Derek Jeter and the delayed milestone

Drat.

And I was so looking forward to it, as well. Certainly also eagerly anticipated it.

On June 9, Derek Jeter tallied his 2,990th career hit, putting him in the final little bit of a stretch run for the magic number 3,000. Though the aging shortstop is playing like, well, like an aging shortstop, he was still averaging about a hit per game and, thus, had a decent chance to bop his historic hit on the weekend of June 17-19, when the Yankees played the Cubs in Chicago.

That’s the part I was looking forward to: As a Chicago resident, I might have been able to land a ticket for the game he joined the 3,000 Hit Club.

Aside from my own personal interest, many others looked forward to Jeter’s blast. He’s a popular player on a team with a big fan base, and besides, everyone looks forward to seeing one of these big milestones achieved.

Instead, on June 13, Derek Jeter tweaked his leg, sustaining a Grade One calf injury. Sitting on 2,994 hits, Jeter went to the DL for the first time in eight years. Bad timing, to be sure.

That just leads to a question: What precedent is there for a player on the verge of a massive milestone having to experience an extended pause like this?

There are three clubs that matter: 3,000 hits, 500 homers, and 300 wins. Who had the longest lasting stretch runs here?

3,000 hit club

Let’s look at the current members of the 3,000 Hit Club first, as that’s the club Jeter is about to join. Twenty-seven belong to it, but we don’t have easily available play-by-play info for all of them; that only goes back to World War I.

That’s fine, though. Not only have far more people joined the club since WWI, but the concept of a career milestone didn’t really exist back then. Bill James noted in his original Historical Abstract that career milestones didn’t really garner much attention until the opening of the Hall of Fame.

Looking it over, there’s no perfect comp for Derek Jeter’s current situation.

Others have missed games on the verge of their deadline, but not an entire DL stint. Take George Brett, for instance. Sitting on 2,996 hits, he went 0-for-4 on September 27, 1992, and then missed the next pair of games. That left him only five games in the season to tally four more hits or face an entire off-season of waiting for his milestone. Instead of the wait, Brett went 4-for-5 on September 30, making the club well before the season ended.

A lot of guys reach 3,000 hits at the end of a tirade. Eddie Murray’s 3,000th came in the fifth straight game he got a hit. It was six games for Willie Mays, seven for Robin Yount. If you go back in the day, Ty Cobb’s 3,000 was his fifth and final hit in a doubleheader and in the 11th consecutive game he got a hit.

The worst final legs to 3,000: Winfield, Yaz, and Henderson.

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Winfield slumped a bit, but got to 500 eventually.

No one has had the extended wait on the verge of 3,000 like Jeter currently does, but three had very vexing stretch runs that took longer than they wanted.

Dave Winfield didn’t have it so bad. He got hit No. 2,992 on September 3, 1993, and then went on a mini-drought, going 0-for-11 in the next three games.

Then he got a pair of hits in each of the next two games, getting him to 2,996.

A semi-slump plagued him for the next four games, when he went 2-for-15, put him on the edge of baseball immortality.

Sure enough, a 2-for-5 game on Sept. 16, 1993, put Winfield in the 3,000 Hit Club.

He’d gone hitless in five of the last ten games, batting .222 (8-for-36) in the process. That isn’t very good, but everyone has several stretches like that in a season.

Carl Yastrzemski had it much worse. It didn’t last as long because his slump began after his 2,998th hit, but it must have been that much more frustrating because he was so very close.

After banging out No. 2,998 in his last at bat Sept. 7, 1979, Yaz couldn’t even buy a hit. He went 1-for-18 with a walk in his next 19 plate appearances.

Yastrzemski kept making contact—only 2 strikeouts—but hitting the ball right at people. He finally got the pressure off his back with an eighth-inning single on Sept. 12 for No. 3,000.

It was only a five-day delay, but that’s the thing about being on the cusp of 3,000 hits: Unless you injury yourself like Jeter just did, a wait won’t be too long.

Even the worst hitters get a few hits a week, and players who get to 3,000 are by definition among your best hitters.

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Rickey: Getting his big hit in the nick of time.

Still, one man very nearly had a much longer wait than Jeter will have: Rickey Henderson.

An eighth-inning single on Sept. 29, 2001, gave him 2,997 career hits, so he needed seven games to get a mere three hits.

Turns out Henderson needed all seven games. Playing in each of the next five games, Henderson went 1-for-17.

Suddenly, an easy chore of three hits in a week had become a much more questionable hit-per-game pace.

Had he failed to do that, Henderson would have to wait the entire off-season for No. 3,000.

But he did it, with the magic knock coming in his last plate appearance of the year.

It was only fitting, as he’d hit No. 2,000 in his last plate appearance of the 1992 season.

(To be fair, in both games he could’ve had more at-bats, but the Padres took him out of the game after he doubled in the first inning. The same thing happened when Henderson played on the A’s in 1992).

500 home run club

This is different because a lot of guys here have had sustained waits before crashing the club. It makes sense: It’s difficult to stay in the lineup for a week if you can’t get a hit, but plenty go weeks without a home run, and no one minds.

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It was worth the wait for A-Rod.

The guy I remember getting the most press for struggling on the verge of club membership was Alex Rodriguez.

It took him 10 games to go from No. 499 to No. 500, and this in a season in which he hit 54 home runs.

Last year, it took him 13 games to go from No. 599 to No. 600, though he hit “only” 30 homers that year.

That said, A-Rod’s isn’t alone. Mickey Mantle sat on No. 499 for eleven days.

Harmon Killebrew stayed at 499 homers for 16 days.

The record holder has to be Jimmie Foxx, though: 20 days stuck at 499 home runs from Sept. 4 to Sept. 24, 1940.

Here’s the weird part: Foxx was homering at a good clip until then, too. He belted 36 homers that year, second most in the league behind Hank Greenberg’s 40. At the time Foxx hit his 499th home run, he was leading the AL with 35 homers while Greenberg had only 27. He wasn’t injured, either. He just slumped, going 9-for-55 with three doubles and no other extra base hits.

What’s even more common than guys having a prolonged stay at 499 is a long time in the late 490s. For example, while Mel Ott hit No. 500 just one day after his 499th shot, it took him 76 days to go from 496 home runs to 499.

Ken Griffey, Jr. went exactly a week between Nos. 498 and 499, and then another week to join the club. Ernie Banks ended 1970 at 497 homers, but it took him nearly a month to get three more.

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Sosa had to wait six months for one swing.

Eddie Mathews went six weeks from 497 to 500, and Manny Ramirez also took six weeks to get his last four homers. It took Willie McCovey 25 days to hit two homers.

One of the more interesting cases was Eddie Murray. He was well past his prime, but still belting homers at a steady clip in 1996.

On August 16, Murray blasted his 16th homer of the year and 498th for his career and then just stopped.

Two weeks later, he got his next homer, and it was only a week after that he hit the magic No. 500, but in this case it turned out his power slump was rather permanent.

After joining the 500 Home Run Club, he knocked out just one more in the last three weeks.

In 1997, he bopped out only three in 55 games as his career came to a close.

Murray was like a car that had just began to sputter on fumes as it drove within sight of a gas station, making it with a little room to spare, but that was it.

Technically, the longest waits didn’t belong to Foxx or Ott or another of the others, but to Sammy Sosa and Gary Sheffield, both of who ended a season stuck on No. 499 and had to wait the entire offseason to join the club.

300 win club

This should be the one that has the longest waits. After all, 20 wins in a season is a far less common achievement than 20 home runs, let alone 20 hits.

Sure enough, the single worst wait anyone ever had to join one of these three clubs came from a pitcher. Early Wynn failed to live up to his name when he tried to join the club. After posting win No. 299 on September 8, 1962, he had to wait 308 days for No. 300.

Wynn lost his last three starts for the White Sox in 1962 (including a tough 10-inning, complete-game loss to the pennant-winning Yankees when his team scored only one run for him). Thus, Wynn had to endure the entire offseason stuck on 299 victories. And it wasn’t a very fun offseason to endure, either, as the Sox cut him and no one else picked him up.

Finally the Indians took a flyer on him in late June. He pitched well, but his games were an exercise in frustration. Wynn pitched great against Chicago—the team that so rudely dumped him—in his first game back, holding them scoreless through eight innings. Unfortunately, Cleveland also couldn’t score in the first eight frames. In the ninth, Wynn allowed two runs for a tough 2-0 loss.

A week later, Wynn took the hill again and pitched a borderline quality start, three earned runs allowed in six innings. Though Cleveland won 4-3, that’s because they scored two runs after Wynn left, so it was a no-decision for him and he was still stuck at No. 299.

On Independence Day, it looked like Wynn would finally achieve his goal of 300 wins. He’d thrown six shutout innings against Boston, and had a lead, though it was only a feeble 1-0 lead. However, manager Birdie Tebbetts decided to take Wynn out after a leadoff single in the seventh. Though that run didn’t score, the bullpen blew the lead an inning later, and Cleveland had to rally to win 4-3 in 14 frames.

So far, the Indians had scored only three runs in Wynn’s 21 innings pitched.

Three days later, Wynn very nearly reached his goal—but didn’t, of course—while pitching in relief. He entered the game against the Yankees with the Indians trailing 4-2. He held the Yanks scoreless in the top of the eighth and ninth innings, which meant he would be the victorious pitcher if the Indians scored thrice in the bottom of the ninth.

They very nearly did: plating two runs to tie it and putting the winning run in scoring position, only to have Jim Bouton fan Tito Francona to send the game into extra frames. Wynn had been lifted for a pinch hitter (who drove in the tying run) and so would not get the decision.

After four consecutive fine pitching performances for the Indians without a victory, it makes some ironic sense that Wynn finally got No. 300 in a game in which he pitched poorly. The Kansas City A’s smacked him around for four runs in five innings, but that was fine, as Cleveland had plated more runs, and the bullpen preserved the lead for a 7-4 win.

His history made, the Indians only let Wynn start one more game all year, in which he got hammered. But that last win was really all Wynn wanted.

Aside from Wynn, the worst wait on 299 wins belongs to Phil Niekro. He went 0-3 in four starts before pitching a complete-game shutout for No. 300. Good thing he won that game: It was his last start of the season, so he’d have a long wait for his next chance at 300 wins.

Lefty Grove, who, like Early Wynn, ended his career with exactly 300 victories, had a 22-day stay at 299 wins in 1941. In all, Grove was 1-5 after his 299th win, which is possibly the only time in his entire career he dropped five out of six decisions. No wonder he announced his retirement at the end of the year on Dec. 7 (that’s right, the same day as Pearl Harbor).

The worst wait of all

As bad as Yaz, Rickey, Ott, Fox, Wynn, and Grove had it, one event stands out above all else when it comes to a sustained and unpleasant wait for a career marker.

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Getting there was less than half the fun for Aaron.

It wasn’t to join one of the big three clubs.

It was something much, much bigger, which just made the wait much, much worse.

It can be summed up in a single number:

714.

Yup, it’s Hank Aaron quest to break Babe Ruth’s career home run record.

He ended the 1973 season sitting on 713 home runs, just one short.

And then, in a story that’s almost as famous as the home run chase itself, had to endure an off-season of hate mail and death threats, necessitating security measures for early 1974.

In this case, the offseason is virtually entirely responsible for the pause en route to the milestone. No. 713 came in the next-to-last game of 1973, and Aaron hit No. 714 on the first pitch he saw in 1974.

He then broke Ruth’s record just four days later.

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Jeter waits for his return.

That said, what Jeter’s going through is a bit different from anyone. He suffered a calf injury when he was within a handful of games of the big milestone.

Others have had to wait because of the offseason, or a bad stretch, or getting cut (or all of the above for Early Wynn), but a DL stint? That’s new.

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Comments

  1. Uncle Mike said...

    When they had the All-Century Team presentation during the 1999 World Series, Cal Ripken was (I think) 8 hits short of 3,000, and Ken Griffey Jr. 2 homers short of 400 (although that’s not nearly as big a deal as 500).  And legend has it that Roberto Clemente was told he didn’t have to worry about getting Number 3,000 in 1972, he could get it next season, and he said, “I have to get that hit this year.  I might die.” Whether he actually said that, I don’t know, but he did get it in the season’s next-to-last game.  In the last game, he reached another milestone, surpassing Honus Wagner’s franchise record for games played.  It was his last, as his alleged premonition came true.

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