It was the ninth inning of a one-sided victory for the Red Sox on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. Derek Jeter hit a grounder to pitcher David Wells. Some stars might have loafed to first; Jeter raced down the line and beat the throw. It didn't lead to anything major, but for him it doesn't have to. That's why he is the captain of the Yankees, that's why he has four championship rings and that's one reason why he is our choice for the face of baseball.
It was not an easy call. One of Jeter's teammates, Alex Rodriguez, is the game's best all-around player, and he's having an MVP-caliber season. Barry Bonds is the greatest player most of us have ever seen. Albert Pujols is the best young player since Ted Williams. Roger Clemens soon will be the best pitcher since World War II. But the face of baseball? When asked, Padres center fielder Dave Roberts, a member of the Red Sox last year, said, without hesitation, "Derek Jeter sets the bar for everyone who puts on a uniform.''
There have been easier choices in other years. From Babe Ruth to Mickey Mantle to Pete Rose to Kirby Puckett to Cal Ripken to Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa, there was little doubt where the identity of the game lay. But with all the money that's out there, all the exposure and the media scrutiny, it's so easy for good faces (as in McGwire/Sosa) to turn sour.
Miraculously, Jeter has avoided controversy despite playing in New York. The only negative thing you can say about him is that he is a boring quote, mainly because he chooses to be. He has everything else, everything that's good about the game. He calls his manager "Mr. Torre'' because that's the way he was brought up. Mr. Torre almost can't go a day without mentioning former teammate Bob Gibson, whose competitiveness is legendary. The only player that Torre consistently mentions in the same sentence as Gibson is Derek Jeter.
"It's his leadership more than anything,'' said San Diego pitcher Chris Hammond, who played one year (2003) with the Yankees. "Whenever there's a problem in the clubhouse – there are a lot of little problems on the Yankees – Derek is the first one to step in and say, 'What's the problem? We've got to cut this out.' I really looked up to him. Playing in New York is a pressure job. It's hard being the captain of the Yankees. But he has never stumbled.''
Jeter is the team leader in every way, none bigger than the way he runs out every ground ball. "You can hear him running to first base every time,'' said former Blue Jays manager Buck Martinez. Jeter is a great player, a career .315 hitter through Tuesday, a guy well on his way to 3,000 hits and the Hall of Fame. Yet there is no self-promotion in him. "The most real guy on the Yankees is Derek Jeter,'' said one of the new Yankees. "He knows everything that's going on with the team. And all he wants is to win.''
Jeter wants none of the attention, but it comes because of the way he plays. Three of the most memorable plays of this decade belong to Jeter, and all because of his hustle. There was the famous backhanded flip to the plate in Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS against the A's. There was the running catch, and subsequent bloody tumble into the stands, on July 1 last year against the Red Sox. And this year, on May 25, there was the diving catch he made – jumping over rookie second baseman Robinson Cano, a play filled with symbolism – in shallow center field.
"He does whatever it takes to win, moving a runner over, taking an extra base, whatever,'' Roberts said. "He's the consummate professional. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played. And he does it every day. That's why he is the captain of the Yankees. It doesn't matter if you love or hate the Yankees, you have to respect Derek Jeter.''
Jeter's face is recognizable, but it's not lacquered on every billboard in New York. And his face isn't on every TV commercial, though it could be if he wanted it to be.
Jeter has a nice face, a rugged face, a handsome face, equal parts black and white, the son of a black father and white mother who had simple rules for him in high school, including being home by 10 p.m. every night and eating his lunch every day. He was taught well, and he has never forgotten his lessons. That's why he is such a good player and team captain. That's why he is the face of baseball.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.