The baseball fan inside me and the Boston Red Sox fan inside me are at war. It’s going nuclear, in the form of heartburn and self-reflection.

I can’t believe I’m saying this. I think I like Derek Jeter.

Well, maybe like is too strong a word, but I certainly don’t hate the guy. I can point to numerous New York Yankees over the years that I’ve just loathed. Greg Nettles, Goose Gossage, Ron Guidry, Reggie Jackson, Dave Righetti, Mickey Rivers, Ricky Henderson, Don Mattingly, Alvaro Espinoza, Paul O’Neil, Jorge Posada . . .

Bucky Dent. He’s despised so much, he gets his own line.

I can’t lump Jeter in with any of them. It’s not for a lack of effort on my part. It’s because of the constant extra effort on his.

You remember Jeter’s play in the 2001 American League Divisional Series against Oakland, when he flipped an awful relay throw to the plate to nail a runner. You remember Jeter diving into the stands to make a catch in the regular season against the Red Sox.

Red Sox fans were left angered and awed by those plays and so many others.

A few years ago, when I played baseball in the Central Maine Men’s Senior Baseball League, I wore No. 2 for the Kennebec Indians. Some players would ask if I wore it in honor of Jeter. I replied honestly, that it was the number I was given when I showed up for the first game. I resented the Jeter implication.

Now I realize there are worse things to emulate.

All Jeter does is hustle and win. It’s the laundry on his back that makes us want to hate him, not his attitude. Alex Rodriguez is that perfect blend of rival and smarmy, and that makes him a perfect villain. Jeter’s not a villain, he’s just the guy on the other team you hope doesn’t come to bat in a key situation.

You never hear any controversy with Jeter, which you’d think is next to impossible in New York. He plays ball. He answers questions. He’s dated a who’s who of hubba hubba. He’s James Bond in those lousy pinstripes.

How does this guy have no MVP awards? Even Juan Gonzalez has two.

Last week, a Harris Poll named Jeter the most popular male athlete in the nation. This wasn’t a case of Jeter riding the wave of his 3,000th hit. According to Harris, the poll was conducted while he was on the disabled list.

I’m not a lone, mad voice in the dark here.

Last Saturday afternoon, when Jeter homered for the 3,000th hit of his career, I was sitting at the bar in the Cask n’ Flagon, yards from Fenway Park. There is not a patch of real estate on the planet more loyal to the Red Sox than the streets of Boston radiating from Fenway Park. This area is the Buckingham Palace of Red Sox Nation.

When Jeter stepped to the plate, the restaurant got quiet, too quiet for a place packed on a game day.

When he hit David Price’s pitch, there was a collective gasp.

When he rounded the bases, there was steady, honest applause.

Fenway Park can cast a shadow on the Cask n’ Flagon’s patio, yet here we were, applauding the captain of the New York Yankees.

You know why? Because Jeter deserves it. If you call yourself a baseball fan and you didn’t clap for Jeter, you have to look inward and decide if you really love the game.

So there, I don’t hate Jeter. I appreciate what he’s done for baseball in a time when it needed somebody to be the face of the game who wasn’t connected to steroids, and who wasn’t as surly as a drop-kicked hornet’s nest.

Jeter transcends that ugly uniform he’s worn his entire career. I watch him play, and think how great he would’ve looked in red socks.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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