Reggie Jackson was my idol when I was growing up. He was more than just a Yankee and I stuck with him when he signed with the Angels. My favorite Yankees were Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph. Later on, I loved Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson but Don Mattingly was my guy. Which is to say that there is something about the quiet guys that I’ve always admired. Derek Jeter is one of those guys.
But Jeter is more than just a Yankee too, he’s Mr. Yankee. You can argue that Mariano Rivera has been the most crucial Yankee of the past generation. He is the best short-closer of ‘em all, but he’s not the public face of the franchise. Jeter is and it’s hard to write about him and not stumble into a field of cliches–he’s the modern Joe DiMaggio, polite but removed, guarded, plastic. He hustles, never complains, and “plays the game the right way.”
All of which is true but here’s what I’ll always remember about Jeter: he looks like he is having fun. He’s composed, the good student who knows enough to cut a joke when the teacher isn’t looking, not effusive like Jose Reyes, but I’ve rarely seen Jeter not enjoying himself on the field. The opposing players all seem to like him and he’ll chat with the catcher or the first baseman. He smiles–he’s no DiMaggio, he’s not Garbo–and he loves the competition of the game, the big moment. Here’s Tom Boswell:
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.
That’s Jeter. Doug Glanville, a former teammate, offers a sharp appreciation today in the Times:
Jeter’s career has been more like a plateau curve. He came on the scene at 20, made a near-instant impact, then stayed remarkably consistent and virtually injury-free year in and year out, cruising on a plane of excellence. In many respects, he spoiled us. When you progress on a flat line, outside observers are lulled into the tacit expectation that this is how it’s supposed to be. Players like this produce so deceptively that we miss the escalating work ethic required to stave off age, the sheer dominating focus it takes to be so steady at such a high level.
Now we are watching him slow down, finding out that not even Jeter can avoid the human condition. The fact that the Yankees won 14 of 18 games during his recent time on the D.L. is a reminder that even great personal accomplishment stands on shaky ground when it comes to a humming team machine. So Jeter has two ways to go. He could take his foot off the pedal and ride gravity down the gradual curve to the bottom. Or, it could end much as it began for him and he’ll go down as precipitously as he rose in the game, though his superhero status in the eyes of his supporters may grant him a parachute to soften the landing.
I was at the Stadium one day early in Jeter’s rookie year when I heard a girl yell his name: “Deh-rick Gee-dah.” She had a classic New York accent and she screeched his name again and again. I still here that voice in my head when I see him play. I appreciate that he takes his job seriously but is grounded enough to realize he’s playing a game. He’s never forgotten to enjoy the ride. And we’ve enjoyed it along with him. What more can you ask?
[Photo Credit: N.Y. Daily News]