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Catching an early glimpse of Jeter's run at history

By Dave Reardon

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 10:24 p.m. HST, Aug 05, 2011



The end of the road on Sept. 16, 1998, was Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., 150 miles from home at the time in Gainesville. Prone on the backseat of my friend Mark Cooper's car, stricken by food poisoning, it seemed we crossed three time zones, not just three counties.

There was never a thought of turning back. The quest? To see with our own eyes the best team in baseball ... maybe in its history. That they were playing the majors' worst team in a facility that looked more like Pearlridge than a stadium was of little or no consideration or consequence.

We'd decided weeks before we couldn't pass up a chance to catch the New York Yankees live — even though, by definition as fans of the Braves (Coop) and Red Sox (me), we were supposed to loathe anything having to do with the Bronx Bombers.

One thing we failed to factor in (other than rancid BBQ) was we probably wouldn't get to view some of the best of the best much after batting practice; the Yankees' perch atop the AL East was unassailable and their lineup that September often did not include many of the stars who'd gotten them there.

Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch and Paul O'Neill all sat this one out — as did Tim Raines and Darryl Strawberry, only part-timers at this stage.

We were pleased, though, to note that Derek Jeter, the fourth-year shortstop coming off his first All-Star Game, was in the lineup, batting second. Today, I can say I was at the park when Jeter got one of his 3,003 career hits. The lingering of the bad lunch makes the details foggy, and the unremarkable nature of Jeter's line (a single and a walk in five trips, two routine assists) gave little hint he was building the foundation of a sure-fire Hall of Fame career.

What I left the Trop with (feeling much better, thank you) was the irony of Yankees ace Andy Pettitte getting knocked around the mall by an expansion team of scrubs on their way to 99 losses while the Yanks were headed to a franchise-record 114 regular-season wins.

That's baseball at the highest level. It didn't help the Yankees that half the starting lineup didn't play. But it didn't matter in the big picture, as they cruised through the postseason and in October crushed the Padres in the World Series.

But on this night? Devil Rays win, 7-0. Drive home safely, especially you Coop.

THE DOMINANCE of the Yankees was overshadowed that September by the home run duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Too bad, especially because of what we know now about performance-enhancing drugs and their role in that sham bam. It's strange to say it, but the 1998 Yankees — including Derek Jeter, who batted .324 and then .353 in the World Series and was third in the AL MVP voting — didn't really get the credit they deserved ... because of the juiced-up longball competition.

A TIME magazine article at the end of 1998 lauding McGwire as Man of the Year called him a "much-needed hero" for America. (Excuse me, I think something akin to that food poisoning is coming back.)

We see clearly now how ridiculous that is. I think we could then, but most didn't want to. Yes, baseball still needed a boost after the strike of 1994 and 1995, but all fans had to do was look at the Yankees and Jeter. The problem with that is so many of us are programmed to hate the pinstripers.

As far as we know, Jeter ain't a cheater, except maybe that time he leaned into a pitch. Mostly, he's a complete ballplayer, and quite possibly when all is said and done he'll be considered the best ever at his position.

For a decade and a half you could count on him day after day, and as he showed Saturday he's still capable of the spectacular.

Orel Hershiser called him "a grinder and a battler," correctly adding that, "the hardest thing in this game is consistency."

But Jeter has also displayed creative genius. Against all convention he was in the right place to back up a bad throw and nail the A's Jeremy Giambi at home in the 2001 playoffs.

That was just a few days before his moment as a presidential adviser, when Jeter convinced George W. Bush it would be better for America if the commander in chief threw the ceremonial first pitch of a World Series game from the mound, not closer to home plate.

That strike didn't win the war on terror all by itself, but it did more for the nation's morale than any artificially produced home run.

Reach Star-Advertiser sports columnist Dave Reardon at dreardon@staradvertiser.com, his "Quick Reads" blog at staradvertiser.com and twitter.com/dave_reardon.






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