Then he stood on the bag and doffed his helmet twice, as the Rays climbed to the top step of the visiting dugout and 45,848 fans roared their approval of Jeter's 2,721st career hit.
"It's mind-boggling," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You think about what Derek has done his whole career, how great he has been for such a long time and what he has meant to the organization, and you put his name next to Lou Gehrig. It's amazing."
Heading into the game, talk centered not on Jeter tying Gehrig, but simply on recording another hit. For three games, the captain stood stuck on 2,718 hits, prompting discussion of just when he might become the team's all-time hits king. In the stadium, on the sidewalk and in taxi cabs, people approached Jeter and asked him that very question.
It wore on him.
"I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't thinking about it, because pretty much everywhere I've gone this entire homestand, I've been hearing it," Jeter said. "'When are you going to get a hit? When are you going to get a hit?' I told them I'm trying."
All-time Yankees hit leaders
|Derek Jeter passed Lou Gehrig and now has the most hits by a Yankee. Here are the top 10 Yankees leaders in hits.|
Rather than press, Jeter utilized an unorthodox tactic to climb out of his 0-for-12 funk -- he bunted. Noticing that Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was playing deep in the first inning, Jeter sent the first pitch he saw down the third-base line, leaving both Longoria and Niemann without a play.
After grounding out in his next at-bat, Jeter boomed a double over the head of Rays center fielder B.J. Upton in the fifth inning, moving within one hit of Gehrig. Upton, who appeared to move slowly after the ball, blamed the balky left ankle that kept him out of three games last week.
"I just couldn't get there," Upton said. "If I'm 100 percent, maybe 95, I would have gotten there. But it just wouldn't let me get there."
Jeter, meanwhile, was cruising toward a different destination. With momentum at his back, he hit a bullet down the first-base line in the seventh, just out of the reach of Richard.
"It was just a fastball -- I wasn't trying to pitch around him or anything like that," Niemann said. "I went right at him with my best stuff. And if he did it, he did it -- and he did. It's what he's been doing his whole career, so I can't feel bad about that at all."
Though he does not yet stand alone -- that could come as soon as Friday night's game against the Orioles -- Jeter did enter rarefied air. In the legendary history of the Yankees, one that has included 26 World Series titles and Hall of Famers such as Gehrig, Ruth and Mantle, no one -- not a single player -- has recorded more hits than Jeter.
He and Gehrig now rank 54th on the all-time Major League list, trailing Pete Rose at 4,256.
Team-by-team hit leaders
|Here is a look at the hit leaders for all 30 Major League clubs, through games of Sept. 11, 2009:|
|Red Sox||Carl Yastrzemski*||3,419|
|Orioles||Cal Ripken Jr.*||3,184|
|White Sox||Luke Appling*||2,749|
|Blue Jays||Tony Fernandez||1,583|
|* Member of the Hall of Fame|
"It means a lot," Jeter said. "I'm a Yankees fan, was a Yankees fan growing up. Coming up through this organization, I know a lot about the history and what [Gehrig] stood for. Being a captain, he's probably one of the classiest people to ever play the game. To be alongside him -- at least for a day in pretty much anything that you can do -- to have your name next to his is quite an accomplishment."
Yet throughout the past 15 years, Jeter's Yankees have accomplished a great deal as well. During that span, his teams have won four World Series titles and six American League pennants, establishing a dynasty in the late 1990s and solidifying Jeter's place as a future Hall of Famer.
So many of Jeter's hits have been big ones -- from his dramatic home run in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series to his controversial blast in Game 1 of the 1996 AL Championship Series.
More than even highly successful teammates Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte, Jeter has become the face of the franchise -- and rightfully so.
"We've been through a lot together, and he's just a good person," Pettitte said. "He works hard, he plays the game the right way, he's done things the right way and it's just awesome to see him being able to accomplish this.
"There's been an awful lot of ball players to come through this organization, and to think he's tied for the most hits, he's obviously going to break the record -- it's just incredible. It couldn't happen to a better person. He's a great teammate, a great friend and he's done things the right way. He's a great leader on this team, so you can't say enough about Derek Jeter."
Perhaps most revealing was the fact that afterward, Jeter admitted that he could not entirely enjoy his accomplishment with the Yankees losing. But Posada took care of that one inning later, smacking the three-run homer that sank the Rays and glorified Jeter's accomplishment.
"I felt proud -- I got goose bumps," Posada said of Jeter's record-tying hit. "I didn't know what to do when he got it. The standing ovation is what he deserves -- I think the fans did a great job. It was a perfect moment. I think we took enough time out of the game to really acknowledge something as important as it was."
Jeter plans on storing the ball at the home of his parents, who were in attendance Wednesday and plan on remaining in New York until Jeter breaks Gehrig's record. He nearly did so in the eighth inning, running up a full count before reliever Grant Balfour walked him with two outs.
Now, Jeter will have to wait at least two more days, until the first of three games against the Orioles on Friday.
"We've got a whole day off tomorrow, so I'm going to have to hear about when I'm going to get another hit," Jeter said. "You try to enjoy this."
So notorious for brushing aside individual accomplishments, Jeter may be able to do just that.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy -- a guy that's always there for the team," Rivera said.
"I know he isn't too crazy about the spotlight, but he ought to be proud," Pettitte said. "He ought to enjoy it and he ought to feel awfully, awfully good about what he's done."