TAMPA — Derek Jeter sounded as if the next party he wanted to attend was a New York Yankees’ World Series celebration.
“Now, everywhere I go, people will ask you, ‘Are you partying too much?’ That’s the No. 1 question that I get,” he said.
Just two hours after officially reporting for spring training Monday, the star shortstop planted himself in the dugout at Legends Field, and said he wanted to put owner George Steinbrenner’s controversial comments behind.
Flashing those neon-white teeth, and shaking his head repeatedly with an aw-shucks expression, the five-time All-Star said he was irritated not at the Boss for questioning his focus in public, but with the New York Daily News for running a “PARTY ON” backpage headline that portrayed him as a king of the night rather than prince of the Bronx.
Clearly, he wasn’t having a ball since that headline hit the newsstands
“The No. 1 concern I had is I didn’t want Yankee fans to be thinking that I could care less whether we win or lose,” he said.
“The way it was painted was that I’ve lost focus and I’m going to continue to indulge in New York City nightlife and things like that, so that’s when I felt the need to say something.”
Since he became the Yankees’ shortstop in 1996, he has been collecting rings as fast as Tiffany & Co.’s best customers, winning four World Series titles and five AL pennants in his first six seasons.
An All-Star game and World Series MVP and a former AL Rookie of the Year.
Handsome, personable and wealthy, actresses and models on his arms at public events.
Praised by his manager, respected by his teammates and feared by opponents.
Now sitting in the dugout, wearing a navy T-shirt and shorts, he was surrounded by 10 television cameras and so many reporters that it looked like the scene before a postseason game.
For 30 minutes, Jeter defended his professionalism, sounding as if the events of the last few weeks had wounded his pride.
Criticize his stats, he said, but not his effort. Steinbrenner questioned his “focus,” something the Boss has repeatedly told him since Jeter was a rookie, worried that off-field activities would detract from on-field performance. Jeter was “confused” by those comments, but not taken aback.
The Daily News headline got under his skin.
“I think I’ve been pretty responsible so far,” Jeter said. “I’ve always been that way, regardless if I played professional baseball or not.
“I’m going to continue to do the things I’ve done in the past. I don’t believe I’ve caused any problems. I don’t see a reason to change. If I changed, then that would seem like I was doing something wrong.”
Perhaps Steinbrenner shouldn’t believe everything he reads in the gossip columns.
“He must be a big fan,” Jeter said with a laugh.
Yes, Jeter’s stats declined since 1999. Part of it, he says, could have been caused by a shoulder injury that prevented him from doing upper-body work in 2001 and 2002.
As long as the Yankees were winning pennants and World Series, his numbers didn’t provoke Steinbrenner.
But following the Yankees’ first-round elimination by Anaheim in the playoffs, the Boss couldn’t hold it in, returning to the blustery remarks that marked the tumultuous teams of Billy Martin, Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson.
No matter how disappointed Steinbrenner was in Jeter, the shortstop said he was more disappointed.
“I’m my biggest critic. No one gets on me harder than I do,” Jeter said. “Numbers-wise, yeah, I would love to hit .400. I would love to hit 70 home runs. I’d love to drive in 200 runs. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I would like to do those things, and I set my goals pretty high.”
Steinbrenner said the 28-year-old Jeter still wasn’t ready to become the team’s first captain since Don Mattingly retired in 1995. Jeter didn’t sound that concerned.
“If you ask every person that ever played baseball, they would love to be a team captain,” Jeter said, “but that’s something that’s entirely up to him.”
Joe Torre said he didn’t “think it’s necessary to have a team captain.”
And what would change the manager’s mind?
“If the owner feels we need one,” Torre said dutifully.
Jeter’s teammates have come to his defense, saying they’ve seen no evidence that he needs to focus more. Players think this story is more about tabloid headlines than reality.
“He conducts himself in a Yankee manner, clean cut, never gets into trouble,” Bernie Williams said. “You don’t see him in the paper, people bailing him out of jail. He just goes about his job, day in, day out, and plays hard. That’s all you can ask of a player.”
Jeter, a veteran of far more titles than most major leaguers see, knows how to end all the talk.
For him, the solution is so simple.
“The only way to stop it is to win,” he said. “That’s it. That’s the bottom line.”