As Derek Jeter's 20th and final major league season begins in Houston, the Yankees captain can be described as a leader, winner and offensive genius. For media members and fans, statistics and accolades tell the story of an all-time great shortstop.
Jeter coming off the field after today's workout pic.twitter.com/SRWD29rpVL— Erik Boland (@eboland11) March 31, 2014
For former teammates, there's more to the story.
Last week, Tino Martinez and Dwight Gooden—former teammates and longtime friends of Jeter—were at the MLB Fan Cave in New York to promote a new partnership with Major League Baseball, Arm & Hammer and OxiClean.
Aside from business, the former New York baseball greats and World Series champions couldn't wait to talk baseball, specifically the impending retirement and career of Jeter.
During individual conversations with Bleacher Report, both Gooden and Martinez raved about the leader the Yankee captain has been throughout his entire career.
Although Jeter wasn't officially named captain until 2003, it was clear who the leader of the team was from the moment the rookie shortstop began his first full season in 1996.
"Derek carried himself like a veteran," Gooden said. "Confident, but not cocky. What I always admired about Derek was how he never changed. When I came back to the Yankees in 2000, he was the same exact guy. Much more accomplished and with a big contract, but that work ethic never changed."
Martinez—a teammate of Jeter's throughout New York's dynasty run from 1996-2001—extolled similar praises and acknowledged that vocal leadership wasn't Jeter's specialty, but it didn't have to be in order to get the mandate across.
"He led by example," Martinez said. "His whole career has been that way. Plays hard, plays to win. Expects the most from his teammates. When you're in battle with a guy like that, it's important not to let him down. From superstars to the 25th man on the roster, we all felt a responsibility to play hard and play to win because of Jeter. That's rare."
Over the years, Jeter's demeanor on the field has been confused with his personality away from the diamond. Between the white lines, it's all business. In the media, short, stoic answers profile as Jeter's way of handling his duty and avoiding controversy in a headline-rich city like New York.
What aspect of Jeter's career was most impressive?
Away from the field and cameras, Jeter couldn't be more different.
"He's a comedian," Gooden said.
Not just a guy who cracks jokes, but one who can have fun with everyone by playing practical jokes on unsuspecting teammates.
"Most people don't see that side of Derek," Gooden said while shaking his head. "He's very loose and picks up on any little thing that he can use to get you. Looking back, he got me plenty of times!"
Martinez thinks it's a shame that fans don't realize there's more to Jeter than baseball.
"Derek is a true professional on and off the field," Martinez said. "Of course, that's what people see and remember. But he's much more fun than people might think. We're great friends off the field and he's really a fun guy."
Of course, Jeter wouldn't be headed for Cooperstown if it were just for leadership traits and an underrated sense of humor. At some point, every player is judged by their ability to play the game at a high level.
Heading into the 2014 season, Jeter owns sterling career numbers that rival or surpass any shortstop in the history of the sport. From 3,316 career hits to 1,876 runs scored to an .828 OPS, accolades and All-Star Game appearances would have commenced even if the intangibles weren't present.
Yet for casual fans, reeling off career statistics—unless we're dealing with home run totals and sluggers—can be an arduous task. Plus, the day-to-day greatness at shortstop in New York was overshadowed due to an offensive explosion around the sport.
From a performance standpoint, October (and November) will be how fans remember Jeter's on-field ability and star power.
When asked about memorable on-field moments involving the soon-to-be 40-year-old shortstop, it's no surprise that both Martinez and Gooden referenced postseason moments. For a team that reeled off four World Series titles in five seasons, it probably felt like the regular season was just a warm-up for the postseason.
"I'll never, ever forget that home run in 1996 against the Orioles," Gooden said as he searched for a thought. "Jeffrey Maier! That was the name of the kid that caught the ball, right?! Man, that home run really turned around that series and catapulted us to the World Series against Atlanta. Most people don't remember, but that was off Armando Benitez. At that time, he was throwing really hard. Not many hitters had enough power to take him the other way."
Four years later, Jeter—owner of a .465 career slugging percentage in the postseason—launched an even bigger home run on the biggest stage.
"First pitch of the game off Bobby Jones," Martinez said, referencing Game 4 of the 2000 World Series.
"That hit basically won the World Series. Our dugout blew up, knowing how much momentum that just gave us. Meanwhile, the Mets were deflated. I knew there was no chance we would lose the series when that ball left Jeter's bat."
At the end of the 2014 season, the leadership, jokes and big-game ability will depart the Yankees dugout. When Jeter announced his plans to retire after the season, some were surprised at the timing of his decision.
Much like everything about his 19-year career, Jeter was able to keep a monumental decision quiet until he decided to make it public.
"He had been talking about it all offseason, but only to select people," Martinez said. "I live close to him in Tampa. Every time I saw him he mentioned that it was possible, but it wasn't until a few weeks before that he actually told me and a couple of close friends."
Gooden wasn't aware of Jeter's thought process but thought the announcement was unique and perfect for his former teammate.
"It fits him and the way he's done things for 20 years in baseball," Gooden said. "You think you would have an idea of how Jeter would go out, but he kept everything close and did it in his own way. I think it's great the way he announced it."
Writers and analysts can opine on Jeter's career, spanning from on-field success to off-the-field persona, but the thoughts and feelings of former teammates resonate much louder than any column an outsider could type or monologue a broadcaster could create.
Over the next 162 games, Jeter's story will write its final chapter. Much like the rest of the book, it will be a unique blend of ability, leadership, privacy and memorable moments.
Dwight Gooden and Tino Martinez joined Church & Dwight to announce a multi-year, multi-category sponsorship agreement with Major League Baseball Properties making Arm & Hammer and OxiClean “The Official Laundry Detergent and Stain Remover of MLB.”
All quotes were obtained firsthand. Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
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