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Two Sportsmen: Jeter and Woods

December 5, 2009, 1:44 AM UTC

“He is a role model not only for how to play baseball but also for how to remain atop the wobbly pedestal of fame.”

Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci, who wrote this week’s cover story about Derek Jeter, captain of the world-champion New York Yankees and SI‘s 2009 Sportsman of the Year.

Kudos to Jeter. He stands in stark contrast to the only athlete in history who has received SI‘s highest honor twice. That would be Tiger Woods, Sportsman of the Year in 1996 and in 2000.

Until this week, it seemed that Tiger and Jeter have a lot in common. They’re both sponsored by Procter & Gamble’s Gillette and Pepsico’s Gatorade. Both have lavish Florida homes. Now we learn that they even share friends: The New York Post reported today that Tiger met Rachel Uchitel–the woman who sparked the controversy over his extramarital liaisons–at Jeter’s Trump World Plaza apartment in Manhattan.

I’ve taken particular interest in TigerGate (more than most people, I bet) because I interviewed Tiger last fall in Asheville, North Carolina, near the site of his first North American course design. It was a thrill. Especially since I had recently left a post at Travel+Leisure Golf magazine to join Fortune. I grew up playing golf. I also went to high school across the street from Stanford when Tiger was a student there and on the verge of becoming a phenomenon.

Am I surprised by the stories about Tiger? Yes. Not that he was capable of the behavior that’s been reported, but that he acted that way and got caught. Tiger, after all, is all about control. He doesn’t use Twitter. He doesn’t get involved in politics. He guards his privacy and his image so fiercely that he wouldn’t even tell me which business greats he most admires.

Now the stories swirling around him deprive him of his precious control.

Back to Jeter, another paragon of discipline and focus–as Pattie wrote in a recent post about “situational awareness.” As SI crowns the Yankee shortstop this year’s model sportsman and we hold him up as one of our earthly gods, let’s not forget that he’s human too.

And let’s recognize that one of the reasons we like Jeter so much is because he too seems to know that he’s human. He tells SI: “What makes me angry is when people don’t care–not when they fail; everybody fails–or when people act like they don’t care.” He’s not perfect, and he understands the responsibility he carries. “You have one opportunity to do something,” he says, “and you never know if you’re going to get that opportunity again.”