Derek Jeter's warm personality often makes it easy to overlook his toughness.Photo: Charles Wenzelberg
Derek Jeter smiles easily. He is expert at being polite and non-controversial. He connects quickly with children. His fraternity with his peers is unforced and pleasant, whether the exchange is with a Quadruple-A hanger-on or All-Star clubhouse mate.
This all has helped form a public perception of Jeter that, I believe, robs perhaps his greatest attribute as a player — his toughness.
Yep, you don’t think of it quickly with Jeter, not when you have volumes of liners to right field and jump throws from the shortstop hole.
But you don’t come back from a separated shoulder at the earliest possible date without toughness, nor do you fight your way back from two ankle fractures at this late juncture of your career.
On Friday night, Jeter started his 2,610th game at shortstop. That moved him past Omar Vizquel for the most in major league history. It might not be Lou Gehrig or Cal Ripken stuff, and it came and went without confetti and fanfare. But you do not start that many games in the middle infield — all those double-play pivots, etc. — without a sense of responsibility, a reservoir of pride and a steely constitution. The day-after-day mental and physical grind ultimately defeats every athlete. But some endure better than others. And Jeter is at the top 1 percent.
“We all consider rolling over and shutting the alarm clock off,” Joe Torre said by phone. “Jeter never rolls over. He gets out of bed. It is never a consideration to take a day off. It is a sense of responsibility to his team and to himself.”
Fans cheer on Jeter at Yankee Stadium.Photo: Paul J. Bereswill
I remember a conversation long ago with Gene Michael when he was still the Yankees general manager. We were discussing the traditional five tools — hitting, hitting for power, running, fielding and throwing.
That day I disagreed with the confines of the five tools. I suggested there were so many more than five tools. Aptitude was vital. You could have five tools, but if you couldn’t apply them, what was the use? Victor Martinez might only have two tools, but he has pretty much maximized them. That is so much more valuable than having five that excite scouts but never come out in games with consistency.
Grace under pressure is a tool. Again, you could have the physical stuff down, but if you can’t do it with 40,000 people in attendance or in October, what is the point?
Discipline is a tool. Are you going to keep working out, avoid perks that could drain your energy and skill?
And durability is a tool. Danny Tartabull used to tell me to project his stats over a full season and I finally told him, “Why? You never play a full season.” Mark Buehrle might not be blessed with the stuff that makes scouts drool, but wind him up and he gives you 200 innings. Every year. Year after year.
I remember that conversation with Stick because he agreed with me, and that felt large because of how much I respected his scouting acumen. I often have thought about it since watching Jeter.
Because I believe it is in all these areas beyond the traditional tools that Jeter was an A-plus and took very good traditional tools to a Hall-of-Fame level.
His aptitude, his grace under pressure, his discipline and — for me — especially his toughness.
He refused to discuss injuries. Jeter had the Chili Davis Code: If I am playing, I am healthy enough to play. He never played the “I am 80 percent” game to provide an alibi. Never told you off the record how he was really feeling, again, as a way to set up the excuse. “I’m all right.” That he what he told managers and media.
Jeter felt a responsibility to play, that the team was best when he did. Torre and Joe Girardi have known they could write his name into the lineup game after game, season after season. Do you know how much easier that makes the managing job?
“There was a playoff series in which he had pretty much a broken hand, got shot up for Game 1, couldn’t feel his hand and said he would rather just play with the pain,” Torre said. “There was never a consideration that he wouldn’t play. He came to the ballpark to play. It certainly made my job a whole lot easier. You talk about a guy who is a leader. You have someone who wants to rest, they look across the locker room and see him. He forced other people to play, not literally, but by example.”
Troy Tulowitzki is part of the legion of players to wear No. 2 out of respect and idolization of Jeter. He probably has more “tools” than the prime-aged Jeter. But in his first seven full seasons, Tulowitzki has exceeded 140 games started at short three times and 150 one time. Jeter started at least 148 games in each of his first seven years.
Jeter separated his shoulder in Season Eight, started 118, then started at least 147 games in each of his next seven seasons. Tulowitzki never has exceeded 155 starts at shortstop in a season.
Jeter has 157 starts at short — in the postseason. Yep, he had an entire extra year’s worth of shortstop work in the playoffs that didn’t count toward knocking Vizquel from his mantle.
Next time we talk about Tulowitzki or Jose Reyes succeeding Jeter, let’s remember how fragile both have been. The tools are there, but not always the durability.
Meanwhile, Jeter fell backward into the stands during the 2001 playoffs and marshaled on a damaged player. He famously dove into the stands on July 1, 2004, to make a catch and smashed up his face against the Red Sox. He started the next day.
That is why when he finally broke in the 2012 ALCS it was such a shock — because he went down and couldn’t get up. We assumed it was pretty much for good when 2013 was such a physical disaster for Jeter. But Derek Jeter has a Die Hard ethos. After all those other top shortstops have come and gone — Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Nomar Garciaparra — he endures.
Start No. 79 of this season was No. 2,610 of his career. More than anyone ever. That seemed right. It was a number that screamed what Derek Jeter never would: