Rookie jitters? Ancient history for Jeter

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Derek Jeter had choked, simple as that. That was the easy angle, anyway. In his first playoff game in 1996, against these same Texas Rangers, Jeter popped up with the bases loaded and left six men stranded across a lost night in the Bronx.

People were calling the shortstop a lot of things back then, and Mr. November sure wasn't one of them.

The 22-year-old kid was surrounded at his postgame locker, his interrogators ditching their cameras and notebooks for pitchforks and torches. They wanted to know why Jeter had just let down more than 57,000 firsthand witnesses.

On Oct. 1, they wanted to know if the Rookie of the Year planned on being the Bum of the Month.

"All I can do is forget about it," Jeter said that night. "You can't sit here and dwell on it. ... You've got to let it go."

Joe Torre was a rookie, too, at least as a Yankee. He knew Jeter had batted .314 in the regular season, and he knew the rookie had carried himself from April through September with the dignity and poise of a 12-year vet.

But Torre didn't know if the big-city burdens of October would suddenly make his shortstop wish he was back playing Wiffle ball in Kalamazoo. Until the manager heard a familiar voice at his office door.

"Make sure you get your sleep tonight," Jeter told him. "Tomorrow is the most important game of your life."

Yes, the kid was going to be all right.

Jeter gave Torre three hits in Game 2 and scored the winning run on a throwing error in the 12th. When the AL Division Series moved to The Ballpark in Arlington, an arena known as Arlington Cemetery to the Yankees teams that couldn't win there, Torre promoted Jeter from ninth in the order to leadoff.

The shortstop honored that faith with a huge ninth-inning hit in Game 3, leading the Yankees to a breathless comeback victory. Jeter finished with a .412 batting average and his first of a staggering 21 postseason series victories in his career, a number expected to grow to 22 against a Texas franchise hoping against hope to win its second.

Jeter 21, Rangers 1 demands the application of the mercy rule. It's a long Texas mile from Jeter 1, Rangers 0 of 14 years ago.

"I can't even remember the late '90s," Jeter said Thursday. He was asked if he at least recalled his Game 1 struggles and the comic overreaction to them.

"What did I do?" he asked.

Popped up with the bases loaded and left six runners stranded, he was told.

"Really?" he said. "Well, I still do that now. If you do it in your first playoff series, they say you're struggling and you put too much pressure on yourself. I don't really pay any attention to that."

Just as he's never paid any attention to the high postseason stakes that often leave the mightiest of summertime sluggers cowering in their cleats.

"The greatest thing about Jeter," Alex Rodriguez said Thursday, "is he treats Game 7 of the World Series the same way as the first game of spring training, literally. I've never seen a player quite like that.

"He's Mr. Simplicity. He keeps it as simple as possible. All players can learn something from Jeter, because he's a master at it."

The master is 36 now, working on his sixth championship and still believing -- somewhere in the back of his beautiful baseball mind -- that he has a shot to match Yogi Berra's record of 10.

Jeter wants to play into his 40s, but he's got a new contract to score first. A big October/November -- and he's off to a decent start -- won't hurt him in the negotiating room, not after his regular-season numbers did him no financial favors.

But Jeter is the ultimate money player who doesn't play for money. That's why the Yankees would jump into a hot tub time machine and sign the 10-year, $189 million deal all over again.

Why has Jeter saved so many of his best moments for the biggest stages and the brightest lights? "I've always tried to treat playoff games like they're regular-season games," the shortstop said.

Texas manager Ron Washington understands. The Rangers don't have a single player who was around for Jeter's first postseason victory here in '96, but Washington played a pivotal role in Jeter's most famous October play of all.

The flip play in Oakland, Game 3, 2001 ALDS, Yanks on the brink of elimination. Washington was the unfortunate third-base coach who waved Jeremy Giambi home.

"I made the right decision sending him, too," Washington said.

Giambi didn't slide, and Jeter and Jorge Posada didn't flinch. Washington shouted a profanity at Giambi in the dugout, and the A's lost in five.

Nine years later, Jeter can still win a postseason game with his intangible grace, and with his spectacular talent for treating the American League Championship Series like a split-squad scrimmage in March.

"This is fun," Jeter said of the postseason. "This is why you play."

The shortstop was so concerned about the identity of his opponent in this ALCS, so concerned about the specter of Cliff Lee, that he didn't even bother to watch the Game 5 between Texas and Tampa Bay.

Jeter was out eating dinner at the time, and that's OK. Experience tells him his Yankees will eat the Texas Rangers for lunch.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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