Phil Garner is an expert enabler of fan-friendly baseball history.
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He managed two icons at the time of their 3,000th career hit: Milwaukee’s Robin Yount in 1992, Houston’s Craig Biggio in 2007. Both times, the milestone happened at home.
When asked over the holiday weekend if that was by design, Garner responded with several seconds of laughter.
“Hell, yeah!” he finally said into the telephone. “Are you kidding me?”
OK, maybe that was a stupid question. But it’s also a timely one, in light of the resumption of Derek Jeter’s quest for 3,000 in Cleveland on Monday night.
Would the Yankees’ decision-makers (baseball and business) prefer that Jeter’s moment take place at Yankee Stadium, as opposed to Cleveland’s Progressive Field or Toronto’s Rogers Centre?
At the risk of being repetitive: Hell, yeah!
If Jeter gets three or four hits during the first two games in Cleveland, I fully expect Yankees manager Joe Girardi to rest his shortstop in Wednesday’s series finale, thus giving him the best chance to make history in the Bronx.
“I would say that would be a pretty good guess,” Garner said, chuckling again. “And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
I agree wholeheartedly, for two primary reasons.
1. The Yankees overpaid Jeter last offseason (three years, $51 million) in part because they wanted him to become the first player to achieve 3,000 hits while wearing the pinstripes. They have the right to make reasonable accommodations for that to happen at Yankee Stadium.
2. There is precedent for Jeter to take one day off this week. When Alex Rodriguez (a superstar infielder of similar age) returned from a calf injury last September, he started two straight games before appearing as a pinch hitter in the third.
Really, the Yankees have little choice but to close their eyes and hope that the statistical probabilities hold true. Jeter is hitting .260 this year. He gets roughly one hit for every four official at-bats — in other words, one hit per game.
He’s a handful of hits away. The math should work out: A pinch-hit appearance on Wednesday . . . one hit on Thursday . . . one hit on Friday . . . one hit on Saturday . . . a big party on Sunday.
At least, that’s the best-case scenario.
The not-quite-best-case scenario: Jeter struggles to regain his timing after the DL stay, and the All-American milestone for the All-American player bounces onto an artificial surface in Canada — much like Tony Gwynn in Montreal 12 years ago.
Achieving the 3,000-hit milestone under duress is nothing new. Consider the case of Rickey Henderson. His came on the final day of the 2001 season — when it was uncertain whether he would return the next year. “Now that’s a lot of pressure,” said Bruce Bochy, Henderson’s manager with the Padres that year. (Naturally, Rickey played two more seasons and retired at 44.)
Logistically, there’s only so much that the Yankees can do — but with this player, and this team, the usual sensibilities are forgotten like the amount of your last grocery bill.
“Oh, if they don’t work it so that he gets that hit in New York, boy, the papers are going to grill ‘em,” Garner said. “They’ll have no mercy. They’ll be all over Girardi.”
Garner narrowly avoided a similar rebuke with Yount. He knocked out No. 3,000 on the final day of a three-game homestand. Yount’s timing was exquisite, considering the Brewers’ next seven games were on the road.
If Yount hadn’t blooped that single into right field on Sept. 9, 1992, the Milwaukee fans would have had to watch the career Brewer make history on TV.
“He was going to have to play,” Garner said. “If it didn’t happen that day, he was probably going to get the hit on the road. It would not have been good for Robin to hold him out for seven days. That’s basically what I remember.
“We all wanted Robin to do it at home, but I don’t remember him thinking about it too much. I tell you, those guys are special — Robin and Biggio. They’re such easy guys to manage. You don’t really manage them. You just stay out of their way and let them play.
“These guys are performers. Give them a stage, tell them what needs to be done, and they do it. That’s what Robin did. That’s what Biggio did. We came back from a road trip, and Biggio was (three) away. He got five in the first game. When it was over, we joked with him, ‘You know, you could have strung this out, and we would have had sellouts for four days.’ ”
Garner freely admits he finessed Biggio’s schedule leading up to the landmark hit. The Astros took a three-city trip as Biggio approached 3,000, and he started only two of the final five games.
The big hit — hits, actually — came on June 28, 2007. No one has reached 3,000 since. Almost exactly four years later, it’s Jeter’s turn.
“No question, we were setting him up to do it at home,” Garner said. “It was unspoken and generally understood (with the front office) that we wanted it to happen that way. These guys (Yount and Biggio) played their whole careers in the same town. It’s important that they do it in front of the hometown crowd. If there’s a way to do it without besmirching the integrity of the game, by maneuvering around the off days, then you should.”
Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way.
Minnesota’s Paul Molitor played every inning of a nine-game homestand — and batted .314 — but joined the club on the first day of the subsequent trip. Fifteen years later, Twins chairman Jerry Bell remembers: “I think they walked him three or four times. Very sad.”
And there wasn’t much the Padres could do with Gwynn in ’99. He arrived at 3,000 smack in the middle of an 11-game swing through St. Louis, Montreal and New York. “No disappointment,” said Kevin Towers, then the San Diego general manager. “Our hope was that he would do it in St. Louis (on the same night as Mark McGwire’s 500th home run). We certainly didn’t want to sit him in Montreal, and Tony wouldn’t have wanted that, anyway.”
That’s true of Jeter, too. He hates missing games. It’s absurd to suggest he would pull himself from the lineup to ensure the most theatrical circumstances possible. As of right now, he has a chance to do it at Yankee Stadium. Great players have a way of making the great moments happen.
And let’s not forget why the Yankees are playing these games at all.
“They’ve got to win,” Garner said. “It’s tougher (to script it) when you’re trying to win, but it’s also easier in a way. If someone questions you, just say, ‘Look, we’ve got to win. This is not the Derek Jeter 3,000 Hit Show. When the season is over, we want to raise the flag. The objective is to win, and I need Jeter in there.’”
It all sounds like a Broadway script. Now it’s time for The Captain to make it happen.