I covered the Yankees for the New York Times at the time Derek Jeter was invited to host "Saturday Night Live," and I can remember thinking that he would be pretty awful in that role.
Jeter's instinct when speaking into cameras or microphones had always been to keep it short, to give an answer without really saying anything. Like the way he pulled in his hands and punched the ball to right field, his ability to veer his way through interviews was almost an art -- downplaying, dodging, parrying, staying out of the corner.
Last summer, we were about to tape an interview on ESPN and I told him that young players often asked me about the way Jeter answers questions.
"What do you tell them?" he asked.
"I tell them you are as boring as possible," I replied.
He laughed, in mild protest -- "I wouldn't say boring," he said -- and I acknowledged that over the years, he has loosened up with his answers somewhat.
And I added that I always thought Jeter's strategy was to make sure that nothing he said to reporters would distract from what he did out there -- and I pointed to the shortstop position. He agreed with that part.
But Jeter on "Saturday Night Live"? I thought his habit for verbally downshifting would dull him down.
But through his reticence with the media, I had missed the forest: The man has always loved center stage, in a way that few do. He has belonged there -- only eight players in major league history have accumulated more hits, after all -- but he also wanted to be there, and assumed he would thrive there.
I've always thought Jeter's reputation as a clubhouse leader has been overstated, because unlike players such as Adrian Beltre, Dustin Pedroia or Chris Carpenter -- main bodies within their team's interaction -- Jeter seemed more like a tributary personality. His primary contributions to teammates have always been his performance and his reliability, playing through injuries that would've sidelined a lot of his peers, and the leadership he provided has always been much less about well-chosen words than about his confidence. There's not really a way to weigh this personality trait, but let's put it this way: If you could assess confidence like OPS, his lifetime number would be about 1.500. His confidence WAR would be at about 12.0 every season.
Jeter's play in the postseason is often dismissed by observers who say he really wasn't that much better than anybody else, but rather, he just had a lot more chances. That kind of criticism greatly amused a lot of rival evaluators and players, who saw in Jeter's October play an uncommon calm. Anxiety is inherent in postseason games, when the pressure is at its greatest, and even stars can struggle with the adrenaline, from Roger Clemens seemingly losing his mind in a start in the 1990 ALCS to Miguel Cabrera uncharacteristically hacking at everything by the end of the 2012 World Series.
But Jeter just seemed to play the same way -- aggressive at the plate, sure-handed in the field, completely at ease. I never thought he raised his play in October; rather, he never seemed diminished by the postseason pressure in any way, and this is what distinguished him.