Five days after he broke Lou Gehrig’s record for most hits as a member of the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter stood at the plate with 46,000 people screaming for him, like they have so many times before, to come through once again. The Yankees were tied with the Toronto Blue Jays 4-4, and Jeter was facing right-handed relief pitcher Jason Frasor, with speedster outfielder Brett Gardner on second base and nobody out. It was all primed. The new Yankee Stadium is so much louder than anyone thought it would be.
Frasor, the sixth pitcher of the game for the Blue Jays, clearly understood the moment and pitched Jeter very carefully, picking at corners, hitting all his spots, forcing Jeter to foul off pitches, pitcher’s pitches, pitches that Frasor threw scared, knowing that this is exactly what Derek Jeter does, what he has done for more than a decade. Frasor brought his best stuff, though, and Jeter kept fouling off difficult pitches, waiting for him to make a mistake. The crowd roared. The new place just shakes.
On a 2-2 pitch, with those 46,000 people still screaming, Frasor got Jeter to reach for a diving fastball slightly low and away, which he chopped weakly to Blue Jays shortstop Marco Scutaro. This was not what Jeter wanted—his job was to at least put the ball on the right side of the infield, enabling the runner to go easily to third. But in this case, Gardner got such a good jump that he made it to third anyway, and Scutaro had to settle for the out at first. The Yankees got a decent outcome, but Jeter had failed to do his part.
The crowd, however, was not disappointed, rewarding Jeter with a thunderous ovation as he jogged into the dugout. By the time he sat down, backup catcher Francisco Cervelli had singled home Gardner for the Yankees’ fourteenth walk-off win of the season. The ovation after Cervelli’s hit was loud, but not as loud as Jeter’s. When the massive HD Diamond Vision screen in center field played highlights after the game, they included Jeter’s feeble groundout.
Later, manager Joe Girardi singled out Jeter. “You get a great at-bat from Derek Jeter to move [Gardner],” he said. Which, in a sense, was true. To an outsider, someone who hasn’t followed Jeter’s career, it was just a groundout, Jeter not getting the runner home. But to the Yankees, and anyone who has watched the Yankees over the past fourteen years, it was more than that. They understand—the ovation, why Girardi mentioned Jeter before Cervelli, and why Cervelli himself, when questioned by reporters afterward, mentioned Jeter before he even mentioned his own hit.
Jeter is just a magnet for positive energy. Whatever he actually does on the field, fans and teammates believe in Derek Jeter because he believes in himself. When he jogged back to the dugout after his groundout, his pace and cadence were the same as they would have been if he’d knocked the winning run home. He’s always like that. Jeter, above anything else, is a study in the power of human confidence. He has become the hero of the Bronx because he effortlessly exudes the qualities we wish we had ourselves: He is always confident, always composed, always in control. Baseball is an unpredictable game; failure is a constant. But Jeter doesn’t allow himself to absorb it, or even really acknowledge it. He just keeps cruising along, as if playing shortstop for the most scrutinized, glorified sports franchise in the world every day for the past fourteen years is the most natural thing on earth.
Of all the numbers used to measure the impact that Derek Jeter has had on the Yankees during his Hall of Fame career, the one nobody ever cites is 1,705,263. That’s the number of fans who attended games at old Yankee Stadium in 1995, the season before Jeter arrived full-time, the season before the Yankees won their first World Series since 1978, the season before the Yankees became the Yankees again. That figure was fourteenth in the majors, an average of 23,360, fewer than the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees’ payroll was $48,874,851, or roughly $6 million less than what the Yankees are paying Alex Rodriguez and Jeter combined this season. It seems so much longer ago than fourteen years.
Then Jeter showed up, in 1996. He was a fully formed True Yankee from the get-go. Jeter had been a Yankees fan all his life, which, considering how miserable the team was during much of that time span, showed real commitment for a kid who grew up in Michigan. Jeter was instantly the face of a franchise that, with the retirement of Don Mattingly, desperately needed one. Jeter was everything a marketer or a fan could hope for from a baseball superstar: humble, fresh-faced, energetic, bi-racial, constantly hustling, seemingly innocent, entirely devoted to the game of baseball…he was a new kind of Yankees hero. He was not a hulking slugger or bigmouthed self-promoter. He was the Professional. He was, for a franchise always eager to bulk up its own iconography, the ideal brand, someone willing to play the part as long as you let him play his game. The titles came, and the Yankees were shaped in Jeter’s image, intense competitors devoted to the team at all costs. He was—instantly—the true New York sports hero.