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The more Jeter changes, the more he stays the same

Through 20 seasons and five rings, Jeter is still the same guy he was in 1996
04/07/2014 3:37 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Joe Girardi has known Derek Jeter from the perspective of a teammate and a manager.(AP)
Monday marked Derek Jeter's 19th home opener as a New York Yankee, the "second beginning" of the final chapter of an odyssey that started in Seattle in 1995 and will end wherever the Yankees play their final game of 2014.

But whether it was his debut or his 2,608th game, the first opening day or the last, Joe Girardi says his teammate turned subject has been the same person the whole way.

"From then until now, it seemed like the moment never affected him, no matter the situation," the Yankees skipper said. "He was always the same kid, and he's pretty much remained that way his whole career."

You never get a second chance to make a first impression, but Jeter didn't need more than once to impress the then-starting catcher.

"I was amazed at how relaxed he was at such a young age," Girardi said. "I don't think you can ever imagine someone's going to get more than 3,000 hits when you first see them, but I knew he was very talented, and that he would be a very, very good player when I first watched him."

And that goes along with the poise, professionalism, and balance Jeter has always had when it comes to both leadership and his own performance.

"Watching him as a young kid, the way he played the game and always had so much fun, it was a joy," Girardi said. "He's always been a guy that kept a clubhouse loose and was just really good to be around, but he's also always played the game the right way; it's always been about winning and not about him, and that's what you want from players. He understands the meaning of team and the meaning of championships."

Perhaps that comes from a conversation Jeter had with then-manager Joe Torre shortly after the Yankees won World Series No. 23 in The Captain's first full season. Jeter was a unanimous selection for AL Rookie of the Year in 1996 after hitting .314 with 78 RBI, and he hit .361 in the playoffs en route to winning the first of five (as of now) rings. So much so soon could easily go to anyone's head, but Torre alertly reminded Jeter that success rarely comes that easy and may never come again.

It was a lesson Jeter has never forgotten.

"I came up in a culture where you were never promised a job. We had to perform to keep our job, or else The Boss would get rid of you," Jeter said, referring to then-principal owner George Steinbrenner. "That's the mindset we had every season, so every spring, every off-season, I trained and prepared for the opportunity to win a job, and I've done that every year. I never take anything for granted. I get that I had success as a rookie, but you only get a chance to do this for a short time in your life, so I've always tried to make the most of it."

Fast forward to 2014, and Jeter has one last ride, a final season before he heads off into baseball's sunset. The ceremonies have already begun, starting with a gift presentation in Houston and continuing Monday with a ceremonial first pitch featuring the entire Core Four, and while Jeter said that his farewell tour will be "nothing like Mariano Rivera's" because of their different positions, Girardi is looking forward to seeing if the emotion finally gets to The Captain.

"I think I'm curious how he's going to handle it, and how sentimental he gets about certain things. Something like today, or the last time in a city maybe, I'm curious to see how he handles that. I'm sure he'll take a moment to reflect on that, but will it be visible that he's reflecting on it?"

Jeter will reflect, and admits he'll have emotions - but as is par for the course, he won't get overemotional during what Girardi called a "season-long love-fest."

"Of course (I get excited or nervous,) I just hide it. I'm human; I have butterflies all the time, I've just always been good about trying to control my emotions and not get too high or too low," Jeter said. "There's a lot of 'wow' moments playing here in New York, but for me, I just felt it was always easier to play if I try to control my emotions. I don't know how I'm going to react or feel, but I do understand my priority (is playing games), and that won't change just because it's my last year."

That answer is, as they say, vintage Jeter, who has always been cool as a cucumber in the midst of anything. He may not have changed, at least outwardly, but there is one "change" to the Yankee way that Jeter will always be responsible for, one that was made after the team "snuck up on some people" and won it all in '96.

"When people come here, they know that there's an expectation level here that's all about winning. If you don't get it, you get it quickly," Jeter said. "That may not be different from other organizations; I don't know because I've never played anywhere else. For us here, the ultimate goal is to win a championship and nothing else. I don't know how many people expected us to win (in 1996), but ever since then, that's been it."

The more things change, the more they stay the same, and Jeter's surely not the only one who hopes the "same old situation" lets him leave baseball with his sixth ring and gives the Yankees World Series title number 28.

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