That's life in the big city, but for Jeter it's a mere speck of lint on his red carpet. The handsome, personable and relentlessly polite baseball star, who turns 25 on June 26, is bigger than Austin Powers. Driving to Yankee Stadium he's occasionally pulled over by cops asking for his autograph. When he comes to bat, teenage girls shriek as if he were a Beatle landing in the U.S. 35 years ago. Gossip columnists, still frothing over Jeter's past romance with pop diva Mariah Carey, document his every social step—and some he's never taken.
In only his fourth full major league season, Jeter is New York's most adored ballplayer in at least a decade, possibly since Reggie Jackson led the Yankees to back-to-back world championships in the late '70s. Anointed by Michael Jordan as his Air Apparent at Nike—he signed a lucrative deal with Jordan's new brand within a brand—Jeter, by virtue of his performance, personality, looks and location, is positioned for megastardom.
"If you're looking for complaints, I don't have any," he says. "O.K., the traffic here is a pain, but other than that, I'm living a dream. I think I'm the luckiest person in the world."
If he sounds suspiciously like Lou Gehrig, it's appropriate. While most of New York's sports superstars have modeled themselves on fun-loving, cocksure Babe Ruth—from Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath to Jackson and Lawrence Taylor—Jeter springs from the Gehrig branch of the family tree, emulating the Yankee slugger's graceful, understated dignity. Shy and protective of his image, Jeter is accessible to fans and the press but keeps a small circle of close friends. He has been embraced by celebrity more than he has embraced it.
Gotham's love for this bat man is reciprocated. "This is the greatest city in the world," Jeter says as he peers out toward the East River from the living room of his Upper East Side apartment. "You always hear players say, 'I'd never play in New York.' I don't understand why you'd say that—unless you're afraid to fail."
Not much chance of that happening to Jeter. In 1996 he became the first rookie in 34 years to start at shortstop for the Yankees, won Rookie of the Year honors and hit .361 in the postseason. Last season he finished third in the American League MVP balloting, and the Yankees won their second World Series in three years. This season he's one of the league's most productive players. At week's end he ranked second in batting (.380), tied for first in hits (89), tied for fourth in runs (54), first in triples (seven) and second in on-base percentage (.471), and his power numbers—11 homers, 43 RBIs, .658 slugging percentage—were well up from last year, when he finished with 19 homers and 84 RBIs in 149 games. He reached base at least once in each of the Yankees' first 53 games and, with his exceptional range in the field, made enough sensational plays to more than compensate for his eight errors. (He had nine last season, a career low.)
Jeter's early MVP candidacy has been endorsed by another heavy hitter: the Seattle Mariners' Alex Rodriguez, who with 42 homers last season set an American League record for shortstops. Rodriguez, 23, who missed all but two games in the first five weeks of this season with a knee injury, seems to have been indirectly responsible for his good friend Jeter's power surge. "A friendly rivalry can motivate you," Rodriguez says.
Says Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner, "I thought A-Rod was way ahead of Jeter, that he was always going to be a better [all-around] player. But now Jeter has come on and caught him."
Jeter, who owns a home near the Yankees' training facility in Tampa, spent much of the off-season lifting weights and fine-tuning his swing. During a three-game series with the Mariners during the weekend of May 7-9, as the rehabbing Rodriguez watched from the visitors' dugout at Yankee Stadium, Jeter showed off his new muscle. He smacked a three-run homer on Friday night and then, in the first inning of the Yankees' victory on Sunday, drove a 1-1 fastball from lefthander Jeff Fassero 430 feet over the fence in left centerfield. That game featured a typical display of Jeter's all-around excellence: He singled to lead off the fifth inning and promptly stole second, and in the seventh he deftly stabbed a sharp grounder to start an inning-ending double play. But it was the homer that stood out.
"That's a pitch that in the past I wouldn't have hit for a home run," the budding slugger said the next day as he scarfed down chicken parmigiana at an Italian restaurant. "I've learned to turn on the ball a little more. I used to inside-out a lot of balls to rightfield, but now I drive them using more of my top hand. In the off-season I worked with our minor league coaches and changed some things mechanically. But my body is still maturing, and I have a long way to go in terms of strength. I'm not trying to hit 42 home runs this year, that's for sure."