Jeter: Dynasty's child

Author Buster Olney examines Derek Jeter, the heart and soul of the Yankees, whose stature in pinstripes exists with the likes of DiMaggio and Mantle.

Originally Published: August 23, 2004
By Buster Olney | ESPN The Magazine

Editor's note: "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty" is published by Harper Collins and can be ordered by clicking here. The book is written around Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.

Chapter 14

Hal Newhouser had thought Derek Jeter would play in many World Series games. When Jeter was a teenager, Newhouser would sometimes drive the 3½ hours from his home in Bluefield Hills, Michigan, to Kalamazoo Central High School, where Jeter played. "That kid is something special," Newhouser raved to his wife, Beryl. "He's got the softest hands I've ever seen." He talked about Jeter's family, too, his parents; the kid has a great support system, Newhouser would say.

Newhouser, the Michigan area scout for the Houston Astros, was 71 years old in the spring of 1992, Jeter's senior year at Kalamazoo Central. He had been a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, named the American League Most Valuable Player in 1944 and 1945. Teammates called him Prince Hal, because of his courtly manner; Beryl Newhouser, his wife, could not remember ever seeing him with his shirttail hanging out or wearing anything tacky. Even in the mornings, Newhouser would come to the table with his hair combed. He had gone into scouting after retiring as a player in 1955, eventually moving up to become the head scout for the Baltimore Orioles. Newhouser left baseball for 20 years, becoming a vice president of the Community Bank of Pontiac, but inevitably he went back, taking the job as an area scout, converting the third bedroom of the Newhousers' home into an office. His desk and files were neatly kept, and because his script was messy, he wrote out all of his reports in meticulous block type.

Michigan high school baseball was usually played in the frigid cold of spring. Newhouser would dress in corduroy pants, a sweater, a jacket and a hat he could pull down over his ears and load a folding chair in the back of his car to make his scouting trips. "What more can you ask for than to see a ballgame in spring?" he would ask Beryl cheerfully before heading off for his long drives -- often to Kalamazoo in the spring of 1992, to see the young shortstop he thought would become a star.

Some scouts filled their evaluations with hyperbole, a way for them to lobby for the players they were scouting, but Newhouser was understated, balanced, direct. And what he told the Astros before the '92 draft -- in which Houston would have the first pick overall - was that Derek Jeter, the skinny shortstop from Kalamazoo Central, would be the anchor and foundation of a winning major league club. He's a special player and a special kid with great presence, Newhouser told his supervisor, Dan O'Brien.

Jeter's confidence had always been evident. The parents of his grade school friends saw it, his teachers saw it. Evelyn Lal watched Derek and her son, Shanti, play together -- the two became friends in Mrs. Garzelloni's fourth-grade class at St. Augustine Cathedral School in Kalamazoo -- and although Derek was quiet, she could see that he effortlessly fit in with any group of children and made the others feel comfortable. "He was one of those kids you just never forget," recalled Shirley Garzelloni, "and I would say that even if he wasn't playing baseball." There were kids who would complain about not having anything to do, she said, but "not with Derek. He was completely self-motivated, creative, never wasted any time." He was already certain about what he wanted from his life: in Chris Oosterbaan's eighth-grade writing class, he penned an essay about his dream of playing shortstop for the New York Yankees. When he was a junior in high school, his British literature teacher, Sally Padley, asked each of her students to create a personal coat of arms, and Jeter's rendering included a baseball player in a Yankees uniform, swinging a bat. Padley taught her class in the last period of the day, a time when some student-athletes departed to prepare for games. "He absolutely never asked for any special consideration," Padley recalled. "He never asked out of class, never bragged about his baseball... He just had an easy manner, no signs of conceit, and when he was helping people, he didn't make any of them feel less important."

His teachers, like Newhouser, thought Jeter's values came from his parents. Charles and Dorothy Jeter invested time in teacher-parent conferences, asking questions and listening to answers. At the beginning of each school year, Charles and Dorothy sat down with their two children -- Sharlee, their daughter, was five years younger than Derek -- and wrote out contracts, with clauses on grades, sports, extracurricular activities, and the possibility of bad behavior: No. 6 -- Trouble At School. We Want To Know About It From You. Parents and children would sign together. Charles was black and from Alabama; Dorothy was white and from New Jersey. Derek Jeter grew up believing he had the best of both worlds, and his teachers thought he was completely at ease with kids from different racial and economic backgrounds.

Newhouser was taken by the aura that emanated from the teenager, and strongly lobbied the Astros to draft Jeter. There were initially concerns that Jeter -- who had been promised a scholarship at the University of Michigan -- would hold out for a signing bonus of $1 million or more, a large sum at that time. "No one is worth $1 million," Newhouser told his supervisor. "But if one kid is worth that, it's this kid."

Newhouser got to know Jeter's family and wrote the young shortstop a letter, advising him to swing a bat as much as he could, to toughen his hands. Al Kaline bought a tee and a ball and swung at it all winter, Newhouser wrote. Look where it got him, the Hall of Fame.

Shortly before the draft, O'Brien talked to Newhouser and explained that the Astros would pass on Jeter and take Phil Nevin, a good offensive prospect from Cal State Fullerton; Nevin had agreed to a $700,000 signing bonus. "It's an organizational decision," O'Brien told Newhouser. Four other players were drafted before Jeter: Cleveland picked pitcher Paul Shuey, Montreal took pitcher B.J. Wallace, Baltimore selected outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, and Cincinnati took outfielder Chad Mottola fifth. The Yankees picked Jeter sixth. Newhouser was devastated. If he couldn't convince the Astros to take Jeter, he figured, then he could never convince them of anything. The former player who had happily driven hours and sat through cold weather to see baseball quit his job and left the game he loved for good.

Jeter
Jeter

Newhouser passed away in 1998, but Jeter had long since vindicated him. The World Series against Arizona was Jeter's fifth, and by his 27th birthday he already had four championship rings, playing with the presence and confidence that Newhouser had seen in him. No matter what the situation, he seemed completely relaxed. The Yankees would be in the midst of tense games and from third base, Scott Brosius could hear Jeter reacting with muffled delight if the hitter took a particularly bad swing -- Yeesh, look at that! -- like it was a game among friends. Posada would do something unusual behind home plate, fumble a pitch or something, and Jeter -- a close friend of Posada's -- would make eye contact with the other fielders and grin, and they would all laugh. Sometimes, when Jeter fielded a grounder awkwardly, not quite getting in front of a ball and barely avoiding an error, he would smile and look around at Martinez and Brosius and Knoblauch, acknowledging that he had gotten lucky.

He carried on a series of rituals. Whenever Torre went to the mound to make a pitching change, Jeter loped in from his position and slapped him on the chest with his glove. Playoffs, World Series, ugly blowout of the Yankees, it didn't matter; he'd always hit his manager. If a teammate scored a run, Jeter made a point of being the first out of the dugout to offer congratulations, a towel draped over his shoulder, something he'd done since he was in Little League. He had called off Brosius on a relatively simple pop-up one day, and Brosius turned and asked, "Are you going to let me catch any?" Later, as Brosius stood under a pop-up, Jeter circled close by and yelled loudly in his ear, just to mess with him, and from then on, whenever a pop-up went up on the left side of the infield, there was a friendly competition between Jeter and Brosius about who would catch the ball. The Bleacher Creatures who inhabited the right field stands at Yankee Stadium would do a roll call of the starting position players at the outset of each game, continuing to chant a player's name until he acknowledged them in some way, with the wave of a glove or hand. Before the tradition was fully established, Brosius had once stood stone-faced at his position, concentrating on the pitches being thrown, and Jeter looked at Brosius and shouted at him, "Are you going to wave?" And Jeter began teasing Brosius that he had merely wanted the chant of his name to continue, a joke that would last through the long season. "He did a lot of little things like that," Brosius recalled. "You know he still thinks of it as a game."

Jeter had a knack for drawing in the personalities on the fringes of the team, mostly with humor. He had a longstanding friendship with Mendoza, who was quiet and mostly kept to himself, and gave Hideki Irabu his nickname of Bu-Bu. Clemens joined the Yankees with a history of drilling Jeter with fastballs, so Jeter and Knoblauch immediately played a practical joke on him, donning full sets of catcher's gear to take batting practice. He was liked and respected by teammates, the only serious blip being a run-in with Chad Curtis during the 1999 season.

Curtis was serious and strong-willed, a 45th-round pick in the 1989 draft before he had driven himself to the major leagues. A religious man, he led the team's prayer group and bible study. The large group of practicing Christians among the players cut a broad cross-section of the Yankees' clubhouse -- Pettitte, Stanton, Brosius, O'Neill, Rivera, Strawberry, and others. Among those who did not participate, there was no standing resentment or tension, but some other players were uncomfortable with Curtis, believing he was too overt with his religion; he had approached other players to discuss their faith, and for some, this crossed a line. Jeter had politely declined him once, and when Curtis went to him again, the shortstop felt offended. Chad can do what he wants, Jeter told a friend, and I'll do what I want to do. Jeter was single and laid-back and lived the life of a rich celebrity bachelor, while Curtis was older, private and serious, married with children. They were very different in their outward manner on the field, as well: Curtis was uniformly intense and stone-faced, while Jeter laughed and smiled and joked with opponents who stopped at second base.

Derek Jeter
APDerek Jeter has never tried to hide his exburance for the game.

During a game in Seattle in 1999, Frankie Rodriguez, a demonstrative young pitcher, screamed from the Mariners' dugout at some of the players in the Yankees' dugout. Girardi, taking his position at home plate before an inning, told Rodriguez that if he wanted to fight, well, then come on over, and Rodriguez charged the catcher. The brawl ended relatively quickly, the other players separating Girardi and Rodriguez swiftly, Yankees and Mariners grabbing each other with the intent of containing the fight. Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, then a shortstop with Seattle, were friends, and as the players began drifting off the field, Jeter and Rodriguez joked with one another, each grinning broadly. Curtis saw this and thought it a terrible breach of an unwritten code: when your teammate is involved in a fight, it is not a good time to be laughing with someone on the other team. Curtis confronted Jeter in the dugout and there were angry words between them. Curtis, as always, stood square to Jeter; if there had been punches, he would have been ready. Jeter, aware that television cameras were probably focused on their exchange, walked away. After the game, Curtis approached Jeter again at his locker, with the full complement of New York beat writers watching. With a wave of his hand, Jeter noted the presence of the reporters and told Curtis it was the wrong time and place. Curtis later apologized to Jeter for being indiscreet, but he stayed convinced that Jeter's conduct had been inappropriate. Other things that Jeter did grated on Curtis, such as swinging at the first pitch after the first two hitters in an inning made quick outs. Curtis had learned hard-line fundamentals, broke into the majors when young players were expected to be deferential, and Jeter -- always smiling, always joking around on the field like he was playing Little League -- offended his sensibilities. Jeter accepted Curtis's apology, but Curtis had crossed a line and Jeter spoke of him harshly, disdainfully. He viewed Curtis as a peer and thought Curtis had no right to judge him, certainly not in public. "I guess the best way to put it is, you asked if I'm worried about something that Chad Curtis said," Jeter told a reporter. "No, I'm not."

Years later, Curtis would decide there was nothing wrong with the way Jeter played the game; if anything, Curtis thought, his own approach -- the approach he had been taught -- was wrong. "When you come right down to it, what is really the difference between a three-pitch inning and a four-pitch inning?" Curtis said. "I do like the respect of the game that I was taught, especially when it came to mingling with players you were playing against. But Derek really approached the game with a fun attitude, and he played hard and he played to win. Some of that old-school stuff went a little too far." Curtis had seen Jeter's incredible play against Oakland in the first round of the 2001 playoffs, when Jeter ran to the first base foul line to intercept an errant relay before flipping the ball to Jorge Posada for the out. Curtis realized that if he had been playing shortstop, there is no way he would have been in position to make the play; he was used to structure and discipline, and Jeter had roamed outside the diagrams, used his imagination, and as a result he made a play that probably was the difference between elimination and advancement to the World Series. There is not a greater champion in baseball than Derek Jeter, Curtis thought.

(Another of Jeter's very few run-ins with teammates was with Bernie Williams, before the Yankees played Game 6 in Arizona. Williams arrived late to Bank One Ballpark, and by the time he put on his uniform and made his way out to the field, his teammates already were taking batting practice. Jeter confronted Williams twice, first in the clubhouse, with teammates around, and then in the bathroom, shouting that on this day, at this moment, Game 6 should be the most important thing in Williams's life, and he shouldn't be anywhere else. Williams absorbed the criticism.)

Jeter mostly contained his own ego, never boasting, which distinguished him from some of his peers. After the 2000 World Series, Alex Rodriguez signed a $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers and then speculated in a radio interview that Jeter -- a friend of his -- would not get as much money when he signed, because he didn't hit for power and wasn't as good on defense. Months later, Rodriguez would snipe at Jeter again, in an interview published in Esquire magazine. Jeter was "blessed with great talent around him," said Rodriguez. "He's never had to lead. He can just go and play and have fun. He hits second -- that's totally different than third or fourth in a lineup. You go into New York, you wanna stop Bernie and O'Neill. You never say, 'Don't let Derek beat you.' He's never your concern." Jeter talked to Rodriguez about his remarks but kept those conversations private out of respect for a friend. Both players were young, accomplished shortstops, and Rodriguez was, by most standards, the better player. But while Jeter was comfortable with himself, Rodriguez would always seem a little insecure, and a little jealous of the Yankees' shortstop.

If someone else wanted to credit Jeter with greatness, he would accept with proper aw-shucks graciousness; Jimmy Stewart in pinstripes. But teammates knew that his competitive ego was immense. Jeter "doesn't just think he's going to kick your ass," Luis Sojo once said, "he knows it."

No matter what Jeter did after his first at-bat in a game, he would come back to the dugout with his confidence still running over. "This guy doesn't have anything," he would say. "He's going to get killed." It could've been Randy Johnson on the mound or a recent call-up from Class AAA, and Jeter might've looked great or terrible. It didn't matter: the opposing pitcher never had anything, or at least nothing insurmountable. Even if the pitcher got him out the first time, Jeter was certain he would get him the next time. Most of the Yankees -- most players -- would fight to maintain their wavering morale at one time or another, but Jeter's confidence was resolute and steady, like a flag waving over the team in even the worst of times. This kind of self-assuredness, Torre thought, was extremely rare. "He's absolutely sure of himself all the time, but not in a way that can be counter-productive. He's not arrogant; he's confident. He's sure he's going to do well."

The hubris was a necessity, really, to sustain his performance in the face of such extraordinary expectation and pressure. But if Jeter was the target of the mildest criticism, he bristled. As he accomplished more and gained more fame and celebrity -- and became a larger target for critics -- his competitive instinct occasionally overwhelmed modesty. Jeter labored through the first months of the 2001 season, playing below the standards he had established in the first years of his career. A sore arm was greatly inhibiting his defense and reducing his offense to mostly singles; just 21 of his 89 hits from April through June were extra-base hits. Meanwhile, Alex Rodriguez was leading the All-Star balloting, and if Jeter was going to make the team, he would have to be added by Torre as an at-large selection. But other shortstops, like Cleveland's Omar Vizquel and Oakland's Miguel Tejada, were playing better than Jeter. That didn't prevent ESPN from promoting its All-Star programming with repeated references to Jeter and other stars. "Are you comfortable with that?" a reporter asked Jeter, and the implication of the question -- that he might not be worthy of All-Star status that summer -- irked Jeter. The next day, the All-Star reserves were announced and Torre had included Jeter, keeping four shortstops rather than the standard two or three. When the same reporter passed through the locker room, Jeter called out his name. "I guess that answers your question," Jeter said, a smile masking day-old defensiveness. When he celebrated crucial plays or big victories, he would bend his right elbow and make a fist -- the same gesture that another hyper-competitive soul, Michael Jordan, had used in similar moments.

Jeter had struggled terribly in the minors after signing with the Yankees, hitting .202 for the Gulf Coast rookie league affiliate in 1992, committing a staggering 56 errors in Class A the next year. He would put in hours of extra work in his hitting and his fielding: like other Yankees' prospects at this time, he was fortunate that the minor league system was loaded with hard-working and positive instructors. Many teams filled their minor league spots with jaded ex-major leaguers who were finishing out their working lives, but Jeter, Williams, Posada and others were helped through their rough spots by the likes of Brian Butterfield, Gary Denbo, Trey Hillman, Rob Thomson and Mark Newman.

Ricky Ledee and Jeter played in Tampa together in 1992, and Denbo recalled that when they performed badly, both of them would come out for early batting practice the next day. Jeter would work at his swing till he regained the feel he wanted and walk away from the batting cage, confident he would get hits in the game that night. Ledee would remain, frustrated, still searching, still unsure. It was an early insight into one player absolutely certain he was destined for greatness, Denbo thought, and another no less dedicated but lacking a similar self-confidence.

By the 1995 season, Jeter had developed into a star prospect and he would make the team in Torre's first spring training the next year, despite serious doubts about whether he could play consistently enough, particularly on defense. "My advisers tell me they don't think Jeter is ready to play," Steinbrenner told Torre late in spring training. "Well, it's too late for that now, folks," Torre replied, committed to Jeter despite his own reservations. But Jeter would hit a home run on Opening Day and make a great catch, and would also begin to endear himself to the Yankees' staff in extracurricular ways. During a game in 1996, Jeter was thrown out trying to steal third with two outs, a fundamental error, and Torre fumed in the dugout, muttering complaints to Zimmer next to him. After Jeter played the next half-inning of defense, he jogged off the field and planted himself next to his manager -- Jeter always called him Mr. Torre -- knowing that he was furious and had something to say. It was as if Jeter had violated the terms of an unwritten player-manager contract and was ready to accept his punishment. Torre was deeply impressed by Jeter's accountability, and like a parent, he was somewhat touched. "Get out of here," Torre said, grinning and pushing Jeter away.

Jeter batted .314 in his rookie season, and he hit over .300 most years in the first half of his career. His approach to hitting -- like his attitude toward the game -- hardly changed from the days he played Little League: see the ball, hit the ball. If a pitch was thrown within the strike zone, he probably was going to swing, and if the ball was outside the strike zone, Jeter, always aggressive, might swing anyway. Experience taught him to anticipate where a pitcher might try to throw next, and the tilt of his body in the batter's box sometimes betrayed his thoughts.

But Jeter concerned himself much less than other good hitters with the identity of the pitch or even the pitcher, or how the ball-strike count might affect his options. Early in Jeter's career, Yankees outfielder Tim Raines thought he would eventually develop into a daunting power hitter, capable of 30 to 40 home runs a season; he had the raw strength, certainly. But Raines later decided Jeter was too impatient to be a standout power hitter. If the count reaches 3 balls and 1 strike or 2-0, hitters can look for a pitch in one particular part of the strike zone; if the next pitch isn't in that zone, the hitter doesn't swing. But Jeter would never wait for the ball-strike count to ripen in his favor: He would swing at almost anything he could reach with his bat, particularly early in games. Paradoxically, Raines thought, Jeter just loved to hit too much to be a great hitter.

When Jeter was in his worst slumps, it was often because he fell into the habit of reflexively swinging at pitches thrown low and inside, out of the strike zone. But his greatness as a hitter, Torre thought, was that even when things were going badly and he was hacking at bad pitches, he found ways to get hits. He'd have a terrible day and still muster a single, or perhaps a pair of singles, slow rollers that crawled through the infield. Even when his mental form was at its worst, he would be rescued by his swing.

Jeter was right-handed, and his natural and unorthodox stroke allowed him to hit the ball to the opposite field consistently, as only a few hitters who could. It is far easier to teach someone to pull the ball, Denbo thought, than to show a hitter to hit the ball to the opposite field. Unlike other strong opposite-field hitters, though, like Wade Boggs or Tony Gwynn, Jeter did not routinely make contact with the ball on the thick part of his bat's barrel. He struck out often -- he earned a minimum of 99 strikeouts in each his first six seasons and a high of 125 in 1997 -- and went through periods when most of his hits dribbled through the right side of the infield. But Jeter was a contact hitter, nonetheless, drawing his wrists and hands into his body so he could push almost any pitch, no matter its speed or placement -- inside, outside, high or low -- to right field. Denbo occasionally saw Jeter pull his hands so far in that the base of his left hand brushed against his chest in the midst of his swing, and he would still manage to punch the ball to right field.

Near the end of the 1999 season, Tampa Bay pitcher Jeff Sparks busted a fastball inside to Jeter, a good pitch, and Jeter pulled his hands in and dropped a hit over the first baseman. The ball skipped off the foul line and bounced into the stands for a ground-rule double -- Jeter's 100th RBI. In a rematch later that month, Jeter again faced Sparks, and Sparks jammed him again, and again Jeter bounced the ball off the right field foul line, in almost exactly the same spot. As Jeter stood at second base, Sparks walked behind the pitcher's mound, overcome by exasperation. "That's twice," he shouted at the Yankees' shortstop.

Jeter watched videotape constantly, before and during games, but he was less interested in his swing than in the pitch location. And he cared more about timing the pitches than about the particular strengths of the pitcher. As he stood in the on-deck circle, he would make eye contact with the Yankees' employee who sat in the stands and operated a radar gun. Jeter would guess how hard the pitcher was throwing -- holding up two fingers if he thought the pitcher was throwing 92 mph, for example. Using this sign language, the radar gun operator might respond with three fingers if the pitcher was throwing 93 mph, and Jeter would nod.

Thus forewarned, Jeter would sometimes turn toward fans sitting in the front rows and ask them what he should do in his forthcoming at-bat. Think I should hit a double? OK, sounds good. Fans loved him for this sort of solicitousness; teenage girls shrieked each time his name was announced (a reaction that was often teasingly reproduced in the Yankees' clubhouse), and if a fan with a camera called to him from the stands, Jeter would turn just enough in the on-deck circle to facilitate a picture. Most of the Yankees were gracious in their fame but did not particularly enjoy this part of their baseball existence. Players like O'Neill, Cone and Mussina probably would've preferred to have been left alone once they walked off the field. Many felt uncomfortable because they could never fully satisfy all the requests made of them; as Yankees, there seemed to be somebody asking them for something all the time. But Jeter embraced and enjoyed his celebrity, appearing perfectly comfortable in those settings, making jokes with fans, putting them at ease. He did not make a point of veering into the large crowds that gathered into the lobbies of hotels where the Yankees stayed on the road, but when surrounded by fans Jeter didn't give the impression that he was inconvenienced.

He would become a major star, and mountains of fan letters request piled in his locker. A columnist for Sports Illustrated once asked Jeter to let him open a heap of his mail. Among 261 pieces, the reporter found 141 requests for autographs, many from people who detailed dire personal circumstances -- their own, or those of someone they knew -- which would seem less terrible if Jeter sent his signature. There were requests for him to make appearance at movie premieres, auctions, a Playboy Mansion party, an Eagle Scout ceremony, a backyard Bar-B-Que, and birthday parties.

Jeter chose his endorsements carefully, aware of maintaining his glowing public image. He signed with Nike under a brand name developed by Michael Jordan, picked a favorite peanut butter and a sports drink, deals which increased his celebrity status. His name appeared regularly in the gossip pages of The Post and The Daily News, and when he dated pop singer Mariah Carey in 1998, one of the tabloids sent a writer to Tampa specifically to dig out information on the two. His fame surrounded his life, in a way that it had encircled Joe DiMaggio, a Yankees' star of another generation.

Eventually, DiMaggio's celebrity seemed to strangle part of him. Spontaneity became almost impossible for him; all his associations and conversations were weighed against how they might affect his image. "Joe understood the bargain perfectly," Richard Ben Cramer wrote in his book about DiMaggio. "He understood the bargain with perfection. He could have our honor, our adulation, the glory of the Big Name ... He understood: we would give him anything -- if he would be the hero we required."

As the prominent Yankee, Jeter existed in the same vortex as DiMaggio, as Mickey Mantle, as Reggie Jackson, and as he entered the second half of his career, it remained to be seen whether he would control his celebrity or vice versa. "People thought I liked it, but I didn't like it; I knew how to thrive within it," said Reggie Jackson. "I'm still uncomfortable with it. The more you come from an average background, like Jeter - from working parents, middle class -- the less you understand it. It's always a battle. I got into my 50s before I understood it. I think the people around you are important. They're the ones who keep you grounded and make you think the right way. The players who go Helter Skelter, who don't deal with it -- it's the people they're around who don't help them. You need help, for grounding." Early in his career, Jeter believed his parents would serve as the auditors of his personality. He couldn't change and get away with it around Charles and Dorothy Jeter, he said.

Jeter and Jackson shared another trait: they were both masterful in post-season play. Jackson, who had starred so often in the playoffs and World Series that he was known as Mr. October, once told Jeter that when September rolled around, the writers and the fans would start talking to him about the post-season, reminding him of how well he had done in the past. Reggie, this is your time of year, they would tell him. You hear it so much, Jackson told Jeter, that maybe you start believing it; you start expecting to play well in the post-season. Jeter listened, thought that this explanation made sense in his own case.

His self-assuredness made him a transcendent post-season player, his performance spiking in the most crucial moments. Jeter found the post-season games to be more fun: the stakes were greater, there were more people watching, and he loved playing in the spotlight; perhaps his concentration became more acute. He would generate a solid batting average, usually accumulating 200 hits and 100 runs, then the playoffs would begin and suddenly he would start bashing long-balls all over the place. Jeter batted .333 or better in eight of his first 13 post-season series; he seemed born to play in October, Torre once said.

In the crucial Game 4 of the 2000 World Series, he batted lead-off against Mets right-hander Bobby Jones, and as he walked to the plate to open the game, Knoblauch predicted to others that Jeter would hit a home run on the first pitch. When Jeter rocketed Jones's changeup into the left field stands, Knoblauch bounced out of the dugout, shouting and pointing at teammates -- I told you, I told you. Jeter hit a triple in his next at-bat and scored, increasing the Yankees' lead to three runs, the early dagger that would all but finish the Mets.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter (2) makes one of the great hustle plays of all time in the 2001 Division Series.

In Game 3 of the 2001 Division Series against Oakland, Jeter made the play that would probably serve as the benchmark of his career, in the way Willie Mays's over the shoulder, back-to-home-plate running catch in the 1954 World Series would always be remembered. The Yankees had a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning, with Oakland needing only one victory to finish off a Division Series sweep. With the Athletics' Jeremy Giambi at first base, Terrence Long pulled a double into the right field corner. Giambi rambled around second, turned at third base, aimed for home plate.

Jeter, stationed near the mound, saw Shane Spencer fire the ball from the right field corner and realized that the throw would sail over both cut-off men -- Soriano and first baseman Tino Martinez. When Martinez saw the ball sailing over his glove, his heart sank. Spencer saw his throw carry and cursed aloud.

But Jeter had sprinted toward the first base line with one thought: Get the ball. Spencer's throw bounced along the base line, 30 feet or so from home plate, without enough momentum to reach home before Giambi. Jeter grabbed the ball and flipped the ball sideways to the catcher - lateralled it, like a college quarterback pitching out to a running back. Giambi tried to go into home plate standing up instead of sliding, and Posada swept a tag against the runner's leg. Out. Inning over. It was as if Superman had swooped down and saved the Yankees, Cashman thought. Oakland manager Art Howe wondered how, under any circumstances, a shortstop could end up in that place on the playing field. "You're not going to see that play ever again, a shortstop making that play behind first base, in foul territory," said Sojo. The Yankees would survive Oakland to meet Arizona.

Torre's contract was set to expire on Oct. 31, 2001, at midnight -- during Game 4, as it turned out. The World Series would have been over under normal circumstances, but the cancellations caused by Sept. 11 had extended the season. Because Torre was still engaged in protracted negotiations with Steinbrenner, post-season play extended beyond his written obligation to the Yankees. Torre would continue to manage the team, of course, the technicality irrelevant under the circumstances. But as Jeter passed by in the dugout, he kept reminding his manager how many hours and minutes he had left as the Yankees' manager. Eighteen minutes to go ... What are you going to do? Torre laughed. It did not matter that the Yankees were involved in a tense World Series, fighting to continue their dynasty; Jeter seemed to extract every possible bit of enjoyment from the games he played, regardless of the circumstance. Other players would be fully focused, almost in a trance, and he would be making jokes. His behavior was only possible, some teammates thought, because Jeter was absolutely certain that the Yankees would find a way to win, and that if the possible outcome fell into his hands, he would succeed. "It was amazing how relaxed he was," Martinez recalled. "He could be 0-for-4 that day, but if he needed a hit that fifth time, with men on base and the game on the line, he got it."

After Martinez tied Game 4 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Jeter was scheduled to hit third in the bottom of the 10th inning. "It's over -- this game is over this inning," Jeter told Martinez in the dugout. "Yep, it's over." And four minutes after Torre's contract expired, in the first World Series baseball in the month of November, Jeter lined a ball into the right field seats to end the game, raising a fist as he rounded the bases, baseball's Mr. November.

In the seventh inning of Game 7, the Yankees needed Jeter to come through once more. He was in rough condition: his World Series average was .120, and he had a sstrained left hamstring, a bruised back from a tumble he'd taken into the third base stands making a catch in Game 5 of the Division Series, and a lingering problem in his right shoulder that had bothered him all year. He probably would not have played if this had been a regular season game, but there was no chance he was coming out now. He was having too much fun.

Schilling whipped a fastball across the outside corner. Rippley, the home plate umpire, called a strike, and Jeter's head sagged slightly. Down a run, the Yankees needed to gain traction quickly.

In situations like this, the Yankees players often focused on rescuing their teammates rather than their own responsibilities. If O'Neill struck out with the bases loaded and nobody out, Bernie Williams would follow and concentrate on picking up for O'Neill. If Knoblauch made an error to put runners in scoring position, Pettitte would bear down and try to prevent the runners from crossing the plate, to pick up for Knoblauch. It was unselfish but also useful, Tim Raines believed: If you thought about trying to help a teammate, rather than the mounting pressure on your own shoulders, it eased your mental burden. Raines would fondly remember this as a fundamental element of the Yankees' success.

Clemens had allowed the go-ahead run to the Diamondbacks in the sixth inning of Game 7, and somebody needed to pick up for him; Jeter had the first chance leading off the seventh. With the count at 0-1, Schilling threw another fastball outside, and Jeter tilted his chin down -- head on the ball -- pulled his bat through the strike zone, and whacked a single to right field, dropping a line drive in front of Bautista; Jeter limped to first base, the Yankees' first baserunner since O'Neill was thrown out trying to stretch a double in the first inning.

O'Neill was next and Torre had the option of asking for a bunt, but he had always let O'Neill swing away; the right fielder didn't have a sacrifice bunt in nine regular seasons with the Yankees. Torre knew Schilling would probably continue to be aggressive and throw strikes, so he signaled for a hit-and-run. Jeter broke from first as Schilling delivered his first pitch to O'Neill -- a slider without bite. O'Neill extended his arms, reached down and hit a soft liner toward center fielder Steve Finley, who rushed the ball. Jeter, racing toward second, slowed and stopped for an instant, thinking Finley might make the catch. But O'Neill's liner fell at Finley's feet, and he could only smother the short hop. The moment of indecision forced Jeter to hold at second, and he slapped his fist against his right thigh and swore aloud -- "GOD-damn!" -- believing he could have reached third. But the Yankees had runners at first and second with nobody out with Bernie Williams coming to bat, and Schilling's pitch count was climbing. Miguel Batista and Greg Swindell, a right-hander and a left-hander, began warming up in the Arizona bullpen.

Williams fouled off a high fastball. Schilling threw a slider -- a hanging slider -- and Williams, batting left-handed, turned his front shoulder, trying to pull the ball to the right side. But he could only foul off the pitch, and slapped at his bat in frustration; no balls and two strikes. Schilling had a chance to get the first out with a strikeout.

He stepped to the rubber, and the Yankee center fielder stepped out of the batter's box, fighting to control the tempo of the at-bat. Schilling set his right foot against the rubber, took the sign and fired a fastball designed to put Williams away -- the velocity ratcheted up, 97 mph, the ball thrown high, above the hitter's hands. Williams fouled off the pitch. Schilling tried a splitter, and Williams bounced a grounder toward first base, where Grace fielded it and flipped it to second base. O'Neill, forced out, slid into shortstop Tony Womack with his right foot pointed skyward, trying to break up any double-play attempt; Womack held the ball.

One out, Williams at first and Jeter at third, the tying run 90 feet from home plate. Opportunity, and the burden of the inning, had shifted to Tino Martinez, the next hitter.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Buster Olney | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine