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Sunday, February 20, 2011
Updated: February 22, 7:25 AM ET
Will Derek Jeter age like a champion?

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Over the past 15 years, we have learned quite a bit about Derek Jeter.

We know he's a gamer and a winner. We know he keeps a positive attitude about himself when everything around him, it seems, has turned negative.

We know his parents and we know his girlfriend.

Jeter
Derek Jeter has handled himself with class for more than 15 years as a Yankee. How will deal with the next three or four?

And we know that since he became the face of this franchise, he has never done anything to embarrass himself or the Yankees.

But over the next three years, and possibly four provided he invokes the player option on his new contract for the 2014 season, we will learn even more about Derek Jeter.

We will learn how he accepts growing older, very possibly with declining production and a diminished role on the team he has represented so well for the past decade and a half.

The guess is he will handle it well, because that is the way he has handled everything else. But it will not be easy for him, because it never is for anyone, especially an elite professional athlete.

And also because Jeter already is showing signs that the transition will be a difficult one.

Jeter held court in the Yankees' media tent Sunday morning for 20 minutes under mostly friendly questioning. He understandably dismissed most questions about the surprisingly contentious contract negotiations that preceded the signing of his new deal in December, having already dealt with the issue at two separate news conferences over the winter.

What was less understandable was the way in which he dealt with discussing the adjustments to his swing installed by hitting coach Kevin Long, and reluctantly agreed to by Jeter, last August when he was mired in the doldrums of the worst season of his career.

Apparently, altering Jeter's stance slightly to shorten his stride and speed up his swing had been discussed, on and off, throughout the 2010 season, and perhaps even earlier.

But it wasn't until last Sept. 11, after a 1-for-7 against the Texas Rangers the previous night left Jeter's average at a season-low .260, that the shortstop approached the hitting coach and told him he was ready to give it a shot. This was documented in an ESPNNewYork.com story last Oct. 5.

The point is, the very qualities that made Derek Jeter a great ballplayer -- tenacity, determination and a self-belief so stubborn it borders on obsession -- also may make him slow to accept the reality that at some point in his career, things are going to have to change.

It is obvious that the Yankees walk on eggshells when discussing certain subjects regarding Jeter. Sunday afternoon, Long practically tied himself in knots trying to describe as delicately as possible the changes made in Jeter's swing and the reasons they had become necessary.

"This is all positive stuff, by the way, this is not negative stuff just because Derek had a down year," Long insisted. "This is stuff we were gonna do and attack even before he got into the predicament, or I got into the predicament, that we were in."

Asked if Jeter's "predicament" was the result of bad habits he had developed in order to compensate for a bat that had slowed due to age, Long said: "These are not bad habits. I want to stay away from calling them bad habits."

But when informed that Jeter had used the term himself at his morning news conference, Long reversed himself. "Oh, Jeter said bad habits? OK then," he said.

"Honestly, it's something he had done for a long, long time and in order to break a habit, and I guess if he wants to phrase it a bad habit, it's gonna take some time to fix."

Obviously, if they were good habits there would be no need to fix them. Just as obviously, public criticism of Jeter from within the Yankees organization is something to be carefully avoided, unless of course, the critic is GM Brian Cashman and it's contract time.

Even Joe Girardi deftly skirted the question of how difficult a conversation it will be if and when the time comes to make a position switch or a lineup change with a player for whom "shortstop" and "leadoff hitter" have become synonymous.

"I can't really tell you how it's going to be, because you can't really tell where a guy's going to be at that point in his career," Girardi said. "What if it's seven years down the road, you know what I'm saying? I mean, what if it's five years down the road?"

More than a century of baseball history, of course, tells us it will probably come way before that. Jeter will turn 37 on June 26 and, even if he plays for only three years of his contract, will have passed his 39th birthday, a milestone by which most shortstops are either retired, DH-ing or playing the outfield, by the time the deal expires.

When that question was asked of Jeter, he swatted it aside like a pesky housefly.

"You said most, you didn't say every," Jeter replied. "So there you go."

And that was the end of that discussion.

The fact Jeter remains as convinced of his abilities at 36 as he did at 26 is admirable, and probably essential if he is to rebound in 2011 from his subpar 2010.

And Girardi seems to believe Jeter will be able to recognize on his own when changes will need to be made. "I think he does self-evaluate. All the great players do," Girardi said. "They think about what they need to do to get better. He did after his rookie year."

But it was no doubt easier for Jeter to self-evaluate as a 21-year-old who wanted to be better than it will be as a 30-something who already knows what it is like to have been great.

There is still time for Derek Jeter to be great, especially this season when, sometime around the Fourth of July, he will reach 3,000 hits and attain a level no player has ever reached as a Yankee.

But not long afterward, it is only natural to assume that what appeared to be catching up to Derek Jeter last year will begin setting in for the long haul.

"There's got to be a point in time when things are going to slow down," Long said. "Is that a part of this equation? I'm sure it is somewhat. I'm sure he's slowed down a little bit, I would say that, but is Derek Jeter's best baseball behind him? I wouldn't say that. I'm not ready to go there."

But sooner or later, Derek Jeter will have to go there.

And at that point, even with all we already know about him, there will suddenly be something new to learn.