Unlike archetypal New York sports heroes like Reggie Jackson and Joe Namath, Jeter never felt the need to take on some tabloid-friendly persona—it’s impossible to imagine Jeter claiming he’s the straw that stirs the drink—and he keeps his interviews with reporters purposefully dull. He’s compulsively private and, for a multimillionaire baseball player beloved by the masses, almost reflexively self-effacing. For all this, he has been repaid with unparalleled adulation. He hasn’t necessarily courted it. He doesn’t make overtly fan-friendly gestures. He doesn’t tweet. When he comes under scrutiny for off-field issues—as he did in the midst of those Alex Rodriguez dramas, in which reporters and fans begged him to draw a contrast with his eccentric, insecure former rival—he clams up. He hides in the spotlight.
The team around him for these fourteen years has changed dramatically. The Everyman heroes like Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius are long gone, replaced initially by big-name divas like Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi. The Yankees turned back into a Steinbrenner hodgepodge, a conspicuously expensive team that couldn’t produce when it mattered most. Then the team morphed again, into this year’s collection of free-agent pie-throwers, wealthy young men reveling in the opportunity to behave like kids. To them, Jeter is a remote figure, liked and admired, but not really part of the crew. “No matter what happens, you can just follow that dude,” says Nick Swisher, whose puppy-dog exuberence is distinctly un-Jeterlike. “He just doesn’t change.” What has been fascinating about Jeter over these title-less eight seasons—Jeter once said the one record he wanted to break was Yogi Berra’s ten World Series titles; was he really only 26 when he last won one?—is how it hasn’t changed his demeanor. He does not throw down his helmet when he strikes out, nor does he ever point fingers when his teammates fail. He just carries himself like someone who expects to win every game and every championship, and we have fed off it. When I first moved to New York, in 2000, I attended Game Six of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and the Mariners. (Seattle was led by a smiling, heroic would-be Jeter clone named Alex Rodriguez.) The Yankees fell behind 4-0 in the fourth inning, but, to this midwestern fretter’s bewilderment, no one in the park looked even slightly worried. Of course the Yankees are coming back. They’re the Yankees. They did, and ultimately won their fourth World Series in five years. Jeter’s signature trait is that he plays like he knows the Yankees are coming back. And in the nine long years it’s been since the Yankees last won the World Series, he’s never lost the faith, not in any way that could be detected.
Jeter doesn’t court fans. He doesn’t tweet. He hides in the spotlight.
This season, in their brand-new $1.5 billion ballpark that went from a homer-happy symbol of corporate greed and civic malfeasance to a rollicking (and shockingly loud) nightly party of easy victories and flicked homers over the right-field wall, the Yankees have their best team in nearly a decade and near-sellout crowds every night. The Yankees are the company team in a company town, the city’s shining attraction, a stubborn remaining outpost of New York exceptionalism. Heading into the playoffs with home-field advantage throughout the postseason, the Yankees are favored to win their 27th world championship. Once again the road to the World Series goes through the Bronx.
The team is new and fresh and transcendent in a different way from that of its predecessors. Yet there’s Jeter still at the center of all of it.
Each locker in the Yankees’ tricked-out new clubhouse has a laptop computer installed in the door. Because these are baseball players, who use their locker room to pull on jockstraps and snap towels (they really do towel-snap in locker rooms; I’ve seen at least six instances this season), none of the computers appears to be used particularly often. Occasionally, the wallpaper picture will change; at last check, Johnny Damon had a picture of a woman in a bikini, A. J. Burnett had a still of Gerard Butler in the movie 300, Swisher had a name tag that said HELLO, MY NAME IS SWAGGER, and Mark Teixeira had a photo of his children.
Jeter’s computer has the same home screen, the AccuWeather.com forecast for the Bronx, that it did when I first saw it in April. His locker is immaculate, straightened with the precision of a marine. I can’t spot a dash of color in his entire locker; it’s all Yankees blue and white, spikes, hats, undershirts, no hints of a personality off the field. There’s not a single thing in his locker that isn’t about baseball. I ask Jeter about this. “What do you want me to have in there?” he asks, not with hostility—legitimately, if passively, inquisitive. “Well, there’s Swisher,” I say, pointing across the clubhouse to Swisher’s locker, which has bobbleheads, energy drinks, impressively constructed collages of various Yankees wearing suits in magazines, and, bizarrely, a large photo of Cody Ransom. Jeter shakes his head slightly and chuckles before taking his leave; he must hit the field for batting practice, catch you after the game.