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Yankees star Derek Jeter embodies everything fans love about baseball

The Cubs’ StarlCastro gives Yankees’ Derek Jeter scoreboard plate with Jeter’s number it last week Wrigley Field. | AP

The Cubs’ Starlin Castro gives the Yankees’ Derek Jeter a scoreboard plate with Jeter’s number on it last week at Wrigley Field. | AP

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Updated: June 26, 2014 6:25AM

My kids knew I never told them anything that wasn’t true, so their reaction was rather quizzical one afternoon when I declared Caldwell Jones my favorite NBA player after the sports segment of a slow-news-day radio report led with an announcement of his retirement.

Caldwell Jones? He didn’t even go to Marquette.

He didn’t, but Jones’ departure, at 40, meant there was no longer a player in the NBA older than I was. His age was the source of my affinity.

Junior Griffey’s leave-taking several years later hit harder. His father, Ken Griffey Sr., is exactly my age, and I’d been around him some as a baseball writer as he moved from the Reds to the Yankees to the Braves in the ’80s. In this business, nothing says ‘‘old-timer’’ or ‘‘gramps’’ like the realization that the sons of guys you covered are packing it in.

A few weeks back, my buddy Rick Morrissey observed that becoming a sportswriter knocks the fan out of you pretty quickly. Too true. You ‘‘root’’ for fast games, intriguing storylines and decent access, then you do the best you can.

Occasionally, though, performance overwhelms objectivity. Roll your eyes if I use Michael Jordan as an example, but he was 18-year-old freshman Mike Jordan, an afterthought on a loaded North Carolina team, until injury and foul trouble cast him as a go-to guy 32 years ago in a first-round game of the Cable Car Classic in Santa Clara, California. MJ responded with one of the most electrifying, refuse-to-lose performances I have witnessed.

Hundreds more would follow, of course, most involving much higher stakes. But 4,500 people left Toso Pavilion that night believing we were on to something, and history tells us we were.

I wasn’t present at the creation of Derek Jeter, but the way he has played and comported himself during the last 20 years turned me into an admirer.

Jeter was a month shy of 40 as six games in Chicago this week brought him closer to the end of the line, and there was a certain wistfulness to the acknowledgments and the ovations. The Yankees’ captain is one of those forever-young types, who in the mind’s eye always will be a 22-year-old earning the first of his five World Series rings in 1996; or a 27-year-old saving the Yankees’ postseason with an ingenious flip home in the 2001 American League Division Series against the Oakland Athletics; or a 32-year-old with 214 hits, 56 extra-base hits, 97 RBI and a .343/.417/.483 slash line in his MVP runner-up season in 2006.

Beyond the numbers, though, was something intangible. The approach. The consistency. The presence. The results. The impervious disregard for the whole New York thing, yet somehow emerging as the quintessential Yankee.

Close to 700 men are drawing big-league paychecks as this is written, but only a few of them embody the hard-to-quantify traits that a true ballplayer brings to the game.

Billy Williams defined the term as I was growing up. In the years I covered baseball, George Brett did. In my post-Caldwell Jones dotage,
it’s Jeter.

He has looked 40 during his final Chicago visit, collecting five singles in 23 at-bats and not really driving anything. But that’s how season
No. 20 has gone: 37 of Jeter’s 42 hits are singles, and his slash line is a modest .259/.330/.302.

But he’s hardly a ceremonial talisman. Jeter was at short for 13 innings of a day game after a night game Wednesday at Wrigley Field, and he declined to answer a curtain call because the Yankees trailed the Cubs 2-0 when it was issued.

Some within the analytics crowd dismiss Jeter as a puffed-up product of New York hype. Those singles are an insufficient offering at the altar of slugging percentage, he has made a ton of outs and there’s a metric that insists his fielding has gone from average to abysmal as his range has declined.

Maybe he’s not nimble enough to make the uncannily astute flip play that turned the 2001 ALDS around, but something a scout said about Jeter a few years back still applies:

With two runners on base and two outs in the eighth inning of a one-run game, to whom do you want the ball hit?

In the same scenario, whom do you want at the plate?

If Jeter was your answer to both questions, you wouldn’t be wrong.

He reminds us why we love baseball every time he takes the field. There’s no metric for it, but there’s value in that.

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