- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 21, 2000

TAMPA, Fla. The place where Derek Jeter prepares to play baseball every spring is Legends Field. He fits right in.

The spring training home George Steinbrenner built for the New York Yankees is as much a shrine to the club's tradition as it is a place for his players to practice. Plaques and pictures everywhere remind all those who pass through that Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle were Yankees as if anyone could forget.

There are no shrines yet for Jeter, but he is on his way to becoming a legend on the field. This will be just his fifth year in the majors, yet Jeter has become one of baseball's biggest stars because of two things: He played in the World Series in three of his first four seasons and is a sincere, likable role model at a time when scorn for professional athletes is at an all-time high.

"He is a great kid," former Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly said. "He learned quickly how to handle himself, and he is one of the reasons why so many people like this team. He has respect for the game and for people."

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Jeter has become baseball's most upright citizen, a blueprint for how to perform on the field and behave off of it. He has pulled this off despite some tabloid material when he was linked with singer Mariah Carey and other high-profile women.

Jeter, whose matinee-idol looks have transcended his appeal beyond baseball, said he has done nothing to manufacture this image.

"I don't put up a front or try to act a special way because I am in the spotlight," he said. "If people want to view me that way, that's fine. But I don't act any different than if I had another job. It doesn't make me uncomfortable that people hold me up to a certain standard. That's just me. I hold myself up to those standards anyway."

Those standards aren't easy for a 25-year-old kid who will earn $10 million this year and likely will sign a seven-year contract for $118.5 million. Life at those heights often breeds arrogance and ego and usually accompanies, at the very least, a slight fall from grace at some point.

Jeter doesn't figure to take that fall. He has shown a remarkable maturity from the first time he put on a Yankees uniform in 1995, and manager Joe Torre saw it right away when he took the job for the 1996 season.

"His head was screwed on right the first time I met him," Torre said. "The way he acted, the things he said. He had a sense of what was important, a sense of responsibility, a sense of respect."

He also had a pretty good sense of how to play baseball. Coming out of Kalamazoo Central High School in Michigan, Jeter was the Yankees' first pick (sixth overall) in the draft in 1992. After working his way quickly through their minor league system, Jeter was called up to New York at the end of the 1995 season.

Jeter made an immediate impact in his first full season in 1996, winning Rookie of the Year honors by batting .314 with 25 doubles, six triples, 10 home runs, 78 RBI and 104 runs in 157 games. He made a big impact on Baltimore Orioles fans in the 1996 American League Championship Series, hitting the ball fan Jeffrey Maier caught by reaching over the right-field wall in Game 1 at Yankee Stadium. It was ruled a home run by umpire Rich Garcia and allowed New York to tie the score in the eighth inning of a game the Yankees would go on to win.

They would go on to win the World Series as well, losing the first two games against the Atlanta Braves before winning four straight. It was a pretty heady time for a 22-year-old just four years out of high school. Jeter basked in the spotlight during the offseason, but Torre sensed a need to remind Jeter what was important to him and this team.

"I questioned him in 1997, making sure he understood what his priorities were, and I never had to question him again," Torre said. "I just had to look into his eyes, and it told me more than I could have wanted to know at that point."

Like the team, Jeter tailed off somewhat in 1997, batting .291 with 116 runs, 31 doubles, seven triples, 10 home runs and 70 RBI in 159 games. But he came back strong in 1998 with a .324 average, leading the league in runs scored with 127 and finishing with 25 doubles, eight triples, 19 homers, 84 RBI and a career-high 30 stolen bases in 149 games.

Last season Jeter put up MVP numbers: a .349 average, 134 runs, 37 doubles, nine triples, 24 homers, 102 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 158 games. With 795 career hits, Jeter is ahead of the pace of greats like Ty Cobb, Stan Musial and Hank Aaron.

He has established himself as one of the premier players in baseball and has been cast in a friendly competition with two other young players, Alex Rodriguez in Seattle and Nomar Garciaparra in Boston, for the label of baseball's best shortstop. One of the captivating sidelights of last year's Yankees-Red Sox ALCS was the dazzling play of both shortstops, one seemingly trying to top the other.

Jeter enjoys the rivalry and has tremendous respect for his two peers. But he points out that when he steps on the field, it is never about outdoing another player.

"Egos do not run this team," he said. "No one cares who the hero is. All we care about is winning."

On a team filled with veterans like Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez, Jeter has taken his place as one of the leaders. If there are any questions about priorities in the Yankees clubhouse, Jeter, even at 25, will be doing the asking.

Jeter attributes his maturity to playing with veteran ballplayers.

"Throughout my career, I've played with a lot older players, so you have to grow up quickly," he said. "I was fortunate enough to come to a team that had a lot of veterans, and I learned a lot from watching them. I was around in 1995. I didn't play too much, but I got an opportunity to see them work toward the playoffs and see what a playoff atmosphere was like. I learned a lot from watching."

He will take any opportunity he can to get better. During the 1998 World Series against the San Diego Padres, Jeter asked Tony Gwynn on second base if he could give Jeter a private hitting lesson in the offseason.

Jeter also quickly picked up on the importance of tradition in the Yankees organization and feels a strong connection with the great players before him.

"All of the old-time players are very accessible to you here," Jeter said. "Reggie Jackson and Mattingly are here. Whitey Ford comes through here. Yogi is in here all the time. DiMaggio, before he died. Ron Guidry. You can talk to these guys and see the tradition, and it's instilled in you.

"It's also drilled in your head when you start in the minor leagues. You go into the minor league complex, and there are signs everywhere talking about pride, tradition, dedication. They have all these quotes. It's almost like reading a newspaper walking through the hallway. You learn about it very quickly."

Jeter has gone from student to teacher as the player considered the next great Yankee providing he remains a Yankee. Instead of going to arbitration this year, Jeter and the Yankees agreed on a one-year, $10 million contract. He was close to signing a seven-year, $118.5 million deal, but Steinbrenner not wanting to set a standard for the highest contract in baseball, was waiting for the Detroit Tigers to sign Juan Gonzalez to a seven-year, $140 million deal.

Instead, Steinbrenner agreed to the one-year contract with the hope of continuing talks for a long-term deal. The Gonzalez contract offer was pulled off the table after Ken Griffey was traded to Cincinnati and agreed to a seven-year, $116 million contract, and the futures for both Gonzalez and Jeter are uncertain, although it is extremely unlikely Steinbrenner would let Jeter leave.

"This is a business, and you never know what is going to happen," Jeter said. "I could say until I'm blue in the face that I would like to stay here, but at this point it is not up to me."

It would be tough, though, to imagine a Yankees place called Legends Field without Derek Jeter a part of it.

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