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2009 SPORTSMAN of the YEAR Derek Jeter
Tom Verducci
December 07, 2009
It is not so much what he accomplished at 35—a fifth World Series ring capping a historic season, to be sure—as how the Yankees' shortstop arrived at his iconic place. Being the ultimate team player and a role model synonymous with winning has brought him still another title:
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December 07, 2009

2009 Sportsman Of The Year Derek Jeter

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The good son loved the parade. He was smiling the whole time, his chest out.

It was a year in full for Jeter. In addition to winning his fifth World Series and breaking Gehrig's team record for hits (and Hall of Famer Luis Aparicio's record for hits by a shortstop), he won his fourth Gold Glove, his fourth Silver Slugger as the premier hitting shortstop in the league, the Roberto Clemente Award for his humanitarian service and the Hank Aaron Award as the fans' choice for the best hitter in the American League.

Jeter batted .334—among shortstops in the last 100 years, only Honus Wagner has hit higher after turning 35—and accumulated 200 hits and 30 stolen bases for the third time; no other shortstop of any age has reached those standards more than once. He hit .407 in the World Series, playing his best baseball at the end of a 10-month, 190-game odyssey that spanned the World Baseball Classic, spring training, the regular season and three rounds of the postseason. Jeter captained the U.S. team in the WBC, after which commissioner Bud Selig sent him a letter of thanks in which he called him "Major League Baseball's foremost champion and ambassador."

"You embody all the best of Major League Baseball," Selig wrote in the March 30 letter. "As I mentioned to you in our recent telephone conversation, you have represented the sport magnificently throughout your Hall of Fame career. On and off the field, you are a man of great integrity, and you have my admiration."

For those achievements, but most especially for the principled, selfless manner in which he earned them, Jeter is SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 2009 Sportsman of the Year. He is the first Yankee to win the award in its 56-year history and only the third baseball player in the past 34 years to win the award alone, joining Orel Hershiser (1988) and Cal Ripken Jr. (1995).

Jeter is an anachronism if you believe that manners and humility, the pillars of sportsmanship, are losing ground in an increasingly stat-obsessed, self-absorbed sporting culture in which the simple act of making a tackle, dunking a basketball or getting a base hit calls for some burlesque act of celebration, a marking of territory for individual purpose. Jeter is the unadorned star, and not only in the literal sense in that he is free of tattoos, piercings, cussing, posses and the other clichés of the big-time-jock starter kit. The actress Kim Basinger once captured the essence of Jeter as well as any scout, telling SI in 1999, "He's a hunk, and I don't even like that word. Women like guys who have a big presence but sort of play it down. It's very appealing."

Such uncalculating humility, alloyed to his formidable skills, is the same attribute that makes Jeter so appealing to teammates and foes alike. There is a natural fluidity to the way Jeter moves about, on the job and off, that puts people at ease. Even at 18, when the Yankees sent him to Instructional League to work on his fielding, Jeter had the ability to establish himself as an alpha male in a pack of ballplayers without having to be muscular about it.

"Right away the players gravitated toward him" says Brian Butterfield, his instructor then and now a Blue Jays coach. "He was well-liked, had a great disposition, a good sense of humor and a smile on his face, but when it got to working, that grin would melt into a serious look. He also had the best aptitude I've been blessed to be around. The stuff we worked on, he picked up so quickly."

Jeter's rare gift as a superstar athlete is that he doesn't so much inspire awe as he engenders comfort. To be around Jeter is to truly believe that things are going to turn out well, whether you are a fan who still wants to believe in the inspirational quality of sports and the people who play them, or a Yankee who wants to believe there is some way back from three runs down, five outs from elimination, against Pedro Martinez in his prime.

"Everything he does has such a grace about it," A's general manager Billy Beane says. "Even now, this last postseason, people would say to me, 'You must be rooting against the Yankees.' But you know, maybe because of Jeter, the Yankees know how to win. It's not an act. The Yankees' brand name in this era is that it is Jeter's era. It's similar to what DiMaggio was in his era."

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