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Aging Gracefully

August 9, 2008 - John Whittaker

When Ken Griffey Jr. slid across home plate with the winning run of the 1995 American League Division Series, I cried.

I knew an era was over, that Don Mattingly, my favorite player since I was 7 and started really watching baseball, was going to retire.

There I was, a 19-year-old college freshman, sitting in the lounge of my dorm, tears welling up in my eyes. I knew, even though he hadn't announced it formally, that Mattingly was going to retire. He'd hinted at it. He'd beaten around the bush. His power was sapped by back injuries and his batting average had fallen off since hitting .303 in 1989 (though he did hit .304 in the strike-shortened 1994 season). Critics said the Yanks were better off without him. Sure enough, the Yankees worked out a trade for Tino Martinez to replace Donnie.

It was an offensive upgrade, and the Yankees won a lot of games with Tino, but I still hated to see Donnie go. He was my guy.

With that in mind, I'll never forget the 1996 season opener. Sitting in a dining hall on campus, I watched a skinny shortstop, playing in his first season opener, make a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch to help keep the game against Cleveland scoreless. Then, he stepped up to the plate and drilled a home run.

I'd found my new favorite player.

Derek Jeter didn’t disappoint then, and he hasn't for 14 years.

Now, though, that 22-year-old kid is a 34-year-old veteran with four World Series championship rings who has grown from a promising rookie into the captain of the team. It's been a great ride with Jeter, one that, as a fan, I wouldn't trade.

It kills me, then, to hear people saying the Yankees would be better off with Jeter playing someplace else. I fell asleep the other night with the YESNetwork on. I woke up to a replay of Mike and the Maddog and heard callers saying the Yankees should have traded Jeter. It popped up on ESPN the other day, too.

For 14 seasons, he's hit second in the lineup, sacrificing personal statistics for the good of the team. It grinds my gears to hear people say Jeter should hit lower in the lineup. He's made unbelievable plays in the field, but all anyone talks about is how little defensive range Jeter has and the plays he doesn' t make.

For most Yankees fans, we've seen Jeter play enough, seen him on TV enough, read enough about him, that we know as much about him as we do most members of our own families. Yeah, we take it a little far, but it's hard not to get attached. After all, the guy's in our living room 130 nights a year. I don't see my mother as often as I see Jeter on TV.

Players get old. They gain weight. They get slower, hit with less power, cover less ground. That's the way of life. We all go through it. I've gained 50 pounds since high school. My bald spot's getting bigger. I was never fast - now, my 40-yard-dash time is positively glacier-like. We've seen it with Jeter, too. He's been rolling over pitches lately, hitting into a lot of double plays. You don't see that jump throw from the shortstop hole as often as you used to. Balls he used to reach with ease now trickle under his glove.

Instead of knowing Jeter will get a key hit with that inside-out swing in the late innings, you stare at the TV, hands clenched almost like you're praying, hoping that Jeter comes through, just like he did so many times before. More often than not -- especially in a game built upon failure like baseball is -- he doesn't.

The Case For Jeter

Here are three incontrovertible facts people should keep in mind before they boo Jeter, or argue that he should be traded:

1. Jeter is still better, at 34 and with a lot of mileage on his tires, than most shortstops playing in the big leagues. If you have to take the choice of Jeter or the midget-like David Eckstein, the Julio Lugo/Jed Lowrie poo-poo platter in Boston, the anemic Juan Castro/Alex Cintron in Baltimore or Jason Bartlett/Ben Zobrist in Tampa Bay, can you honestly tell me you're not taking Jeter? That's what I thought. The Yankees have a lot of problems, but shortstop isn't one of them.

2. Jeter has been involved in as many important plays in Yankees history as almost any other player. Just count them: The Flip in Oakland, 2000 World Series MVP, was 1996 Rookie of the Year in a year filled with huge plays, the game-tying homer in Game 1 of the 1996 ALDS, that diving catch into the third-base seats against Boston in July 2004 where Jeter's face was cut up like he was a professional boxer, the first November homer in World Series history in 2001. I think Jeter has earned a little leeway. After all, the Yankees don't win those four rings without Jeter on the team. He was that important. (For a nice run-down of these events, and a great defense of The Captain, check out Mark Feinsand's blog Wednesday in the New York Daily News at www.nydailynews.com and searching for Mark Feinsand)

3. Jeter will be the first Yankees player to reach 3,000 hits (all with the Yankees) and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Right now, he has 2,481 hits. He's scored 1,443 runs. He's a multiple-time Gold Glove winner. Even in a "down" season, he's hitting .285 with 7 homers and 55 RBI. He's on base 34 percent of the time. He's done everything right. You never heard about Jeter being involved with steroids. He might like the night life in New York City, but there haven't been any out-of-wedlock kids or domestic incidents tied to Jeter. He handles his job and his life with the utmost professionalism. If you want your kid to be any big league ballplayer, you'd want him to be Derek Jeter.

Where Do We Go Now?

We've established why Derek Jeter deserves respect. Where do we go now, though? As much as I hate to go here, in part because I couldn't stand Pedro Martinez, Bill Simmons gives a nice roadmap for Yankees fans to follow with Jeter.

You see, for all the years the Yankees were beating Pedro and the Sox, Martinez was the most dominant pitcher in the league. The only way the Yankees beat him was to watch pitches, be patient and get him out of the game. Then, the Yanks would beat up on Boston's bullpen. Here are a couple of links if you're curious about Bill Simmons' and his man-love for Pedro Martinez: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/070926 and http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/020402.

As time passed, gradually, Pedro lost those magic bullets that made the Sports Guy write in such effusive terms (I'll wait while you get out your dictionary). If everybody's back, we'll continue. He was still effective. He could still get people out, just not with the flair that he did in his prime, when he was Pantheon Pedro. Simmons wrote that he would watch games hoping for the old Pedro, that maybe, for a few innings, that knee-buckling curve, the time-stopping change-up or the blazing fastball would come back.

Yankees fans, never mistaken for patient to begin with, once booed Jeter after he got off to a rough start hitting .120 something in late April one season. That was ridiculous -- almost as bad as Philadelphia fans booing Santa Claus in the 1970s or cheering as Michael Irvin was laid out on the turf one day at the end of his cocaine, booze, gambling and stripper-filled career, his career and ability to walk in doubt.

It's time to sit back and appreciate what you've got, and what Jeter's done in his career. Like Pedro, Pantheon Jeter is gone. Truth is, he's been gone for a while. Instead of booing, instead of dismissing all the great things he's done for the Yankees and its fans, it's time to cheer a little louder, to hope a little harder that the old Jeter will show up.

The Yankees have made the playoffs in every one of Jeter's 14 seasons. If they're going to make it this year, Pantheon Jeter will have to make a reappearance. The pitching isn't there this year for the offense to struggle and for the defense not to shorten games. To win, to even have a chance to win, the Yankees need to see Jeter making that jump throw, lacing those line drives to right field with runners on base, taking the extra base when he can, stealing his way into scoring position and making those defensive plays that nobody else ever makes.

If he can't, it means another era -- Jeter's era, the era of high expectations and even higher achievement -- is coming to a close.

 
 

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Blog Photos

Derek Jeter dives into the stands in a 2004 game against the Boston Red Sox - one of my all-time favorite Jeter moments.