I have the greatest job in the world. Only one person can have it. You have shortstops on other teams-I'm not knocking other teams-but there's only one shortstop on the Yankees.
- Derek Jeter (according to baseball-almanac.com)
The baseball season is just more than a month old, but in that brief time, there has been no shortage of big stories surrounding the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez had a historic first three weeks before rediscovering his humanity, the Yankees starting pitchers sustained more injuries than NASCAR faces in a season, Joe Torre was nearly fired, and Roger Clemens played Evita and addressed the masses from George Steinbrenner’s luxury box behind home plate to announce that he had agreed to act as staff savior (for the low, low price of $4.5 million per month, which is a bargain when you consider that the Yankees paid Carl Pavano almost $40 million for four years just to provide drama and comedy). The team started 9-14, but has bounced back to within a game of .500.
And while reporters scrambled from story to story, trying to keep up with all the goings on in the Bronx, Derek Jeter just kept playing remarkably consistent baseball. While it seems nearly impossible for a Yankee shortstop earning more than $20 million this season with a reputation for dating Hollywood starlets to fly under the radar, he has. Almost no attention has been paid to the fact that he has been batting over .300 since the sixth game of the season, has compiled a 20-game hitting streak, and has hit safely in a staggering 61 of his last 64 games going back to last year. After a rough start defensively, making six errors in the team’s first 11 games, he has played error-free ball since, including making some big defensive plays in key situations.
Jeter’s 20-game hitting streak was snapped on Friday night by Seattle, when, oddly, the Yanks managed 11 runs and 15 hits while Jeter went zero-for-five. But, in typical Jeter fashion, the failure seemed only to make him more determined. In the next two games against the Mariners, he went five-for-seven with three runs batted in, a run scored, and two walks. Against ex-Yankee Jeff Weaver on Saturday, his double driving in two runs put the game out of reach (and brought out the world-famous Weaver Face (sorry, the Yahoo! link died) that is so much fun to see).
As Jeter has put up great numbers over the course of the year, the media has been more interested in A Rod, the rookie pitchers that have come and gone, Joe Torre’s job status, and Roger Clemens’s arrival. And, I suspect, Jeter would be the first in line to thank the press for leaving him alone, since from the time he stepped on the big stage as a rookie starter in 1996, he has been consistent in his insistence that he only cares about winning. Individual accolades have not been important to him, even when he was robbed (in my opinion) of the A.L. Most Valuable Player Award last season.
Jeter has been accused of not speaking up enough, especially in support of Alex Rodriguez when the third baseman was taking a beating from the fans. But most great sports leaders, Jeter included, lead by example. He plays the game the way it is supposed to be played. He works the count at the plate and runs the bases with an instinct and knowledge of the game that makes him dangerous to opponents. He performs in the clutch, and, as importantly, gives full effort no matter what the score is, running out ground balls whether the Yankees are losing by one run or by ten. Any young player watching the Yankee captain busting it up the line when the game is out of reach has been taught a lesson on how to do things in the Bronx. No words need be spoken.
Besides, Jeter has spoken up when he felt it was necessary. His passionate defense of Joe Torre last week had to be a factor in Steinbrenner’s decision not to fire the Yankee skipper. Jeter never hides from the press, standing at his locker and answering questions whether he is the game’s hero or (far less frequently) goat.
As the quote at the start of this piece demonstrates, he has an appreciation and respect for the Yankees and the history of baseball. Even as a soon-to-be 33-year-old captain of his team, Jeter still refuses to call his manager by his first name (although “Mr. Torre” has evolved to “Mr. T”).
When Clemens was interviewed after his big announcement yesterday, he listed three people in uniform by name as draws to playing for the Yankees: He cited Joe Torre as a manager and man he respected immensely, Mariano Rivera as the best relief pitcher in baseball, and Derek Jeter as one of the greatest clutch hitters of all time.
The Yankees would be in real trouble if Jorge Posada or Rivera missed a significant stretch of time due to injury, because there is nobody on the roster to replace them at their positions. But you can make an argument that if the team was to lose Jeter, it would be even worse. More than any other player on the roster, the Yankees are his team. He is not just the team’s face to the world, but he dictates the attitude and tone in the locker room. Clemens’s quote demonstrates the respect he generates from his peers.
In the weeks ahead, the papers will track every Roger Clemens workout, and then every one of his minor league starts. ("The Office" should film a special episode where the Dunder-Mifflin crew heads to the stadium in Scranton to watch Clemens pitch for the Yankees' AAA affiliate. Can't you see Jim tricking Dwight into running on the field and making a fool of himself?) Any losing streak will have the media wondering who will get fired and traded. If A Rod goes into a funk and starts getting booed, the chatter will start over his opt-out clause. No matter what happens, if history is a guide, Jeter will just play through it, getting his more-than-a-hit per game, making smart decisions, and performing in the clutch. And few people will notice, exactly how he would want it.