Baseball: 'Mr Perfect' Jeter joins the legends in 3,000-hit club

Yankees slugger, and all-round nice guy, reaches rare milestone to confirm him as one of the all-time greats

Life is so maddeningly perfect for Derek Sanderson Jeter, the talisman and team leader of the New York Yankees, who at the weekend claimed his 3,000th career hit, one of his sport's most demanding milestones reached previously by only 27 players in the history of the sport.

Jeter's great day came not in some distant backwater, but in front of his own fans on baseball's grandest stage of all, Yankee Stadium, the "House that Ruth Built." Nor did he seal the feat with a measly single just clearing the infield, and symbolising the waning powers of the player in the twilight of his career that Jeter undoubtedly is. No, Derek Jeter being Derek Jeter, he delivered a home run – baseball's gaudiest, most thrilling flourish.

And that was only the start of it. On Saturday in New York, he went 5 for 5 against the Tampa Bay Rays, managing a hit at his every at-bat, a small rarity in its own right. And, needless to relate, the fifth of those hits drove in Yankees' winning run in a 5-4 victory.

And just to tie everything up in a Yankee pinstripe ribbon, the fan who caught the home run ball in the left field bleacher seats even gave the souvenir back to him – for free – after the game, instead of making for eBay and flogging this slice of baseball history for what experts in such matters assure would have been a minimum of $200,000 [£125,900]. But what irritates the most is that perfection couldn't have lighted upon a more deserving guy.

Jeter is what every baseball mom would wish her offspring to be. The Yankees drafted him straight out of high school in 1992, developing him in their farm system for three years before making him their starting shortstop for the 1996 season – when, needless to say, he won not only the American League's Rookie of the Year award, but also the first of five World Series rings.

Home runs capture baseball's glamour. But they do not convey its essence, the repetitive daily grind of a 162-game, six-month season. Membership of the exclusive 3,000-hit club testifies to unflagging excellence sustained, in the case of Jeter, over 16 seasons, in a sport where failure is the norm. A .300 batting average signifies a terrific season. But it also means that seven times out of 10, a hitter has failed to get on base safely. Jeter has done so, 3,004 times in all and counting, with a career average of .313.

Meanwhile, it goes without saying that he has also been an outstanding performer at shortstop, considered to be baseball's most demanding outfield position. Jeter is smooth and graceful, with a gift of making tough plays look routine. He's the guy you don't notice – until you glance at the scoreboard and see the Yankees, inevitably, have won.

Off the field, it is the same maddeningly faultless Jeter. Rare in baseball, he has spent his entire career with one team. He has dated a sucession of actresses and pop divas, but has been involved in no scandal, floating unsullied above New York's unforgiving tabloid jungle, despite being the nearest equivalent to David Beckham in baseball's Manchester United.

The only friction came last November, after Jeter had become a free agent and word leaked of difficult contract negotiations with the Yankees. How much would a team demanding nothing but first place pay to hang on to a glorious but ageing retainer whose best days, at 36, were behind him? The answer, it transpired, was $17m a year for three years, with an option for a fourth.

Not bad – except that the whole affair upset Jeter deeply. The loyal servant of the Yankees found himself accused of being a mercenary, touting his services around the major leagues to see which team would pay the most. Nonsense, he explained with a flash of anger. "I never wanted to be a free agent, I just wanted to stay here."

Naturally too, Jeter has never been tarred by baseball's endless steroids scandal, that is virtually co-terminous with his own career. In that sense too the timing of Jeter's feat has been perfect, for the sport as a whole.

Just 48 hours before Saturday's supreme feel-good moment, baseball suffered another reminder of its grimy recent past as the trial opened in Washington DC of Roger Clemens, the most dominant pitcher of his generation and who was once a teammate of Jeter's in New York.

Clemens is accused of lying to Congress about steroids. If convicted he could well face serious jail time. Such an outcome would mean too that both the best pitcher of the era and its best hitter, Barry Bonds, had been found guilty of perjury – in other words that they had cheated by using performance enhancing drugs. As matters stand, neither is likely to be admitted to the Hall of Fame, baseball's Valhalla.

No such doubts attach to Derek Jeter. Indeed he is probably assured of two separate, and Yankee fans would insist, no lesser honours. The first is a place in Monument Park, the Yankee's private Hall of Fame at the stadium, just beyond the centre field fence. The other is that Jeter's uniform No 2, will be retired – meaning that hardly a Yankee will ever wear a single digit on his back again.

With the exception of No 6, the others are already gone. No 1 belongs to the legendary former manager Billy Martin. No 3 was worn by Babe Ruth, No 4 by Lou Gehrig, 5 by Joe DiMaggio, 7 by Mickey Mantle, 8 by Yogi Berra, and 9 by Roger Maris. Six of the biggest names in not just Yankee, but baseball history: but not one of them, indeed no Yankee before Jeter, managed 3,000 hits.

They are exalted company indeed, but where Derek Jeter surely belongs.

Yankee smash hits

Derek Jeter has succeeded where Yankees legends have failed:

Derek Jeter 1995-2011       3,004

Lou Gehrig 1923-1929       2,721

Babe Ruth 1920-1934       2,518

Mickey Mantle 1951-1968       2,415

Bernie Williams 1991-2006       2,336

Joe DiMaggio 1936-1951       2,214

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