Jeter seeks greatness every game, no matter how big
What stands out when thinking about All-Star isn't one moment, but many
MINNEAPOLIS -- We come again looking for something Derek Jeter is not going to give us. We want perspective. We want emotion. We want him to sum it all up for us, all 20 seasons and 2,843 games.
This he will not do.
He's perfectly fine with us asking. He's gracious and polite. He simply will not go there.
"It's been difficult for me to reflect on a career that's not over yet," Jeter said Monday afternoon as he prepared to play in his 14th and final All-Star Game on Tuesday (watch on FOX). "Everyone wants me to be so emotional all the time, but we still have games to play. Know what I mean?"
Actually, we do.
That answer probably sums up why we love this guy and why we know we've been so lucky to watch him play baseball.
We saw him win the World Series five times. We saw him lose it twice. We saw him play 158 postseason games in all and come into our living rooms so often in October that he seemed like a member of the family.
We saw Jeter grind out the regular season in places like Kansas City and Oakland and Arlington. We saw dramatic moments against the Red Sox. We saw Thursday afternoon games in half-full ballparks.
And he was always the same. He never seemed overwhelmed. He never seemed rattled.
Jeter had the ability to slow the game down and own the moment. In that, there was beauty.
He prepared the same way for games large and small. He put the same effort into all of them. He gave the same answers afterward.
Maybe that's the thing that makes Jeter such a heroic figure to so many. He understood that every game counted.
He also understood that the focus was supposed to be on the field. And so, in 20 seasons, his words almost never made news.
But that's also the thing about focusing on the field and about believing in the value of hard work. Words mean little.
If Jeter's interviews were simple, maybe his value system was, too. Someone asked him Monday why his quotes always sounded the same.
He never second-guessed a manager or threw a teammate under the bus. He just always saw his job as being about doing his best and being optimistic about tomorrow.
"A lot of times people say, 'Well, you give the same answers,'" Jeter said. "I give the same answers to the same questions. You can only answer questions one way."
Which leads to something larger, and in this, we get closer to the essential Jeter. He was the guy who greeted young teammates, the guy who reached out to opposing players with praise.
Is that grace? Is that decency?
"You try to carry yourself the right way," he said. "At the same time, I am who I am. I don't try to be anyone different. If people respect you for the way you carry yourself, it means a lot to me, means a lot to my family. And makes you feel good.
"My parents were always big on treating people the way you want to be treated, respectful, which I've always tried to be. Those are lessons I learned when I was young."
If you try, you can count maybe a couple dozen Jeter moments -- dazzling defensive plays or show-stopping hits. In the end, though, his game was about mind-numbing consistency. In that way, his career was very basic.
He had the ability to slow the game down, or at least to make it seem slow. He never seemed overwhelmed by the moment. That poise, that sense of calm, may forever be his trademark.
Jeter's greatness wasn't in rising to the occasion, but in being great every single day. Years from now, that may be what we tell fans who'll know him only by video clips and World Series highlights.
We'll tell them that he was really a working stiff in the way he approached the game. No player has ever represented his sport better than Jeter represented this one.
When Jeter was asked on Monday about memorable All-Star Game moments, he said that he approached all of them like it might be his last one.
"In that sense, I don't think it makes this one any different," he said.
Still, one stood out -- 1999 at Fenway Park.
"That's when they had all the great players on the field," Jeter said. "I got a tap on my shoulder, and it was Hank Aaron. He said he was looking for me because he wanted to meet me."
"You want to meet me?" Jeter asked.
Aaron told him he appreciated how he played and how he prepared and how he represented their game.
Even to one of the coolest players there ever was, Aaron's words have lingered in his heart and mind.
"That's one of the best moments I've had over my baseball career," Jeter said.
If he was awed by Aaron's greatness, he may better understand how those of a different place and time feel about him.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.