Before a Friday-night game against the Red Sox in the season’s final fortnight, Yogi Berra is hanging around the clubhouse, still cartoonish yet still somehow not a fictional character, talking to some of the players. Actually, that’s not true: He’s only talking to Jeter. When Jeter smiles at him and asks, “Howzitgoin’, Yogi?,” it’s 60 years of Yankees history in one three-square-foot zone. Jeter then jogs across the locker room to go take more batting practice, leaving Yogi alone. Yogi looks to his left, then his right, realizes there’s no one left for him to talk to, and sits down on the bench next to Jeter’s locker. Ten minutes later, as more players flitter in and out of the clubhouse, Jeter returns to grab some batting gloves. Yogi is still sitting there and brightens. Jeter slaps him lightly on the back and heads back out to the field. It was the first time I’d seen Jeter personally interact with any Yankee, past or present.
Many of his teammates are new to the Yankees, and the old saws he came up the ranks with, Jorge Posada (who says he “looks up” to Jeter, a man who is three years younger than he is) and Mariano Rivera, are married family men with different lives.
Though Jeter’s been linked to starlets from Scarlett Johansson to Mariah Carey to Jessica Alba to today’s Friday Night Lights star Minka Kelly, the people he is closest to are his parents, his companions in the past two All-Star parades. Rarely do you see Jeter’s name popping up in tabloids anymore, and even when it does, it’s more in the dignified “DiMaggio out on the town with Marilyn and his boys” way than the “A-Rod sneaking out of Madonna’s apartment” way. Jeter has become an icon by saying nothing of note and simply playing baseball. That’s not how it’s supposed to work.
Before every at-bat, Jeter has the recorded voice of the legendary and ailing Bob Sheppard announce his plate appearance. “Now batting for the Yankees, No. 2, Derek Jeter.” This respect for tradition is genuine. It’s no coincidence that Jeter’s one slightly emotional moment in the public eye was during his speech after the last game at the old stadium. “For all of us, up here, it’s a huge honor to put this uniform on every day and come out here and play.” It was as improvisational as his famous tag play against the A’s in 2001—afterward, he told reporters, “When I came out of the game with two outs in the ninth, I had to hurry up and think of something”—and confirmed that the Yankees’ mystique is something that Jeter, as much as any fan, truly believes in. No one else could have given that speech. No one else would have been asked.
Jeter has never played the part of flashy self-promoter. He has always been the Professional.
September 7 was Derek Jeter Day at the stadium. This was unofficial, of course; there wasn’t a bobblehead or anything. Jeter came into a doubleheader needing three hits to tie Lou Gehrig for the all-time Yankee lead, and four to pass him. The place was hopping. Fans roared every time he strolled to the plate, and the digital cameras snapped their eerie strobe at every at-bat.
The whole vibe felt a little wrong: It was bizarre, against the natural order of things, for a guy like Jeter—whose value has never been measured in raw numbers—to receive the Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire treatment. Jeter was uncomfortable at the plate both games, and he ended up zero for eight. It made a certain amount of sense. So rarely is Jeter that much the center of attention—fans cheering specifically for the individual Derek Jeter rather than Derek Jeter, captain of the Yankees—that it clearly knocked his concentration askew. When the Yankees finally pinch-ran for him toward the end of a game-two blowout, Jeter looked almost relieved during his jog to the dugout.
This was a new experience for Jeter. Everyone was focusing all of their energy on Derek Jeter for six hours, and he quite obviously did not like it. Two nights later, after he had three hits to tie Gehrig’s record, he was asked about the experience. “I’d be lying to you if I said I weren’t thinking about it. Pretty much everywhere I’ve gone this entire homestand, I’ve been hearing it. On the street, in cabs, at the stadium, ‘When you gonna get a hit? When you gonna get a hit?’ ”
In a season without chaos, Jeter, in the midst of one of his greatest seasons, at last became the story. And he hated it. It turned him into a spectacle rather than a Yankee. It turned him into A-Rod. And Derek Jeter is defiantly not A-Rod. It was a rare moment of vulnerability for Jeter, another quick dropping down of his guard. You’re not supposed to look at him that closely, that brightly. He was being cheered before he did something, rather than afterward. It never happens that way.
An argument could be made that the chase for Gehrig’s hit record—a much larger story locally than it was in the rest of the country; team hit records are hardly considered sacred, epic marks—wasn’t about numbers at all; it was about the opportunity to celebrate Jeter solely for being who he is. It’s likely to be the only record Jeter will ever set, and the only time he’ll ever have a statistical accomplishment, other than the upcoming 3,000-hit plateau, celebrated so vigorously. The crowd cheered Jeter, not because of an individual play, not because of a win, not even because of the record. As impressive as his lifetime numbers are, that has never been the right way to gauge Jeter’s value. It’s no wonder he blanched. He was obviously relieved when the record was broken and the universe was back in order.
This season has, in its own way, been all about Jeter. It has been a decade since a Yankees team has been this good, this casually dominant. Not since Jeter’s glory days, in the late nineties, back when he was young, and Mariano Rivera was young, and Jorge Posada was young, and Andy Pettitte was young. So long ago, really. Back when New York felt less steroidal, in what now passes for an innocent time in our memories. It was before the dot-com boom, before the crash, before September 11, before the second crash. We look at 1996, and 1998, and 2000, at the way we were then, not knowing what was coming. We look at Jeter now, and he is our link, as certain as ever that the Yankees are going to win. He knew all along it was going to turn out for the best. And what choice do we have now but to believe it, too?