There were plenty of behind-the-scenes stories shared with family and friends during the four seasons I spent covering the Yankees for The Journal News of White Plains, N.Y.
Mike Mussina and Jason Giambi were often really funny. Alex Rodriguez was endlessly clownish. Mariano Rivera once offered some of the best advice I’ve ever received. Joe Torre, as you might expect, was gracious and helpful. Yogi Berra, when he was around, was a delight to get to know.
But none of the stories were about Derek Jeter. Well, except this one.
Baseball clubhouses open to the media three and a half hours before the first pitch of every game, day or night. They open up again 10 minutes after the last pitch.
These are league-wide rules and no team is immune. If a reporter really wants to ask a player a question, there are ample opportunities to do that. Athletes in other sports can avoid the media for weeks at a time or limit their availability to a few minutes postgame. But there’s really not much hiding in baseball.
Think about this for a second: You know far more about Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz and their personalities than you do about Tom Brady. That’s how baseball is, everything gets closely examined.
In New York, the Yankees play what general manager Brian Cashman likes to call 162 one-game seasons. It’s that way in Boston, too. Only rarely are games covered with much degree of long-term perspective. Every day is either a success or a disaster.
What impressed me about Jeter was his seemingly instinctive knowledge about how to handle that maelstrom and walk away clean every time.
If the Yankees were in a losing streak or caught up in some controversy, he would be sure to make himself available to the media before and especially after games. Jeter would stand at his locker and patiently answer every question until they ran out. Then he would look at the reporters around him and say, “All set?” before walking away.
Jeter’s comments were only rarely revealing and never about his private life. But he was always available and because of who he was, his words carried weight. If a rookie pitcher struggled, Jeter reminded reporters that the Yankees lost as a team. If a teammate made an error, Jeter would bring up a runner he left on base.
Conversely, if the Yankees were playing well it was often hard to find Jeter. He would let his teammates dwell in the spotlight and spend time at his locker only for brief stretches. He was adept at making sure others had their chance before he appeared.
Jeter was extraordinarily patient, too, making sure nobody walked away feeling they were belittled. Even silly questions got some kind of answer. He had a good sense of humor when the cameras were off, but never was it mean-spirited.
Every clubhouse has players who are comfortable with the media, some who tolerate it and others who dislike the process. Accountability is important regardless. When the same players are constantly left to explain losses or answer for the mistakes made by others, resentment can quickly fester.
Jeter never let that happen. If the Yankees lost, he was there to take the heat. And not once did he slip up by criticizing a teammate or jabbing the opposition. In a city full of writers waiting to pounce, he never uttered something he regretted. That’s a streak better than Joe DiMaggio’s.
That’s leadership as much as getting a two-out hit is. Over six months and 162 games, being accountable matters to your teammates, coaches, and manager. A lack of that helped wreck the 2011 Red Sox.
Jeter also led by showing up ready to play through any injury that did not require his being on the disabled list. For 20 years, Torre and Joe Girardi left the ballpark most nights knowing Jeter was their shortstop the next day.
Think about all the shortstops the Red Sox have run through since 1995. They have had more shortstops in the last three years than the Yankees have had in 20.
Jeter was always there for the Yankees. He wasn’t always the best player at his position in the league and certainly wasn’t the best defender. But the Yankees never felt compelled to find somebody else. A big part of being great is being on the field and he was always out there until an ankle fracture cost him most of the 2013 season.