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.
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.
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?
In addition to Derek Jeter, these three holdovers from the late-nineties golden era made major contributions this season.
With his shoulder troubles comfortably in the past, Posada’s shown himself to be impressively clutch: He has knocked in 18.4 percent of his RBI opportunities— the highest percentage on the team.
Who remembers the Astros and that HGH business? Pettitte has been in late-nineties mode all year, a reliable innings-eater and steadying presence. He’ll likely be back in that familiar No. 2 starter role in the postseason.
The one-pitch genius seems likely to keep at it until he’s 80. Rivera’s ERA was under 2.00 for the sixth time in the past seven years, and he has given up three runs since July.