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Derek Jeter: Baseball's humble hero

By Jeff Pearlman
February 14, 2014 -- Updated 1706 GMT (0106 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Years ago, reporter Jeff Pearlman asked Yankee Derek Jeter about dating Mariah Carey
  • Pearlman: Jeter, who' retiring, is classy baseball hero
  • He says shortstop doesn't self promote, his stellar record shows brilliance on field
  • Pearlman: He's at the top of heap for shortstops, but is just a guy who wants to be a guy

Editor's note: Jeff Pearlman blogs at jeffpearlman.com. His latest book, "Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s," comes out March 4. Follow him on twitter @jeffpearlman.

(CNN) -- It was a June day in 2000. The Yankees were facing the Braves at Turner Field. I was on hand to profile one of Atlanta's players for Sports Illustrated, but my cell phone rang, and a dreadful request followed. "Supposedly Derek Jeter and Mariah Carey are dating," my editor said. "Can you go ask him about it?"

Glub. I was 27 years old, relatively new to the baseball beat. There are things I'd have been willing to ask Jeter. Do you like cats? What's your favorite song on the new John Oates CD? Have you ever been to Malta? The one thing I didn't want to ask him about was his all-over-the-gossip-pages relationship with Mariah Carey.

Alas, I needed to keep my job.

I entered the Yankee clubhouse and immediately spotted Jeter, alone by his locker, changing into his uniform. I introduced myself. He nodded.

"Derek," I said, "I hate asking you this, and I'm really embarrassed, but my editor insisted. He wanted me to approach you about Mariah Carey."

Jeff Pearlman
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I expected Jeter to tell me to bug off.

I expected Jeter to demand my removal from his space.

I did not expect what ensued — laughter.

"Listen," he said, grinning, "I understand you're just doing your job. I really do. And I'm not mad or irritated. But I'm not going to comment, because it's no one's business but mine. Just because I play baseball doesn't mean I have to tell everyone everything. My life is my life."

We shook hands, and I walked off — content and relieved, but mostly impressed. Now, 14 years later, with Jeter announcing that the upcoming season will be his last, I remain impressed. Actually, scratch that. Really, when I think of Jeter, the classy Yankee shortstop whose 2019 Hall of Fame induction is a 100% lock, the word that pops into my head is encouraged.

Yes, I am encouraged.

Derek Jeter, you see, does not have a Twitter account. He does not refer to himself in the third person or have his nickname tattooed across his back. (Come to think of it, he doesn't really have a nickname.) He's never gone out of his way to publicly humiliate an opponent or prop himself up with inane boasts of superiority. If the words "I'm the man" ever escaped his lips, they were surely followed by, "... who ordered the pizza about 20 minutes ago. I decided to pick it up instead. Can I also grab a bottle of water and some napkins?"

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled "dull" by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you're not tweeting trash talk, you're texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect.

Jeter has both money and respect, byproducts of a dogged work ethic and a need to play with 100% ferocity, health be damned. His 3,316 hits are the most in Yankee history, and his 256 home runs, 1,261 RBIs, 348 stolen bases and .312 lifetime batting average serve as odes to a continued brilliance.

Most important, you never hear a bad word about the man.

Back in 1997, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on the next generation of Major League shortstops. The piece highlighted the skills of Jeter, Seattle's Alex Rodriguez, Toronto's Alex Gonzalez, Florida's Edgar Renteria and the Mets' Rey Ordonez. The men were listed as near-equals, and writer Tom Verducci noted that, "Not since 1941 have so many young shortstops arrived with this much potential."

Before long, however, things changed. Ordonez never learned to hit. Gonzalez was merely OK. Renteria spent many years in the game as a good but not especially great player. Rodriguez was doomed by accusations of doping. That left Jeter — the most understated of the group, the most professional of the group.

He will be remembered by many people for many things. Among Yankee fans, he's grouped with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle as pinstriped royalty. Among Red Sox fans, he's a thorn to the skull. Among Oakland fans, he's a killer of dreams.

To me, though, he's a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

That's what makes him exceptional.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jeff Pearlman.

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