1999: The leap
By the end of the 1998 season, Jeter had 588 hits, owned a career .308 batting average and a 109 OPS+ and had amassed 834 total bases. For shortstops through their age-24 season, the raw numbers were compelling, and if one wanted to dip into history, Jeter's career numbers at that point looked pretty similar to Hall of Famer Joe Cronin's. But then during that 1999 campaign, Jeter put together the best offensive season of his career. Not only did Jeter post a 153 OPS+ (at the time, tying Nomar Garciaparra from 1999 for the fourth highest since 1893 for a shortstop in an age-25 or younger season); he collected 219 hits, scored 134 runs, compiled 70 extra-base hits, drove in 102 runs and drew 91 walks.
In terms of on-base packaging, no shortstop at this age or younger had ever put together this collection of walks and hits (let alone with so much extra-base power). In fact, the only players who had neared, matched or surpassed the hit and walk numbers in an age-25 or younger season and had done so with an adjusted OPS+ at Jeter's level were Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Wade Boggs and John Olerud.
2006: Taking stock
The years following Jeter's historic 1999 campaign saw him settle into a fairly tight window of performance, with no season approaching the heights of that final year before the millennium. But in that relatively consistent performance, the hits just kept coming, and Jeter was ascending to compelling heights. By the conclusion of 2005 -- his age-31 season -- the Yanks' captain had accumulated 1,936 knocks, a number that was high enough to cause many to speculate on where that hit total might someday rest and how it would look compared to the other men who spent a lot of time at shortstop.
With those 1,936 hits, Jeter owned the third-most hits through an age-31 season for any player with at least 67 percent of his career games at short (behind totals from Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Arky Vaughan). Like earlier in his career, Jeter's links to the game's immortals were hard to ignore. On the other hand, the position can be rough on players on the wrong side of 30, and it was this, as much as anything else, that made Jeter's 2006 campaign remarkable.
Playing 154 games, Jeter had 214 hits (his most since 1999) and with a week left in the season, he still had an outside shot at a personal milestone that had eluded him: an American League batting crown. And while he finished second in that race, his .343 average was one that allowed for a direct measure to the greatest shortstop of them all: Honus Wagner. By collecting those 214 hits in 623 at-bats, Jeter posted the highest average for a shortstop in an age-32 season, outdistancing the .339 Wagner authored for the 1906 Pirates. Without caring to contextualize for run-scoring environment, there was something particularly smile-inducing within the similarities that could be found, 100 years apart.
It wouldn't be the last time Jeter would do something that linked Wagner for his magnificent performance.
2009: A perfect circle
That 2006 season came in the middle of three straight 200-hit campaigns for Jeter, and with the totals in '07 and '08 adding to his resume, Jeter entered '09 with 2,535 hits, a .316 batting average, 3,678 total bases and a 120 OPS+. The individuals that -- before Jeter -- had reached these levels through their age-34 season are immortal: Ed Delahanty, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby, Gehrig, Foxx and Stan Musial. But there was more to invigorate than just the manipulated selection of numbers, for those 2,535 hits were 12 behind Pete Rose's total through the all-time hit king's age-34 season; the ramifications of such a parallel were interesting, to say the least. And when the 2009 campaign was done and Jeter had again defied what time seemingly does to shortstops, the forecasting for the future was unavoidable.
As the Yankees made their way to another American League East title (and eventually to the fifth World Series crown in Jeter's career), Jeter became the first shortstop to have a 200-hit season in an age-35 campaign and posted the second-highest batting average (.334) and OPS (.871) for the position and age. In the two second-place categories, he was looking up at Wagner. Along the way, Jeter had raised his career average to .317, a mark only surpassed by two shortstops through their age-35 seasons: Arky Vaughan and Wagner.
When Jeter brushed aside the miles and years in 2009, it seemed possible that he might eventually pass Speaker on the all-time hits lists, so that whenever retirement did come, that roll call would read: Rose, Cobb, Hank Aaron, Musial, Jeter (or something even better). Down years in 2010 and '11 and an almost completely lost campaign in '13 erased that possibility, and Jeter will finish sixth, in between Speaker and Wagner (after passing Wagner in August). But that seems appropriate, that one of Jeter's final milestone moments will forever attach him to Wagner, the greatest shortstop to ever play the game. And with it, a linking of narratives and a transfer of immortality feels complete.