final out of the World Series.

Price delivered and a split second later Jeter leaned forward, attacked the ball with the barrel of his black Louisville Slugger P72, the same model he's always used, and then with both hands ditched the bat toward the on-deck circle and raced out of the box.

"You want to hit the ball hard," Jeter said. "I didn't want to hit a slow roller to third base and have that be replayed forever."

The captain ran like a man running for his life, like a man who couldn't believe his eyes. He ran the way he did that 2004 night when he broke an 0-for-32 drought with a homer in the old place, where he was so traumatized by his extended futility at the plate that he thought his ball might hit a bird in mid-flight and fall into an outfielder's glove.

But nothing interfered with Jeter's sense of theater, then or now. Saturday, with a full Stadium house standing and chanting his name, the captain wasn't about to settle for an inside-out bloop over the second baseman's head.

The moment Jeter turned on the fateful pitch, Price buckled and dropped to a knee as if Joe Louis had just delivered a hook to his ribs. The crowd exploded with a postseason noise out of Jeter's past and tracked the ball's high, majestic path for the left field seats.

The Tampa left fielder, Matt Joyce, never stood a chance. He looked up to watch a 23-year-old cell phone salesman named Christian Lopez gather the ball right above a StateFarm sign, in the first row of the section elevated above the field level, a scene inspiring Jeter to extend his arms wide and clap his hands as he rounded first.

Mr. November had reinvented himself on the ninth of July. The first on-field tribute came from Casey Kotchman, the Rays' first baseman, who removed his cap in tribute as Jeter passed him and headed for second.

When he made it home, Jeter found his best friend, Jorge Posada, at the front of the receiving line. The old catcher inside Posada compelled him to jump into Jeter's arms the way Yogi Berra jumped into Don Larsen's.

Jeter embraced Yankee after Yankee as the home bullpen emptied, the relievers charging across the outfield grass as if they were about to join a brawl. Johnny Damon and his Tampa teammates emerged from the third-base dugout to enhance the tribute.

Jeter would bounce out of his dugout for a curtain call, pointing to the fans and to Price and the Rays infielders gathered around the mound. When the captain smiled at his family, Joe Girardi saw relief on his face, not unmitigated joy.

"It was like he let his guard down a little bit," the manager said.

Jeter hadn't hit a ball over the Yankee Stadium wall since June 12 of last year, but on this day the mighty Casey would not strike out.

In the fifth, Jeter doubled to left on the first pitch he saw, passing the great Roberto Clemente with Hit No. 3,001. In the sixth, Jeter flashed his classic inside-out swing to line a single to right, as if to prove to one and all that he could still do that, too.

In the eighth, with one out, the score tied and the possible heir to his shortstop throne (Eduardo Nunez) on third, Jeter punched a single past the drawn-in defense to put the Yankees ahead for good and, incredibly, match his career high of five hits.

Somewhere in Vegas, Pete Rose was nervous. In the Bronx, Jeter was partying like it was 1999. "My mentality is still that I'm young," the shortstop said.

"I don't care how much his ability has diminished, I guess you could say," Joe Torre said. "At 37, it is no surprise that you are not as good as you were at 27. But he still scares me if I'm in the other dugout."

Yes, a batter who entered the game hitting .257 scared the Rays just like he's scared all comers for 16 years, and without the aid of performance enhancing drugs.

Jeter beat his latest opponent in front of Torre, the manager he called a second father. He did it in front of the scout who signed him as a teenager, Dick Groch, who predicted to his wife and to Jeter's father Charles that his former prospect would hit a home run for No. 3,000.

The Captain did it in front of Gene Michael, the executive who stopped one of George Steinbrenner's advisers, Clyde King, from demoting Jeter before the start of his first full season in 1996. Jeter did it in front of 48,103 awestruck customers, too.

"I grew up with these fans," he said.

He rewarded them with a simple gift. By playing baseball the way he played it in his prime, Derek Jeter made everyone in the house feel like a little kid.

Ian O'Connor is the author of The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter.