NEW YORK – Before he got to first, he blew a bubble. Derek Jeter had just hit a home run to push the New York Yankees ahead in their home opener, and of all the things to do, he huffed until a bright pink globe of Bazooka formed. Maybe it was a conscious move, and maybe it wasn't. It was most certainly classic Jeter.
He treats the extraordinary with such nonchalance it becomes ordinary. World Series rings? The Yankees should win them. The Play that nabbed Jeremy Giambi at home? Just did what he was supposed to do.
Game-winning home runs? Blow a bubble.
Once again, Jeter proved in Tuesday's 9-7 victory over Kansas City that no matter who the Yankees buy from the free-agent market or import via trade, he is the prince, the king and, most of all, the captain.
"People would take him No. 1 on any team," said Johnny Damon, one of those high-priced free agents, "because you know on a daily basis he's going to do something."
In Tuesday's instance, it was bailing out Damon from a three-pitch strikeout against Royals closer Ambiorix Burgos, who throws 100 mph and unfurled a 91-mph split-finger fastball that buckled Damon's knees. Burgos also showed up before a game last season with a reverse Mohawk – think of a huge bald strip down the middle of his head – that bothered Royals officials who already wondered about his maturity. With most 21-year-olds, the yin comes with the yang.
Never was that a concern with Jeter. When he arrived in New York for good in 1996, the Yankees gave him No. 2. Only two of their single-digit numbers aren't retired, and manager Joe Torre wears the other, No. 6. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris wore single digits. It's the ultimate baseball anointment.
And it calls for Jeter nodding to Damon as he walked toward the batter's box in the eighth inning, waiting for a fastball, seeing instead a hanging splitter, adjusting accordingly, turning on the pitch, watching it soar into the left-field bleachers, getting a pound from the two runners he drove in, soaking in the love of 54,698 crazies at Yankee Stadium, giving a curtain call and, finally, running back to his position to watch Mariano Rivera close out the game and patting Rivera on the back.
"I've watched this kid 11 years," Torre said. "When something needs to be done, it seems like he's always at the start or finish of it."
So much of Jeter's career, his lore, is made up on what seems to be. We expect Jeter to hit homers like Tuesday's game-winner because so many other times he has. He hit the ball that Jeffrey Maier stole over the right-field wall at Yankee Stadium. He won Game 4 of the 2001 World Series with a home run off Byung-Hyun Kim. His 142 postseason hits are the most in baseball history, though the extra playoff round brought on by the wild card skews that number.
Still, Jeter might be baseball's most polarizing figure not named Bonds. While his numbers are solid, if he were Derek Jeter, shortstop for the Royals, he might be an All-Star but not a no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer. J.J. Redick made a career at Duke following the Derek Jeter Plan: play for the hated team, succeed and endure the consequences.
Fact is, Jeter has been to the playoffs in all 10 of his full seasons, and he has succeeded because of – and in spite of – being a Yankee. No one ever wins an argument with results, and Jeter hits home runs that win games.
"You expect it," he said. "You fail more than you succeed in those situations. But you still need confidence that you're going to do it.
"Any time you've done something before, you think you can do it again. That doesn't mean it's going to happen, though."
Per usual, Jeter played it modest. He will make $20.6 million to be dryer than multigrain toast. The bombast that surrounds the Yankees needs an even-keeled foil.
Someone who, of all things, blows a bubble when he caps a five-run, go-ahead inning.
"You have to be cool under pressure," Damon said. "Treat it like a regular game, a regular at-bat."
How do you do that?
"I don't know," Damon said. "You want to help me?"
Nah. All he's got to do is look down his row of lockers. Derek Jeter's is at the end, and he knows the answer better than anyone.
- Derek Jeter