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Waiting For Derek Jeter To Break Out

April 22, 2011 - John Whittaker
Coming out of spring training in 1996, the New York Yankees were trying out a new shortstop after Tony Fernandez was lost for the season.

All you read during spring training was how Yankees front office personnel — usually on the George Steinbrenner side of the Yankees' front office — weren't sure this skinny kids who had made a ton of errors a couple of years ago in the minor leagues was ready to start on Opening Day.

So, from my seat in the college food court, I settled in to watch the Yankees open the 1996 season against Cleveland.

Dennis Martinez was pitching for Cleveland, and the Yankees were clinging to a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning when Jeter came to the plate and drilled a home run to left field to give the Yankees some breathing room. Then, in the seventh, with David Cone starting to tire, Jeter ranged into shallow centerfield to make a lunging catch to get Cone out of the inning.

For me, the timing was perfect.

Don Mattingly, my favorite player when I was growing up, had retired the previous year after making his only trip to the postseason, which meant I needed a new favorite player. It was only natural that Jeter, a rookie in his first opening day start, would stand out. Throughout that first season, he kept hitting, slapping hits to right field and playing the kind of steady defense that kept him in the lineup even when went through slumps. He cemented his status as the Yankees' most important player by hitting .412 and .417 in his first two postseason series, including the ALCS Game 1 homer in the eighth inning against Baltimore.

It doesn't seem possible that, 17 seasons later, Jeter is closing in on 3,000 hits. It also doesn't seem possible for that skinny kid, full of the promise and exuberance of youth, to be slowing down.

Jeter slumped a little last year, his batting average falling to .270 and with more and more whispers about Jeter's lack of range at shortstop. He's not exactly off to confidence-inspiring start either — .219 batting average, .282 on-base percentage and 1 extra-base hit in 64 at-bats. He's following the pre-steroid era career arch — mercurial early years, plateau and decline.

Here's the beautiful thing about sports.

I know Jeter's on the downside of his career. My head knows that, chances are, if he comes up with runners on base and two out, the Yankees aren't scoring in that inning. The ball that he used to smoke for a line drive will probably be a dribbled ground ball to shortstop now. My head knows that a ball hit up the middle is probably dribbling through the infield rather than finding its way into Jeter's glove, that what was an out 5 years ago will be a hit today.

But that knowledge doesn't stop me from hoping Jeter will come through in those situations. Like that college freshman in 1996, I'm ready for Jeter to come through like he has so many times in the past 17 years. With a runner on second, I can't help myself from thinking that Jeter's going to take an outside fastball and line it over the second baseman's head and drive the run in. When he dives for a ball up the middle, I keep thinking he'll snare it in the webbing of his glove, scramble to his feet and fire to first, barely getting the runner, just like I've seen him do for the bulk of my adult life.

That's why I'm not screaming blood murder about a guy hitting second in the lineup with a. 219 average. It's why the 4 RBIs aren't ticking me off. It's why I find myself saying, 'It's alright, D' when he can't quite come up with a ball at shortstop that he should have had.

When I see Jeter now, I still see him as that thin, lanky 22-year-old kid bounding off the field after the Yankees won the 1996 World Series. I still fancy myself that skinny kid watching Opening Day back in Meadville, Pa., over a hamburger and french fries.

I know I'm getting old, and I have a feeling Jeter sees Father Time sneaking over his shoulder, too, as much as he would never admit it publicly.

Just take a look at your batting average, Derek, and answer me one question.

It's hell getting old, ain't it?

Last Week's Record: 3-2. Division Standing Through 16 games: 10-6, First in American League East.

What I Liked This Week Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon. I swear it's 1998 — maybe the News Wife and I stumbled onto a Dodge Stratus that is actually a time machine. Seriously, who else saw a six-inning, two-hit performance coming from Garcia on Saturday? It's only one start, and you don't want to get too excited, but if Garcia is half of what he showed in his first start, the Yankees don't have to worry about the fifth starter spot. As for El Burrito Grande, well, Wednesday's start was about what you've come to expect from him this year. He's a bit prone to spinning a bad breaking ball early, but he'll keep you in the game. What was really encouraging was that, through 6.2 innings, he had thrown only about 75 pitches. I'm waiting to see if the league catches up to him, but so far, so good.

I'm still a bit skeptical on Curtis Granderson, but the Yankees would be lost without him right now. His batting average is up to .273, which I don't expect to hold up all season, but he's popping home runs and actually hitting well against lefthanders, raking southpaws for a .353 batting average and three of his six home runs. Here's why I'm still skeptical — he's walked 4 times against 15 strikeouts. Curtis will be useful this year, and it looks like he's kept the consistent power stroke he found late last year, but I'm not sold on him avoiding a lengthy cold spell. He just strikes out too much to avoid the inevitable 2-25 slump that comes with high-strikeout hitters.

What Concerns Me The Mystery Of Ivan Nova: For as good as he was late in 2010, Nova looks a little lost so far in 2011. He's walking more hitters and allowing more hits, which is funny because he has yet to allow a home run. His stuff still looks the same as last year, though, and he threw the ball really well in spring training. His strikeouts also aren't down much from last year. I don't think there is anything wrong with Nova that maybe a few solid side sessions won't cure, but he doesn't have the pure stuff to get by with bad location — and teams have been drilling his mistakes so far this season. I'm mildly concerned right now, so I'm hoping for a couple of decent starts out of Nova in the next couple of weeks. The Yankees don't need more pitching problems right now.

Thanks For The Homers, Jorge Posada, But Singles And Doubles Count Too: Jorge ranks among the league leaders with 5 home runs, but he's only got three other hits in his 50 at-bats and has had some really ugly at-bats lately. In the last week, Jorge's hitting .083, which is tough when you figure the Yankees will have to get some production out of the DH since other hitters in the lineup are scuffling right now. Jorge's always been prone to slumps, so I'm hoping that maybe this is an early-season slow streak that is leading to one a hot streak in the coming weeks. Given their division and pitching staff, the Yankees might have to make a move if Jorge continues to struggle.

What Happened To Brett Gardner? The only thing worse than a designated hitter hitting .160 is when you're leadoff hitter is batting .128. It's even worse when you go hitless for the last week (albeit in 7 at-bats). I'd be less annoyed with Gardner if he was walking and at least getting on base, but he has 4 walks (compared to 14 strikeouts) and has a .196 on-base percentage for the season. While Derek Jeter has earned some slack, Gardner hasn't. He needs to start hitting, and soon, or he's going to be spending a lot of time next to Joe Girardi waiting to be a pinch-runner and late-inning defensive replacement. I'm pretty worried about Gardner right now. I don't mind him hitting .250 if he's walking and moving runners over, but he's not contributing anything offensively right now. Kevin Long says he found a flaw in Gardner's swing, though, so maybe some extra time in the batting cages will get Gardner going.

What's Coming Up: Three games with Baltimore, four games with Chicago.


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