Derek Jeter is used to the spotlight. But as he closes in on 3,000 hits, the eyes of fans, media and the entire baseball world will be on him.
A few days in a row with oh-fers and the glare will start to become more intense. That's when Jeter will have to draw on the enormous reservoir of calm that has become one of his defining characteristics.
Chances are Jeter was born with the ability to slow the world down when everyone else around him is going 100 miles per hour. But that skill was honed under the tutelage of Joe Torre, Jeter's first full-time manager and someone the Yankees captain last week said he still considers a "second father."
"I think I'm a friend," Torre said. "Maybe he looks at me as an uncle or something."
When told of that, Jeter laughed and said, "Oh, so he's an uncle now?"
The Torre-Jeter relationship was forged in the winter and spring of 1996. It was Torre's first year as Yankees manager and the 21-year-old Jeter's first opportunity to win a big-league job.
Torre, now Major League Baseball's executive vice president of operations, recalled that uncertain time in a telephone interview last week. He remembered meeting Jeter during a pre-spring training promotional tour the Yankees did in Manhattan -- back in the days before Torre and Jeter had won four World Series together and when the Yankees actually had to reach out to fans to sell tickets.
"I was given a heads up, obviously, that Derek Jeter was going to be the shortstop," Torre said. "I remember saying Derek was the shortstop. When they asked Derek the same question on the news that same night, his answer was better than mine. He says, 'I'm going to get an opportunity to win the job.' I said, 'I like this kid already.' "
That kid went on to win AL Rookie of the Year and lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 1978. Jeter had been up briefly with the Yankees in 1995 under Buck Showalter, but it was with Torre that he blossomed.
"I grew up with him in terms of my baseball career," Jeter said the other day in the Yankees clubhouse. "He was the figurehead. Obviously, the Boss , but on the field, in terms of day-to-day, he was the one. He showed a lot of confidence in me, gave me an opportunity, he always treated me with respect. You appreciate that, especially as a younger player."
Interesting. Despite a 34-year age difference, Torre felt the need to treat Jeter with respect. It's something that Paul O'Neill, Jeter's teammate from 1995-2001, said was obvious early on -- that Torre treated Jeter differently and, as it turned out, correctly to get the most out of his budding young shortstop.
"There's always that manager / player stuff where the manager is over here and the player is over there," O'Neill said. "He and Derek, you'd see them messing around like friends. I think Derek appreciated Joe's calmness and his ability to see the big, long picture. When you're a young player, an 0-for-4 -- that's all you can think about. You can't think about the five- , six-hundred at-bats ahead of you. I think Joe Torre was really, really good at that."
Jeter agreed. When asked the most important attribute he learned from Torre, Jeter said: "I learned a lot from his demeanor. I always learn a lot from watching more so than listening to people. You can learn more from watching. People can preach all they want, but if they don't practice what they preach, it doesn't mean anything. So I always watched his demeanor and really I couldn't tell if things were going good or bad. He was the same every day."
Jeter, who despises talking about himself and his individual accomplishments, did not have to be pushed to talk about Torre. The affection the two men share is obvious, even from someone who is as reserved as Jeter, who still to this day refers to Torre as "Mr. Torre" or "Mr. T" as a sign of respect.
Said Torre: "We still maintain communication and conversation. I think he's a terrific kid. I credit his mom and dad for that because they're terrific people and they certainly did a great job in raising him."
Torre, who works out of MLB's New York office, had hoped to be able to pop by Yankee Stadium this week if Jeter was a hit or two away from 3,000. But Torre had rotator-cuff surgery last week and spent the week recuperating at his Los Angeles home.
Still, his work is going to take him to Chicago this weekend and the Yankees just happen to be visiting the Cubs. So if Jeter doesn't reach 3,000 at home, he'll have a familiar face cheering him on at Wrigley Field.
"Three-thousand is something that you can't fake," Torre said. "It's something that I'm proud of for him."