Thursday, June 24, 2010
Jeter will have his cake -- and eat it, too
By Ian O'Connor
Starting Saturday, Derek Jeter will need to tweak his own company line. Over the past 12 months he has met inquiries about his baseball mortality with this question of his own:
"Since when is 35 old?"
So if Joe Torre kids his former shortstop this weekend about the appearance of a silver hair or two or of an extra crease around those pale green eyes, Jeter will likely substitute 36 for 35 and defend his youth and vitality with the same conviction.
A birthday won't get in the way of his vision. If nobody knows exactly how long Jeter will play baseball, including Jeter, this much is certain:
Jeter believes he can play into his 40s, and I would be somewhere between surprised and shocked if he didn't honor that faith.
Last summer, in a conversation I had with the Captain about harsh mathematical assessments of his fielding -- how the sabermetric crowd had rattled its saber under his chin -- I asked Jeter if he thought he could play shortstop for another, say, five to eight years.
"I don't see any reason why not," he said, "but I don't sit around thinking about that. I seriously think about one year at a time, and when the season's over I think about getting ready and in shape for the following year. But I don't see any reason why, if I stay healthy, I can't play that position for a long time."
Jeter has long been a man of his word, and that answer (health qualifier aside) not only keeps him with the Yankees into his 40s, it keeps him a Yankees shortstop into his 40s.
More evidence is provided by Gene Michael, the longtime Yankees executive who helped build the dynasty of the '90s. A few months before Jeter turned 33, the shortstop came across Michael one spring training day and asked him, "How much longer do you think I can play shortstop?"
"One year," Michael joked.
"One year?" Jeter said. "Nah, I'm serious. What do you think?"
This was in the trainer's room in Tampa, and Michael asked Jeter why he was even raising the subject.
"I want to play another 10 years," the Captain said.
"Ten years?" Michael responded. "Not at shortstop."
"I can DH later."
"Well, don't you have anything else you like to do besides play baseball?"
"No I don't. That's what I love to do."
Jeter told Michael what he's told others: He plans on spending his post-playing days as a team owner.
"But I found out through that conversation that Derek doesn't want to do anything but play baseball," Michael said. "He's a baseball rat."
A baseball rat with an expiring $189 million contract. The Yankees have no regrets over that 10-year deal, as they believe Jeter earned every single penny of it.
General manager Brian Cashman will negotiate a new contract with Jeter and his agent, Casey Close, after the season, and there's a better chance of the French soccer team getting a war hero's parade in Paris than there is of Jeter and the Yankees failing to reach an agreement.
But at some point in those talks, Cashman could bring up the possibility Jeter might be moved to left field or wherever before the contract expires. The Yankees can expect Jeter to handle his position shift a whole lot better than Cal Ripken Jr. handled his, though it's not a notion Cashman needs or wants to entertain at the moment.
"Derek Jeter is still Derek Jeter," the GM said. "His numbers will be where they always are at the end of the year, and it will be a typical Derek Jeter year. He's still got game, there's no doubt about that."
So far it's not the same game Jeter played last year, when he hit .334 and made like Fred Astaire in the field. Jeter was the picture of agility and grace going to his left in 2009, in part because of a revised workout regimen mapped out by his trainer, Jason Riley.
This year, working under the same program, Jeter hasn't looked nearly as supple when moving toward second base (Baseball Info Solutions marks him as a minus-6 on balls hit to the left of where a typical shortstop would play this year; Jeter was a plus-2 in '09).
Is it age? A hidden ailment? A mild slump?
Maybe 2010 is a market correction for Jeter after he delivered a charmed renaissance season.
I'd put my money on the market correction. Jeter will finish 2010 with a .300 batting average and 100 runs scored. He'll also have another postseason performance to harden his ranking among the great clutch players of all time.
And then he'll score his four-year contract, maybe for $100 million. Jeter will enter that deal fully believing he can still be the Yankees shortstop at the end of it. Jeter might even tell himself, If Mariano Rivera can handle his position at 40, why can't I handle mine?
His work ethic and pain threshold will be his strongest allies in this pursuit.
"I've been in the game more than 30 years," said Gary Tuck, former Yankees coach and current Red Sox coach, "and Jeter's the toughest middle infielder I've ever seen. People see him as a cover boy, so they don't know, but he plays and practices hurt every single day."
Another birthday -- this one celebrated in Los Angeles with Torre -- won't stop Jeter from taking the pain with the gain. He'll be a 36-year-old icon Saturday, with every intention of being a 40-something icon at the top of a future Yankees lineup.
It's always smart to bet the over on Derek Jeter.
It's never smart to sell the shortstop short.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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