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Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Jeter giving stance a second thought

By Johnette Howard

NEW YORK -- It's no surprise Derek Jeter waited just nine regular-season games to ditch parts of the new batting stance he had worked so diligently on all spring and during the final month of the 2010 season.

Derek Jeter doesn't do introspection. Remember?

You can ask Jeter to look within -- you can try. But publicly, anyway, Jeter has always acted like he's allergic to deep thinking. He doesn't like it, doesn't much believe in it, and usually tries to deflect probing questions about himself with an amused smirk, a startled look and some mild protest like, "C'mon, guys, I don't know ... " That's his polite signal that this conversation is a non-starter. Jeter has always been celebrated as a smart player -- the guy who always seems to be in the right place at the right time -- and he has been that. But when it comes to getting Jeter to talk about personal feelings? Good luck, buttercup. You either need a crowbar, such a preponderance of evidence that Jeter can't ignore the question anymore, or something that offends his pride. Perhaps all three.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter has begun to turn his back on his newfangled approach to hitting after a .206 start.

Even then, Jeter's response is likely to stick to cold logic, a dispassionate weighing of the facts.

If you soft toss a question at Jeter about what it's like to be a major league shortstop at age 36 versus 26, the classic Jeter response would be, "How would I know? I've never been 36 before."

So again, it's no shocker that when Jeter looked at the .206 hitting start he had with his new, no-stride stance versus 2,933 -- the number of hits Jeter belted out in his Hall of Fame career, the vast majority of them using his old approach -- Jeter started treating all the reasons he's been told the swing change should work like a bunch of psychobabble.

Hitting coach Kevin Long has said the change will supposedly help Jeter drive the ball better?

It will prevent Jeter from striding toward home plate (or "crossing over") and getting his arms so tied up he keeps grounding balls to second base? Goodbye leading the league again in pounding into double plays?

It might even allow Jeter to compensate more gracefully should his bat slow with age?

Teammates Alex Rodriguez, Nick Swisher and Curtis Granderson swear by Long and how Long diagnosed and re-set their swings.

But Jeter has seemingly decided he has those 2,933 other reasons to trust himself more. And so there he was Sunday, back to tapping his front foot down twice to time the Red Sox pitchers, same as he ever has.

The Grand Experiment, for now, would seem to be dead. Parts of it, anyway.

If Jeter has a hitting revival, it's going to have to come his old-fashioned way. Maybe the sight of Buck Showalter and the Baltimore Orioles rolling into Yankee Stadium on Tuesday for the start of a three-game series will spark Jeter on a hot streak. Showalter, remember, bragged in a recent Men's Journal magazine article about some bench jockeying he did at Jeter during a game last season, just to show his O's team they needn't fear the Yankees. The former Yankees manager said he was riding Jeter about how he dives and flails around to try to get inside pitches called balls.

Not surprisingly, Jeter had no public reaction beyond, Oh yeah? Buck said that?

Even if Jeter goes on to hit .500 the next three days he'll have some Spock-like response like: "Well, I mean ... you always wanna get a hit."

Jeter isn't the first great athlete who insists on keeping things simple.

When it comes to hitting, Jeter has never gone as far as former Mets catcher Mike Piazza, who used to say, "I just see the ball. And I hit it."

But it was telling that one of Jeter's biggest complaints during the weekend series in Boston was he was tired of the incessant attention that his swing tinkering created, and he was tired of how he found himself thinking about his mechanics too much when he's at the plate.

To recap: The idea of you thinking too much about Jeter, and the idea of Jeter having to think too much about Jeter is annoying to him.

But let's be honest. It isn't just the over-the-top scrutiny of his batting stance or average that's getting to Jeter now. It's that hardly anyone -- even the imperturbable Captain himself -- likes the suggestion they're getting older and more vulnerable, and that the entire weight of 100-some years of baseball history predicts against 36-year-old shortstops bucking the trend. Jeter is certainly not the first person who's found getting older can be hell and sometimes lead to self-deception. Reams of literature have been written about it, it's been the theme of movies and plays from "Death of a Salesman" to "Sunset Boulevard" to "Bullets over Broadway" (where Dianne Wiest's character, a fading older stage actress who swills martinis in pairs, slaps a hand over her heart and hoarsely says, "Every curtain, a death!")

Aging can be a melodrama, all right. Jeter's best chance of controlling the one around him is to improve how he plays. So he's going back to what he knows.

Simple as that.

The good news/bad news for Jeter -- besides being the most venerated player on the most famous franchise in baseball -- is he's playing in an era when salaries are astronomically high but the statistical analysis of players has never drilled down as deep. The delicacy of managing Jeter's decline has often been compared to how Cal Ripken Jr., another Hall of Fame shortstop, was handled.

But there's an obvious difference. The sabermetricians can go back now and show in meticulous detail how Ripken's slow fade played out even after he was moved to third base. But Ripken wasn't living out the micro-microscopic scrutiny in real time like Jeter is. Jeter is being sliced, diced, dissected and collated into a damning mosaic that -- he's been told again and again -- only predicts more bad things.

Ripken got the eyeball test; Jeter's getting the full body-of-work/annals-of-history MRI.

There are stats for his diminished defensive range. His at-bats so far this season break down like this: Of the 29 balls Jeter has put into play this season, 23 have been grounders; of the six hits Jeter has eked out in 34 at-bats, three were infield hits, three more came on ground balls that got to the outfield, and one lonely hit came on a sharp liner (proving there is a God and he does gets the YES channel).

Jeter's response? He's doing what he always does. He fights intellectualizing it. This weekend he decreed, "I'm done talking about it." He just wants to play.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi has said he doesn't think it's fair to evaluate Jeter until he's had 100 to 150 at-bats. Jeter will almost certainly not have passed 3,000 hits by then, which could ratchet up the delicacy of any decision Girardi might have to make to drop Jeter in the lineup even more. But Jeter has always been a good teammate.

For now, the real story is Jeter, the same man who last season said, "I've never really had a problem with confidence," seems to be having exactly that.

It's not just that he's making outs. It's how.

You have to wonder if Jeter's loathing of introspection and his quick abandonment of the suggested swing changes will come back to haunt him.

It's a question that will be relentlessly tracked.

Jeter could recapture the good old days now that he's creeping back to his old way of swinging.

Or, if he's wrong, he could just look old trying.