By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
In a year in which the Yankees were hit hard by injuries, Jeter’s steady leadership might net him the MVP.
NEW YORK — So many of the valuable things that Derek Jeter does are obvious.
The Yankees-best (and second in the league) .343 batting average. The 214 hits, the 118 runs, the 97 RBIs. The resume of clutch hits. The always smooth and occasionally spectacular defense at shortstop. The standup (albeit dry) presence in the clubhouse.
But it is the subtle things, the little things, the intangible things, he does that set him apart.
And just might make him — for the first time in his 11-season career — the American League’s Most Valuable Player.
“He does what he does, and if people think that’s impressive enough they’ll vote for him,” Yankees manager Joe
Torre said. “One thing about Jeter: his getting the vote will not be based on numbers alone. You have to see him every day to understand what he means to this team.”
Consider John Flaherty a convert.
In five seasons as the Devil Rays catcher, Flaherty played against Jeter more than 70 times. He thought, as many others around the league did, that Jeter was a decent player who got the attention of a great one because he played in New York.
But in three seasons playing with Jeter as the Yankees backup, and a fourth around him this year as a YES network analyst, Flaherty said he now sees how good Jeter really is.
“When I played on the other side, I didn’t necessarily think he was that great a player,” Flaherty said. “But when I played alongside him and when I saw him every day, I realized he is. It’s the little things he does. It’s his steady play, his consistent play. And it’s his calmness in his at-bats when the game is on the line that really separates him from everybody else.”
Teammate Gary Sheffield lauds Jeter for playing hard every day and leading by example when the lineup was depleted by injuries. Reserve Nick Green, the former Ray, marvels at Jeter’s production in the clutch, how “every time you turn around he seems to come up with a big hit.” Don Zimmer, the former Yankees bench coach, raves about Jeter’s desire and how often he plays hurt.
Yankees radio announcer John Sterling has been so impressed he turned Jeter into an adjective, taking to describing certain plays as “Jeterian.”
Jeter, who is 32 now, insists he is just doing his job, that there is nothing extraordinary about his effort.
“I just try to be consistent,” Jeter said. “I try every day to help the team win. It might not always be something that shows up in the box score, but every day you can try to do something to help the team.”
The nicest compliment he can get, he said, is for someone in the game to tell him he enjoys watching him play.
The most important thing in the game, he said, is winning — and in New York, that means winning the World
Series, which the Yankees haven’t done for five long seasons.
“You never go into a season, especially here, saying 'Let’s make it to the World Series this year.’ We’ve been there,” Jeter said. “The bottom line is we have to win a World Series.”
Torre praises Jeter’s consistency from day to day, and even from season to season. Devil Rays bench coach Bill Evers, a former Yankees minor-league manager, said Jeter has been the same guy since he was a 19-year-old in his first full pro season in 1993 in Greensboro, N.C.
Evers arguably saw Jeter at his worst, when he made 56 errors that season. But Evers, who had Jeter in Double A the next year and Triple A the year after that, said he knew by the way Jeter handled the adversity that good things were ahead.
“He believes in himself,” Evers said. “He’s got great belief in himself, but you would never know that by talking to him, and that’s what’s so great about him. … He’s a unique individual. He’s respectful of the game, and respectful of the people in charge. And I really thing he understands how lucky he is, which is something some guys take for granted.”
Jeter — who still usually refers to his manager as Mr. Torre but now admits to an occasional Mr. T — said that’s the only way he knows to be. And despite that self-confidence, he’s the last one who is going to brag on his performance in what many think is his best season.
“I don’t really sit down and ever try to rate years, like this year over that year,” Jeter said. “You try to be as consistent as possible and help out on a daily basis. That’s pretty much it.”
Though Jeter has had better numbers, such as a 1999 season when he hit .349 with a career-high 24 homers and 102 RBIs, he may have never done more, stepping up when Hideki Matsui, Robinson Cano and Sheffield were all hurt.
“He was there for everybody,” Torre said.
That alone makes him pretty valuable.