Long before Derek Jeter ever dug into the batter's box at Yankee Stadium, raised his right hand and asked the ump for time to settle his spikes, he gave hints of what might come.

He was just a skinny teen, traveling around the mosquito pits of the South Atlantic League, when the rockets coming off his bat won over gruff, older players who were not eager to accept him. Though his 1993 Greensboro Hornets lost the championship in Game 7, his hitting made a mark.

"What everyone saw him doing against Curt Schilling in the World Series, he did a long time ago against Jeff Alkire in the Sally League," teammate Mike Buddie recalled.

Now the rookie who called his manager "Mr. Torre" is the longtime captain of the New York Yankees _ and poised to set a most major record.

In the next week or so, Jeter should pass Lou Gehrig for the most hits in team history. Showing his mettle at 35, Jeter needs only nine to top the Iron Horse's total of 2,721.

"Couldn't happen to a better guy," praised Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller, who served up some of Gehrig's home runs and calls Jeter a pal.

"I knew Lou, I used to go with him and Babe Ruth to some of those rubber-chicken banquets. That movie they made about Lou, it's the best baseball movie ever made. The way they showed him, it was accurate. They didn't show him smoking a few cigarettes in the dugout tunnel in Cleveland like he did, but that's all right," Feller said. "The way he carried himself on and off the field, he did it right. Derek does the same things."

Pride of the Yankees, indeed.

Along the way, Jeter has moved past the likes of Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra on the team charts. Next up, a record destined to last a long, long while.

"I was Yankee fan growing up, so I'm well aware of the history here. It's kind of hard to believe to be that close, you know what I mean?" Jeter said.

Indeed, he's set to overtake the great Gehrig, whose grace and courage and "luckiest man" speech still resonate throughout the game. Feller, in fact, pitched at Yankee Stadium on the day Gehrig was at the Mayo Clinic for tests, the ones that revealed the disease that would later bear his name.

Jeter understands the parallels _ steady leadership, putting the team first, simply playing _ but is reluctant to describe himself that way.

As for the hit record, "I don't think that's anything you think of when you first start playing," Jeter said.

"One, you just want to stay around. Two, you want to have success. More importantly, I think, you just want to be consistent," he said.

Four World Series rings and MVP of the 2000 championship, 10 All-Star selections and three Gold Gloves. The backhanded flip to the plate, the catch and flying leap into the stands. A career .309 postseason average, including the Jeffrey Maier home run. Most hits by a shortstop.

Green eyes that may someday be bronzed on a plaque or monument. Cozy with "Friday Night Lights" actress Minka Kelly. The only player for whom longtime Yankee Stadium announcer Bob Sheppard, absent this year, recorded an introduction: "Deh-rick Jee-tuh."

The captain his teammates call "Jeet" is the center of a long-running fan debate, too, about whether he's the most overrated or underrated player in the majors. This much is certain: Late in his career, he's putting up one of his best offensive seasons.

"I don't know when 35 turned into being old," Jeter said. "I think it's all a mentality. If you tell yourself you're old, then you're going to feel old."

Hitting over .330, Jeter is focused at swinging at more strikes. He went 113 plate appearances without a walk earlier this year, the longest stretch of his career.

While Jeter's plan remains the same _ an inside-out swing to drive the ball the opposite way, a quick pass to pull _ his family encouraged him to change his approach toward his accomplishments.

"I've been told to really try to appreciate it," he said.

Jeter still chats to kids when he's in the on-deck circle and winks for pictures. Waiting to hit last week, he deftly plucked a foul ball as it ricocheted off the backstop and handed the souvenir to a giddy young girl.

He's always been one of the most popular Yankees, though his career didn't start so well.

Jeter went 0 for 5 in his major league debut, batting ninth in a 12-inning loss at Seattle on May 29, 1995. His first year was Don Mattingly's last.

"He came highly touted _ obviously, a No. 1 pick, and all that kind of stuff _ but not like a Straw. When Straw came to New York, it was like: 'Darryl Strawberry hits balls 500 feet!'" recalled Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodgers' batting coach. "But Derek is the kind of guy who you see day in and day out and you say, 'Wow, this guy's good.'"

"I think if somebody's going to go out and knock Gehrig off," he said, Jeter "deserves it."

Dodgers manager Joe Torre guided Jeter for more than a decade. Still close, Torre sent Jeter a text message last weekend.

"He won Rookie of the Year in '96, won a World Series, playing for the New York Yankees, single, 22 years old in '97," Torre said. "I remember calling him in and having a talk with him about his priorities. He looks me right in the eye and says: 'I know.' And he did."

To Torre, one hit by Jeter stands out.

"Going into Game 4 of the World Series in 2000 against the Mets, I put him in the leadoff spot and I told him we need to get back on the right track. He says: 'I got 'em.' First pitch of the game, home run. We won that game, won the next game, and the rest is history," he said.

"I've had a lot of pretty good players playing for me, and I hate to say somebody's the best. But I don't think there's anybody better," Torre said.

There are those who disagree. Vehemently.

Hall of Famer Jim Rice recently took a shot. Talking about players who were too concerned about individual goals and big contracts and couldn't compare to guys in his era, Rice mentioned Jeter.

"I didn't know I was like that," Jeter responded.

Some fans _ and not just those in Boston or in Queens _ say Jeter is lucky to play for a team that outspends everyone else. Several studies ranked him among the worst defensive shortstops in the majors.

Jeter's trademark jump throws from the hole have been on-target, but grabbing grounders up the middle is hardly a strength.

Lyle Spatz is a longtime member of the Society for American Baseball Research, and a Yankees fan.

"There's a split. Some go strictly by formulas. Is it true they show Jeter gets to fewer balls? Yes, it is," he said. "But if I had a game to win, I'd want Jeter out there. There's no way to measure that."

As a hitter, Spatz draws another comparison: Roberto Clemente.

In most major batting categories, Jeter and the Pittsburgh Hall of Famer are amazingly close. Jeter was nominated this week by the Yankees for the Roberto Clemente Award that honors excellence on and off the field _ on that day, their career averages both stood at .317.

Jeter's chance to pass Gehrig could come at Yankee Stadium. New York plays a four-game series at Toronto, then returns for a long homestand.

"I'm pretty sure a lot of people aren't even aware of it. I mean opposing fans, I would think," he said. "I don't know how many Blue Jay fans will be aware of something like that. I don't know, I'm just guessing."

___

AP Baseball Writer Mike Fitzpatrick and AP freelance writer Pete Kerzel in Baltimore contributed to this report.