Think of it as a man building his own mountain, one pebble at a time.
Every day, he tries to add one, sometimes two. Pebbles are hard to come by, but on occasion, he can add three. On a rare day, four. Some days, try as he might, there are no pebbles to be found.
For years, he does this. He stacks pebbles, and he shapes them, and slowly, the pile gets higher. After a while, people start to notice that he sure does have a lot of pebbles.
After 20 years or so of this, it seems, the pebbles are imposing. Some might suggest they are high enough to touch the stars.
And that, baseball fans, is what getting 3,000 hits is like.
In an everyday sport, it is an everyday record, a testament to ability and will and toughness and determination. It is about lasting, about being good enough to last. It is a journey across the desert in which you can take no more than a few steps each day.
Three grand. It is 200 hits a year for 15 seasons in a row. Think about it: If a batter got a hit in every game of every season, a silly idea presented only to make a point, it would still take him 18 1/2 years to get to 3,000.
Yeah, 3,000 hits is still a bunch.
Yeah, getting 3,000 hits still matters.
To Derek Jeter, and to the rest of us, too.
Jeter, as you have heard, is only three hits away from becoming the 28th player to reach 3,000, and it is the Tampa Bay Rays who stand in his way in the four-game series that begins tonight. Given that Jeter has 267 hits in 211 games against the Rays (a .309 average), you kind of like his chances.
This is going to be a show, all right. No Yankee has ever had 3,000 hits, and HBO is filming a documentary, and ticket prices have surged, and a special baseball will be in play. This isn't just going to be a series; it's going to be the Oscars with cleats.
The thing is, you get the feeling that Jeter could use this sort of accomplishment right about now. No, not just for his legacy. Jeter will be one of the few members of the 3,000-hit club whose resume will be just fine without it. He'll go into the Hall of Fame, and everyone will talk about his elegance and his professionalism and his World Series rings, and his career will end happily.
(Hank Aaron is bigger than his 3,771 hits, for instance. Even if Aaron had 1,000 less, he would still be an immortal. You can say the same about Willie Mays or Cal Ripken Jr. or Roberto Clemente, all of whom are best known for things other than their hit totals. For most of the others who have 3,000 hits, that will always be the number that defines them.)
Still, you get the feeling that Jeter needs something positive to keep the hounds off of his heels. He has turned into quite the target at age 37. Critics knock his Gold Gloves because of his limited range, and they wonder why he is still batting leadoff, and they scowl that he is starting another All-Star Game.
On the other hand, there is nothing interpretive about 3,000 hits. Either you get them, or like Babe Ruth and Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio and Rogers Hornsby, you do not.
Over the years, the way we view statistics can change. After the steroid scandals of the '90s, you can no longer trust 500 home runs. Relief specialists have diminished the number of pitchers who will ever win 300 games again. But 3,000 hits is still 3,000 hits, the way Everest is still Everest.
True, there are those who shake their heads at 3,000 hits, too, and suggest it is less about greatness than it is about grinding it out for 20 years.
For instance, Robin Yount, a fine player but not exactly Ty Cobb, has 3,000 hits, and he only made three All-Star Games. Rickey Henderson has 3,000 (despite a career .279 average), and he never had a 200-hit season. Craig Biggio has 3,000, even though he only had four seasons where he hit above .300.
Lou Brock made it, though critics don't seem quite sure how. Rafael Palmeiro made it, though he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs three weeks later. Cap Anson made it, even though no one seems sure of exactly how many hits he has. (In 1887, walks were counted as hits. That led Anson to being dismissed from the 3,000-hit club at one point, then allowed back in.)
Let's face it: It does seem easier to get into the 3,000-hit club than it once did. From 1887, when Anson got his 3,000th hit, to 1985, when Rod Carew got his, there were 16 players who reached 3,000 hits. Jeter will be the 12th member in the last 25 years.
None of that means that 3,000 hits isn't a chore. There are 94 players who have 2,500 hits or more. Of those, two-thirds failed to get to 3,000. Perhaps that explains why every eligible member of the 3,000-hit club (except Palmeiro) is in the Hall of Fame.
How important is 3,000 hits? Sam Rice could tell you. Rice finished 13 hits shy and, because of that, few have ever heard of him. Or of Sam Crawford, who needed 39 more hits. Or of Jake Beckley, who needed 66 more.
The critics look at 3,000 all wrong. It isn't a negative that it takes so long to get there. That's the beauty of it. Of the 27 men who have had 3,000 hits, 23 of them played 20 seasons or more. Nineteen of them were at least 39 years old when they had their 3,000th hit. Mediocre players aren't asked to hang around for two decades.
How hard is 3,000? Think about the difficulty of a single hit, which Williams described as the most difficult feat in sports. A major-league pitcher stands 20 yards away, throwing bullets, spinning it and cutting it and sinking it. Around him, there are eight world-class athletes ready to rob any possible hit. It is overcoming great defensive plays and questionable calls and relief specialists and cross-country flights.
If you beat all of that, you only have to do it another 2,999 times.
If you need more evidence, remember how Wade Boggs described reaching 3,000 hits.
"I finally have some meaning in my career," Boggs said. "This is finally something they can write on my final resting place. It gives (my career) substance. It's like 'Oh, yeah, you made some All-Star teams. Oh, yeah, you won batting titles. Oh yeah, you won Gold Gloves.' But 'Wow, you had 3,000 damn hits!' "
Even now, that's a lot of hits. Even now, it's a cool club to be join.
Even now, 3,000 hits is worth celebrating.