Among the many traits that combined to make Derek Jeter one of the most admired and adored baseball players of his generation, there was talent, drive and focus — and a good dose of stubbornness, too.
Opposing pitchers felt it, even when they had great stuff. If they found a way to beat him on a Friday, Jeter figured out a way to respond by Saturday. Backups of his with high aspirations saw it, too. For virtually all of his 20-year career, Jeter clung stubbornly to that shortstop position, molding it into one of the highest-profile jobs in sports, like quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys or striker for Barcelona.
Even when a superstar like Alex Rodriguez, the best shortstop in baseball, joined the team in 2004, he would be the one to move to third base. Jeter was staying put, because he was stubborn enough to believe that he was the best person to be at shortstop for the Yankees, a dirt kingdom he stamped as his own and guarded tenaciously.
That refusal to acquiesce helped make Jeter a five-time World Series champion, and on Tuesday it helped him become a first-ballot Hall of Famer, receiving the second-highest percentage of votes ever for a player, with 99.7. Only relief pitcher Mariano Rivera, Jeter’s teammate, exceeded that, receiving 100 percent of the votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America last year.
The Hall of Fame announced on Tuesday that 396 of 397 voters had put Jeter on their ballots. Not even Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio or Mickey Mantle received that much of the vote. But Jeter — who never finished better than second place in voting for the American League Most Valuable Player Award — did.
He was not widely regarded as the best or most dangerous player in any one season, but he was hypercompetitive and when an important game hung in the balance, Jeter so often produced the hit, the throw or the catch that led directly to a Yankees win.
“A lot of times it’s mind over matter,” Jeter said in a conference call Tuesday night. “Every time I was in a situation, I felt as though I was still playing Little League. I had fun with it. I enjoyed the competition. I didn’t shy away from it. And I wasn’t afraid of failure.”
That refusal to concede anything was an integral part of Jeter’s makeup, and sometimes even reporters covering the Yankees faced it, too. Jeter was always mindful of his role as a superstar on the most famous team in baseball, and was generally cordial, accessible and accountable.
But his competitive nature sometimes shone in interactions with the news media, as he refused to give ground on even the most basic lines of questioning, leaving some reporters just as frustrated as the pitchers Jeter used to beat on a regular basis.
Once, during a slow spring training morning several years ago, Jeter was dressing for practice at his locker in the back of the Yankees clubhouse, tucked strategically in an area removed from usual foot traffic.
The topic that day was whether the Yankees would keep their payroll below a preset limit, something unheard-of at the time. What had happened, Jeter was asked by a reporter, to George Steinbrenner’s big-spending Yankees?
“Whoa, buddy, you don’t think that’s a lot of money?” Jeter asked, effortlessly swatting the question into foul territory.
The questioner would have to bear down. Of course it is, the reporter responded, but usually the Yankees are not bound by any financial constraints.
“How many teams spend more?” Jeter demanded to know as he rummaged through his locker.
Well, not many, the reporter answered, but this is the Yankees, after all. Shouldn’t you have the largest payroll in baseball? Jeter, rapidly pulling on his socks in a manner intended to convey that the interview would end soon, said, “So, the team with the highest payroll always wins the World Series?”
Bang, there it was. Jeter was already ahead in the count in this interview, and then he sent the final question sailing into right field for a base hit. He even added a bit of a smirk, almost an early-morning version of his signature handclap at first base.
Exasperated and empty-handed, the reporter threw up his hands like a beaten pitcher and declared: “You know, this is why you are such a good hitter. You never give in. You absolutely refuse to give in.”
Jeter laughed. He seemed to like the analogy. He knew he was stubborn and supremely self-confident, and he knew it was useful, both on and off the field.
“His confidence was contagious,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said in a statement. “So often it felt that he would not be denied, and that belief rubbed off on his teammates, leading to so many victories over so many years.”
Jeter also knew that writers who dealt with him on a daily basis — and the fans who adored him — wanted more from him: more insight into his personality, more details about his enviable lifestyle, more of everything. But in his usual determined and calculated way, he never relented on that front, either.
“I know I haven’t been as open with some of you guys as you would have liked me to be over the last 20 years,” he said in February 2014, when he announced his plan to retire at the end of that season. “But that’s by design. That’s just how I felt I’d be able to make it this long in New York.”
His steady resolve helped him survive two decades in that pressurized environment, but good fortune played a role, too. He was raised by caring, intellectual parents and, after starring at Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan, was drafted by the Yankees, rather than by the Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, Montreal Expos, Baltimore Orioles or Cincinnati Reds. Those were the five teams that picked ahead of the Yankees in 1992 and passed on Jeter.
Who knows what his career would have been had he been picked by one of those teams? Maybe he would not have won five World Series, and maybe the Yankees would not have won the titles of his era, either. But those rings helped define who Jeter is above all else: a champion with remarkable longevity.
He had 3,465 hits, the sixth-most in the sport’s history, and many of them were stunningly dramatic: His 3,000th hit for a home run in 2011. His November home run in 2001. His leadoff homer against the Mets in the Subway Series in 2000, to name only a few.
He left the game with a .310 career batting average, but perhaps even more impressive was that his postseason numbers were almost identical to those in the regular season. His batting average in the playoffs was .308. His on-base plus slugging percentage was .817 in the regular season and .838 in the postseason.
He stubbornly refused to concede, even for a moment, that he could not replicate in the postseason exactly what he had done the rest of the year.
“It’s the same game,” he said, “whether it’s spring training or Game 7 of the World Series. It’s still baseball.”
He believes that. Don’t for a moment try to argue otherwise.