Those who know him speak glowingly of Derek Jeter's leadership
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When Ichiro Suzuki switched clubhouses last July at Safeco Field, shortly after his trade from the Mariners to the Yankees, he brought over more than just his meticulously-cared-for bats and Hall of Fame resume.
Ichiro, a 10-time All-Star and a baseball legend on two continents, had developed a reputation for being aloof in Seattle and displayed a growing detachment from the struggling franchise. As his play on the field deteriorated, Ichiro's demeanor worsened and he withdrew even more, as observed by the Japanese media that covered him closely on a daily basis.
Then something happened. The switch to the Bronx resulted in a remarkable change in Ichiro, who suddenly was seen joking with teammates, laughing frequently and -- perhaps most astonishingly -- talking with the reporters who flocked to him.
At this late stage in his career, at age 38, something had influenced the seemingly unreachable Ichiro.
But it wasn't the Yankees. It wasn't New York. It wasn't the pinstriped uniform.
It was Derek Jeter.
"I noticed that after every game, or even before the game, everybody goes to him first,'' Ichiro said through his interpreter, Allen Turner. "They always want to talk to him. So when I see him doing that every day, and not complaining, and just taking that as it is, that really means something to me. I really admire that.
"He protects the other players that he plays with. There's all sorts of stress and stuff that comes with playing. But he puts that on his shoulders and lets the other guys play. He's able to take that stress on without spitting it out. Basically handle it internally and still be able to produce and do what he does.''
Tough guy to lose
Last October, in Game 1 of the ALCS, the Yankees rallied to tie the score in the bottom of the ninth inning on Raul Ibañez's home run. After Jeter crumpled to the infield dirt with a broken ankle in the 12th inning, the stunned Yankees fell to the Tigers that night and meekly rolled over in a four-game sweep by Detroit. Coincidence?
There is a mind-set, a standard of conduct, that Jeter brings to the Yankees. And it's rarely seen, if ever, in public view. Those who know Jeter best speak of this quality, and not because they feel obligated to do so.
"If we have a team meeting, Derek is always somebody who will speak up,'' said Andy Pettitte, who has played alongside Jeter with the Yankees for 13 seasons, beginning in 1995. "But Derek is very simple. There's not a whole lot of flash to him, not a whole lot of Vince Lombardi speeches. He's a smart player, he's a smart person and he knows what he's talking about.
"We play in a city where a whole lot of stuff is made out of what's going on around us. The reason why Derek has thrived is because he keeps it simple. He doesn't let everything clutter his mind. He's got his focus on one thing -- and that's to take care of business. Then to convey that to everyone around you, and always continue to push everyone around you, especially during the difficult times. He says what our focus is going to be on and to not let this whole thing engulf or swallow you.''
That's what makes this Opening Day, and the indefinite number of days after that, a particularly bad time for the Yankees to be without Jeter, whose extended rehab from ankle surgery ultimately forced him to the disabled list. Missing established players Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez in addition to Jeter creates a void not only in talent but also experience.
Then mix in Bronx newcomers such as Vernon Wells and Kevin Youkilis combined with a still-impressionable youngster in Eduardo Nuñez. It's a roster that feels in flux and a clubhouse that could use Jeter's gravitational pull during what is beginning as an unsettled period for the Yankees.
Cano looks up to DP partner
Robinson Cano will try to be a stabilizing influence in Jeter's absence, and the second baseman was praised by his Dominican teammates for his budding leadership role during the World Baseball Classic. Much of that he owes to Jeter, who, unlike his predecessors, has worked to make Yankee life less intimidating for everyone, and especially those just breaking into the majors.
Cano is among the game's elite now, but he was a rookie once, too. And Cano still learns from Jeter.
"He always makes you feel like you belong here,'' Cano said. "But if he sees something wrong, he'll always say something. And he'll never say it behind your back. He'll come up to you and tell you, hey, this might help. There was a lot of things for me -- some things personal I don't want to say. But he didn't let it slide. It means he cares about you.''
With Jeter, it goes beyond the foul lines or clubhouse walls. One of the hardest parts of dealing with the grind of a 162-game season with the Yankees is merely surviving it, and that includes all aspects of the lifestyle.
Jeter has excelled for 18 seasons in the Bronx without any major derailments or PR nightmares, and from what his teammates say, he tries to impart some of his lessons learned.
"Not only in the game, but how to handle New York, how to handle the streets, to stay away from trouble, all that stuff,'' Mariano Rivera said. "He was a young guy here. He knows what it takes. He took the right approach and gives it to the rookies or guys that come here for the first time. If they need advice, he's always there.
"That makes the team better. Not only those guys better, but the team better. And that's what we want.''
In the big picture, that's really the captain's job, isn't it? Jeter often behaves as if he is allergic to talking about his individual contributions to the Yankees, on the field or otherwise, preferring to discuss the Yankees' performance as a whole. But win or lose, the end result usually reflects back on him, and as Ichiro said, Jeter somehow has the ability to absorb it all.
Martin praises consistency
Being the center of attention also magnifies the effect Jeter can have on his teammates. Even those who were around him for a relatively short period of time could see it.
'I'll give you an example: If Derek Jeter does it, then you should do it, too,'' said Russell Martin, who played with the Yankees for two years before signing with the Pirates in the offseason. "You know what I mean? He's so consistent, day in and day out, same personality, same guy, in his approach to the game and approach to people. That's why he's a good leader.''
When George Steinbrenner chose to make Jeter the Yankees' 11th captain in 2003, he did it abruptly, during a June interleague series against the Reds at Great American Ball Park. The timing seemed odd, and The Boss called Jeter that morning to discuss the matter with him.
"The impression I got is just continue to do the things I've been doing,'' Jeter said back then.
A decade later, he has never deviated from that in any way. And it has not gone unnoticed by those around him, whether they've shared a clubhouse for a dozen years or six weeks.
"You can't be a leader unless you do it,'' Pettitte said, "and Derek is an unbelievable leader from the standpoint of how he takes the field no matter what, each and every day. As far as I'm concerned, that's his biggest attribute. There's just no excuses in Derek. He takes the field no matter what and people respect that. People want to follow that.''
For the first time since 2001, the Yankees will look over at shortstop on Opening Day and not see Jeter standing there. Without him to follow, at least for now, it's difficult to tell where they're headed.