During the first couple of months of the 1996 season, every time I saw Derek Jeter on TV I couldn’t help but think of John “No Question” Starks, the combustible shooting guard for the Knicks. It was the body language, the cock-sure posture. I adored Starks even though he was a fine mess.
Oh, no, I thought when Jeter strutted up to the plate, his ass sticking-out, chest-puffed up, here’s the second coming of that knucklehead Starks.
Of course Jeter soon showed himself to be the antithesis of Starks. He was composed and collected, even when he made the usual rookie mistakes. Twelve years later, Jeter is not only the greatest shortstop in Yankee history, and one of the most marketable players in the game, he’s a sure-fire Hall of Famer.
Jeter, the team captain, is accessible but dull with the press but his enthusiasm on the field has always been evident. He smirks when he steps into the batter’s box, engages the fans while he’s on the on-deck circle, and chats up the opposition when they reach second base. No matter how tense the situation, he looks like he is having a good time out there. He’s a natural. It’s as if he were built to be a ballplayer–mentally, physically and emotionally.
Jeter personifies Tom Boswell’s description of “a gamer.”
Baseball has a name for the player who, in the eyes of his peers, is well attuned to the demands of his discipline; he is called “a gamer.” The gamer does not drool, or pant, before the cry of “Play ball.” Quite the opposite. He is the player, like George Brett or Pete Rose, who is neither too intense, nor too lax, neither lulled into carelessness in a dull August doubleheader nor wired too tight in an October playoff game. The gamer may scream and curse when his mates show the first hints of laziness, but he makes jokes and laughs naturally in the seventh game of the Series.
Jeter also has an edge. He is acutely aware of his position, his celebrity, and his surroundings. He’s terse with reporters if they push him. He rides his teammates. In 2004, Alex Rodriguez hit a long home run one day–the kind that Jeter could only dream about hitting. After Rodriguez returned to the dugout, Jeter stuck out his chest and mocked Rodriguez. It was funny but sharp.
“Derek Jeter knows how to give teammates a hard time,” said former teammate John Flaherty on a YES broadcast a few years ago.
Later, Flaherty told a story about arriving to the Stadium one afternoon hours before game time. Jeter was taking early batting practice on the field. Hardly anybody was around. Only Jeter and a batting practice pitcher were on the field. Flaherty took off his jacket upstairs in the YES booth as Jeter continued to hit. Without turning around, Jeter yelled, “Hey, Flaherty, nice tie.”
Now when I think of Jeter, when I think of how his career will wind up, I mostly think of Cal Ripken. I think of a superstar with a tremendous amount of pride. I don’t think he’ll ever be asked to leave shortstop by the Yankees even as his fielding continues to decline. His contract is up in two years. If he remains healthy he should get 3,000 hits not too long after that.
I can’t imagine him playing anywhere but the Bronx, can’t imagine him playing anywhere but short, no matter how it impacts the team. This isn’t the ultimate team player we’re talking about, this is the team captain.
I wonder if he’ll still be having a good time by the time he reaches the end.