Jeter not fazed by new role in 2009
Yanks captain turns in best season after moving to leadoff
NEW YORK -- As he has done with so many media firestorms over his time in the Yankees fishbowl, Derek Jeter had a cold splash of reality waiting at his locker when the news broke that he -- and not Johnny Damon -- would be hitting leadoff in 2009.
The only difference, Jeter said this spring, was that there would be no chance of him having anybody but himself to drive in the first time he came to bat. Nothing else had to change, and as he promised with a grin, everything else would fall into place.
Was he right. Now, the Yankees look at their lineup and don't want to construct it any other way. Manager Joe Girardi's switch, a perfect storm that hit while batting Damon second during the World Baseball Classic, paid major dividends as Jeter just happened to have one of the best seasons of his career.
"I try to get better every year," Jeter said. "I try to contribute and I try to be consistent."
That's Jeter, in his typical style, understating the obvious. But there's nothing mundane about the type of season he assembled in 2009, hitting .334 with 18 home runs and 66 RBIs in 153 games while displaying improved range defensively and stealing more bases (30) than in 2007 and '08 combined.
Owing a big part of this season to his hard winter work, Jeter will certainly figure into the discussion for the American League Most Valuable Player Award once this postseason race is all said and done, but for now, that march is well under way.
"In Derek's case, he's constantly interested in doing nothing but improving," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "That's why he's one of the greatest players who ever played for the Yankees."
Setting the table for a club that hopes to vault past the Angels and enter its first World Series since 2003, Jeter hit .400 (4-for-10) in the Bombers' three-game whitewash of the Twins in the AL Division Series, including a game-tying home run in Game 1.
Nick Swisher, always good for a way to wrap things up in a snappy way, said it best: "Once the lights hit the postseason, it's Jeter time."
The World Series heads into next month, and the man who already lists Mr. November among his nicknames is counting on the fact that he will be there.
Everything else -- passing Lou Gehrig's all-time Yankees hits mark, turning in nifty defensive plays to save runs and crush the Twins' hopes in the ALDS, the seventh 200-hit season of his career -- doesn't really matter if there isn't a fifth World Series ring on Jeter's finger.
George Steinbrenner doesn't show up much in the Bronx anymore, preferring to keep tabs on his players from a cushy pad in Tampa, Fla. But his words spill out of Jeter's mouth at almost every turn. The captain learned a little something from The Boss in those closed-door meetings across the street at the old place, you see.
"Our goal when we come into the season is to win a championship," Jeter said. "That's how it is every year. You don't go home and celebrate regular-season championships. You don't go home and celebrate getting to the World Series. Our goal is to win it. That's been my mind-set since I've come up, and it never changes."
It's the only way for Jeter, having spent his first 12 big league Octobers playing baseball and usually winning, taking home four titles in his first five seasons. Then came last year, the lost one for Jeter and the Yankees. The Phillies won that World Series, but Jeter never reached for the remote.
Most career playoff homers
"It's like when you're a little kid and your parents don't let you go outside and play," he said. "You're not going to sit in the window and watch."
In a clubhouse stocked with players who don't boast the postseason credentials of the so-called "Old Guard" Yankees teams, Jeter is a calming influence, the franchise's face and spokesman over the past 14 seasons.
"We have four or five guys in our clubhouse that have been there and done that, and have played extremely well in October," Alex Rodriguez said. "I think all of us can follow those guys. Those guys, especially Derek -- he is our captain and our leader. I think we can learn from all of them."
Behind closed doors, teammates say that Jeter is a different person, never completely letting his true persona out of the bag. That's calculated -- Jeter's public presence sets the tone for the Yankees, a dapper Wall Street suit in a room full of blue jeans.
Most players have pictures of family members or Yankees logos on the computer screens installed at their lockers. Jeter keeps an AccuWeather forecast, always watching, monitoring. It is that work ethic that has allowed him to bounce back.
Jeter's resurgence was no better exhibited than the fountain of youth he found in Florida over the winter, having something to prove to all those who flooded the message boards and said Jeter couldn't do it anymore.
"You have to make adjustments throughout the years, and if things don't go the way you want them to go or you don't feel the way you want to feel, you make adjustments in order to compensate for it," Jeter said. "I just wanted to be healthy, that's it."
So here we are, deeper into the postseason, and once again things feel right for Jeter. He is the leadoff hitter for baseball's winningest team, and the player most trusted to come through in the moments when the Yankees need it most.
Like a certain famous cola, the formula is time-tested and true. All Jeter wants to do is prove it still tastes as sweet.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.