NEW YORK -- The question is often posed to Derek Jeter, but not as often the other way around. "How impressive is Mo?" they ask him, and Jeter replies with the tale of how he has known Mariano Rivera, whom he considers the greatest relief pitcher of all time, for 17 years.

Ask the closer about the shortstop, however, and the answer is not as rote. He pauses. He thinks about it.

"Seeing him every day, that's what impresses me," Rivera says. "He's always been a special player. But the way he takes care of himself, the way he prepares himself to play day in and day out is amazing. I've always had a tremendous respect for players like that, and Derek is one of them."

This season, perhaps, is Jeter's finest achievement. A World Series winner in four of his first five big league seasons, Jeter cut his teeth on postseason baseball.

Then came an eight-season championship drought, including five straight years without reaching the World Series and one season -- last season -- without a playoff berth at all. For most players, that's normal. For Jeter, it is misery.

Now, though, Jeter is back, aiming to win again, 13 years after his first World Series title. And he remains every bit as critical to his team's chances as he was back then, as a rookie in 1996.

Jeter hit .334 this season, his highest total in three years and 17 points above his career average. He scored 107 runs and stole 30 bases, earning numerous mentions in the MVP discussion. And he played his best defense in years, transforming from a target of critics to an asset at the age of 35.

Perhaps most importantly, he remains Derek Jeter. The captain.

"Hey, he's a leader, man," said Phillies reserve infielder Miguel Cairo, a teammate of Jeter's for three seasons. "He's the man. He's one of the best players I ever played with."

During a rain delay in September, after Jeter broke Lou Gehrig's record for hits as a Yankee and manager Joe Girardi removed him from the game, Jeter's Yankees teammates sat at a podium and swapped stories from their youth. Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada had all come up with him as Minor Leaguers. Alex Rodriguez knew him from before his big league days, as well.

Those four all reflected back on their first meetings with Jeter, Pettitte telling the story of a skinny shortstop who kept infecting his outings with egregious fielding errors. Posada talked of Jeter off the field, referring to him as his best friend.

Though he does his best to downplay his personality during media sessions, embracing banality and ignoring inquisitions into his well-documented Hollywood side, Jeter at times lets some of it seep out. The World Series is one of those times, when Jeter, always moving, constantly creasing and readjusting the brim of his hat, talks about winning.

2009 World Series
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Gm. 2 NYY 3, PHI 1 Wrap Video
Gm. 3 NYY 8, PHI 5 Wrap Video
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Gm. 5 PHI 8, NYY 6 Wrap Video
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It is the one topic he genuinely enjoys.

"I really want to win," Jeter admitted, his eyes confirming the fact.

He has done it as well as anyone in the game today, and he has done it with a public character and a "smoothness," as Nick Swisher called it, unparalleled in baseball.

"You could learn a lot from somebody like that," said Swisher.

For someone who has been to the World Series six times in his career, Jeter takes care to mention how rare these opportunities are. He is a New York celebrity of the highest order, arguably the most successful postseason performer of his generation and a lock to enter the Hall of Fame. And he is humble.

"You never take for granted that you're just going to play a season and end up in the World Series," Jeter said. "It's very, very difficult. We were spoiled early on, but man, this organization's been pretty successful throughout the years."

Perhaps, though, the most revealing glimpse into Jeter's character came last October, when the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time in his career. Jeter didn't watch a single postseason game on television.

His pride, a decade and a half in the making, was wounded.

"It hurts us all when we don't get back there," Pettitte said.

You get the sense, though, that it hurts some more than others.