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Upon reporting to the Yankees' minor league complex on Himes Avenue in Tampa during the summer of 1992, 18-year-old Derek Jeter, barely out of Kalamazoo Central High and barely 160 pounds, walked to a long rack of wooden bats and studied the choices, settling on a Louisville Slugger model P72 for no other reason than its shape, which most resembled the aluminum bat he used in high school. Twenty professional seasons later he hasn't tried another model for so much as one at bat.
More than a creature of habit, Jeter is a creature of simplicity, devoted in his life and in his game to refining the quality that Da Vinci called "the ultimate sophistication."
"In all my years playing with him," says Paul O'Neill, Jeter's teammate from 1995 through 2001, "I don't think I ever heard him have one technical discussion about the mechanics of hitting. He keeps it simple. He just plays. It's like he's still playing high school baseball."
Jeter's commitment to simplicity soon will yield an extravagant result: 3,000 hits. He is about to become the 28th player—and first Yankee—to reach the milestone, and if he does it on Monday he will tie Robin Yount as the third youngest to get there. (Jeter, who was seven hits short through Sunday, turns 37 this month; Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron and Yount are the only players to reach 3,000 before their 37th birthdays.)
In an era in which offensive records get rewritten more than a Hollywood screenplay, the achievement of 3,000 hits retains every bit of its luster. Jeter played his first big league game in 1995. The most recent member of the 3,000-hit club, Craig Biggio, began his career in 1988. In the six seasons between their debuts—just as performance-enhancers, expansion-diluted pitching and smaller ballparks began to aid offense—990 players made it to the majors without reaching the historic plateau.
It took Jeter and his unorthodox contraption of a swing to rise above all others of his era. Asked about his approach to hitting, Jeter replies, "It's kind of simple, man. I've always thought the more simple everything is, the easier it is. I don't complicate things. I really don't."
AND YET, as Jeter closes in on 3,000, his career has grown more complicated than ever. A down season last year was followed by ugly contract negotiations with the Yankees that turned more public than the circumspect shortstop ever wished. That led to a damaged relationship with the front office, which has been followed by a 2011 season that has been even worse than the last. Too often for Jeter the questions have been less about how many hits he has and more about how many he might still have in him.
"It's changed, no question," Jeter says when asked about the media environment surrounding him and the Yankees. "It's not necessarily about whether you win or lose—yeah, it is—but we can win and if you don't get any hits, they'll ask, 'Well, why didn't you get any hits?' And if you got two hits, it's, 'Well, what happened that third time?' So everything is dissected here. There's more [dissection], definitely—because there are more outlets now. It's part of it, I guess. But I try not to pay attention."
Indeed, Jeter said he avoids reading and listening to criticism and has made it known to family and friends that he's not interested in hearing about any negative press. "You flip through the channels and all of a sudden you see something, you hear something real quick and you change it, but you can't avoid all of it."
Just then former pitcher David Wells, an ex-teammate visiting Jeter at his locker, adds, "Some guys are thick-skinned and some are thin-skinned. Kenny Rogers ... love him to death, but he couldn't handle it. Now, you go date Mariah and... . "