By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - From an era of muscle-bound sluggers tarnished by doping scandals, Derek Jeter emerged as a symbol of what is good in baseball, the ultimate winner of his generation.
Jeter will play his last regular season home game in the Bronx on Thursday in what is sure to be an emotional night for a player about to take his place in the pantheon of Yankee greats alongside Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle.
Beyond Jeter's all-round on-field ability, the 14-time All-Star is admired for the way he played the game, how he carried himself and the dignity with which he represented the sport.
Some consider the classy shortstop not only the face of the New York Yankees, but of all Major League Baseball.
"He is the walking example of what's good in baseball," said Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona, former skipper of New York's bitter rivals, the Red Sox.
Jeter, 40, played in the shadow of splashier figures of the day including Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Yankees teammate Alex Rodriguez, who dominated attention as they set or threatened cherished home run records.
But while they all fell from grace through association with performance enhancing drugs, Jeter's steady, honest brilliance endeared him to fans.
Unlike the sluggers, Jeter was not known for blasting prodigious home runs from the middle of the order.
Jeter won five World Series with an uncanny consistency, both at the plate and at shortstop, and with rock-solid leadership as the franchise's longest-reigning captain with an 11-year tenure.
He has a career batting average of .309 over more than 11,000 regular season at-bats, and hit at a .308 clip in the postseason with an MLB record 200 hits, 72 more than the next-best on the list.
Jeter seemed to treat every at-bat the same, refusing to buckle or press under pressure. He will retire at the end of this his 20th season sixth on MLB's all-time hits list.
"I think the most amazing thing about Derek is his ability to relax in every moment," said manager Joe Girardi. "No matter what the situation is, he's always been able to relax."
Jeter, whose even-tempered demeanor never wavered on the field or in the clubhouse, often rose to the occasion in critical times earning him the nickname "Captain Clutch."
With the Yankees facing elimination in their 2001 Division Series and holding a 1-0 seventh-inning lead against the Oakland A's, Jeter made what is known as "The Flip."
Jeter dashed across the diamond to corral a wayward throw from the outfield and made a backhand flip on the run to catcher Jorge Posada who tagged out a stunned Jeremy Giambi, who figured he did not have to slide into the plate. The Yankees advanced.
In a series against the rival Red Sox in 2004, Jeter raced after a 12th inning pop up behind third base, and with no regard to safety, caught it near the stands on the dead run and went flying head first into the seats.
Jeter, a five-time Gold Glove winner for fielding, emerged bloodied and bruised with cuts on his face, but with the ball in what came to be called "the Dive."
Jeter earned another moniker during the 2001 World Series - "Mr November."
The postseason started later than usual because of a stretch of games scrubbed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
When the clock crossed midnight during Game Four of the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, it became the first MLB game ever played in November. Moments later Jeter smacked a 10th-inning, walk-off home run for a victory and a new nickname.
Jeter rose again majestically in 2011 when he homered for his 3,000th career hit in a game in which he further enthralled Yankee Stadium fans by going 5-for-5 including a game-winning single against Tampa Bay in the eighth inning.
Jeter's parents have cheered him on from a Yankee Stadium suite and they can be proud of their own role in instilling such self-assurance in their son.
His father, Sanderson Charles Jeter, Ph.D., a substance abuse counselor, is African American. His mother, Dorothy, who is an accountant, is of Irish and German descent. They met while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany.
The green-eyed Jeter grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and was drafted by the Yankees out of high school with the sixth draft pick of 1992.
He made his major league debut in 1995 and took over at shortstop as the 1996 Rookie of the Year, helping the Yanks win their first World Series in 18 years.
The Yankees reached the postseason in his first 13 seasons and 17 times overall.
"Everybody wants to be a home run hitter and get the glory. He was a table setter. He made things happen,” said Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.
"You’re going to see the end of an era. A guy who played at the top of his game for a long time for a winning organization and came through when it counted. You won’t see it again in this generation."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)