- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- If you really want to know, and you're really going to persist until he's forced to say something this nakedly-and-self-aggrandizingly out loud, then here it is: Derek Jeter is surprised that you're surprised.
Yes, the Yankees shortstop is acutely aware that he is 38 years old and hitting .321. That he is leading the American League in hits, and the only season he did that was 1999. That his name has even started floating up as a dark-horse candidate for MVP as the injury-plagued Yankees try to hang onto first place in the tightened-up AL East race.
All of that, Jeter knows.
But Jeter does not buy into the idea that this season marks some personal "revival" for him. The mere suggestion during a conversation the other day as he hustled to get ready for a game against Toronto made him abruptly stop rifling through his Yankee Stadium locker, stand up straight, look his questioner in the eye and give this take: The .270 average he had in 2010, or turbulent start he had to 2011 when he was hitting only .242 in May? That stretch was the aberration.
Not this year.
"Why is it you hit .270 one time and all of a sudden you can't play anymore, you know what I mean?" Jeter scoffs. He laughs a little. Then he wags his head, as if amused.
"I could understand it a little bit if that was the case for three or four straight years," he continues. "You know? But one year? Hitting .270? What are you talking about? It doesn't mean your career is over with. Or at least, I don't think so."
As anyone who has ever followed Jeter knows, this is his usual way of playing defense against a subject he dislikes. He often puts the topic itself on defense by answering the original question with another question.
This personal tic has earned Jeter a rather robust reputation as the King of the Self-Evident Quote, or the Prince of Humility & Understated Class. Take your pick. But simplifying everything to its essence really is the way Jeter thinks and approaches most everything about the game, including hitting.
"Mentally, I just don't make this as deep or complicated as other people do," he says.
An example: If you ask Jeter how the Yanks are handling the fact that their 10-game lead has dwindled to 3½ games heading into Thursday's Orioles-White Sox game and this weekend's Yankees series against second-place Baltimore -- part of a riveting, season-closing stretch in which the Yanks play 26 of their remaining 32 games against the AL East -- his response is vintage Jeter: "If you win, you can't get caught, right?"
Jeter is almost always polite when he does this. He is almost always extremely careful to scrub his responses of any angry language or telltale hints that doubt, vanity, outside criticism or, most recently, the increasing noise about his advancing age is eating at him. Generally speaking, Jeter doesn't do introspection. At least not publicly, anyway. He consistently projects this persona that he's baseball's Teflon Man, an unflappable star who is inured to pressure and so self-secure and focused only on winning -- nothing else -- that all the other crap that might get to other players, especially in a noisy hothouse like New York, doesn't stick to him.
And it's not all disingenuous.
It's just not always 100 percent true.
There are, indeed, things that get to him.
Jeter clearly didn't like it a week ago when ESPN commentator Skip Bayless said on "First Take" that he can't say Jeter's strong season is unattributable to PED use. Broaching such a taboo -- especially about the sainted Jeter -- caused a mini-sensation. Jeter's smiling response when reporters asked him about Bayless' remarks was pitch perfect. But still a velvet shiv.
"Maybe Skip should be tested," Jeter shot back. Then, more pointedly, "I guess you can say whatever you want to say these days. No repercussions."
Five days later, the PED subject still wasn't a total joke to him when we spoke by his locker.
"If I were hitting .420, I could see," Jeter says. "Somebody might be saying, 'Well, how are you doing it?' Or, you know, if I had 50 home runs. But I'm hitting what I've hit a lot of times. So, I don't know "
Well, yes, all of that is true, Jeter was pressed, but just a season ago, you did change your hitting stance at the plate, and at the time, it was portrayed -- by you, not just others -- as partly a concession to your age. (The theory -- advanced most notably by Yanks hitting coach Kevin Long -- was that having Jeter take less of a stride as he hit would help him get around on inside pitches better, perhaps buy him a little reaction time at the plate if his bat speed was indeed declining, maybe even reduce his tendency to pound into so many double plays and pedestrian groundouts.) So if the hitting-stance change was not an acknowledgement by you, too, that your performance might be affected by your creeping age, then what was all that really about?
"Aw, I mean, it's not the first time I tweaked things, or examined some things. It was probably the most drastic," Jeter allows. "But you always tinker a little bit with what you're doing, you know? I always try to improve. And I was on board with it. At the time.
"I just never got comfortable with it."
Given that Jeter has an outside chance to break Pete Rose's record of 4,256 hits -- he sits at 3,264 -- that radical experiment with his stance is surprising if you also know that Jeter is not one of those greats who sits around talking and strategizing endlessly about the art of hitting, like Ted Williams, Tony Gwynn or even teammate Alex Rodriguez.
"Derek? No, no, NO -- not at all," laughed Paul O'Neill, a former Yanks right fielder-turned-team broadcaster, just before Jeter collected his 3,000th hit in July of last season.
It's clear now there was a lot of pressure on Jeter in the run-up to that moment. Even Jeter didn't really comprehend how much it wore on him until after he reached the milestone with typical Jeter-esque flair: A home run that he pulled, for a change, to left field. Jeter was actually laughing as he ran around the bases at Yankee Stadium, as if to say, "A home run? Now? Are you kidding me?"
At the time, Jeter's downbeat 2010 season was still attached to him like an anvil. Well into 2011, there was still a lot of talk about whether we were watching the beginning of his end.
He was hitting .257 when he reached 3,000 hits. By then, critics loudly complained that Jeter was a sacred cow who didn't deserve to keep getting grandfathered into his top spot in the batting order. Was a demotion too delicate for less-decorated manager and former teammate Joe Girardi to broach? Jeter had also just spent the offseason in bruising contract negotiations with the front office. He had seen his general manager, Brian Cashman, take a few shots at him, starting with a public challenge to Jeter to "shop around" if he didn't like the Yanks' offer. Also, an anonymous team source told ESPNNewYork.com's Wallace Matthews that Jeter needed to "smoke the reality pipe" when it came to his contract demands.
This was a sea change, all right. When he finally did sign a three-year, $51 million contract that will keep him a Yankee till the age of 41, he showed up for his news conference and, for once, vented. He said he didn't like how he'd been treated by the organization.
There are now some baseball people -- both in Jeter's own clubhouse and around the game -- who believe he elevated his game since then as sort of an angry "I-told-you-so" for his critics. There are still others -- Jeter and Girardi among them -- who disagree and argue Jeter's commitment and drive have never changed, regardless of what's said.
When Jeter is asked if he thought he could still have a season like this at his age, Jeter repeats, "Like what?"
"Why not?" he shoots back. "I mean, it's not the first time, right? So it's not like I'm doing something off the charts. I try to stay as positive as possible, no matter what. That's why I don't read the papers. I don't like to fill my head with negativity. When I was younger, I think I hit .180-something the first few weeks of one season. But it was a slump. It wasn't, 'My career is over.' It was a slump. You still have confidence that you can hit, and that you can play. I think you always have to have confidence. At least, I try to."
What about the idea that criticisms and anger partly drive his play now?
"Nah, I don't get caught up in it," Jeter insists. Then he pauses, as if perhaps his baseball career is flashing through his mind -- his 17 big league seasons and all the pressure-saturated moments, his uncanny way of impacting so many of the five World Series titles he's helped the Yanks win, and the occasional gorings he got nonetheless from The Boss, the late George Steinbrenner -- and adds, "I've been playing in New York a lo-o-o-ng time."
Trying to engage Jeter in discussions about any stat, but especially the more complicated metrics that are now used to judge a baseball player's worth, has always been a non-starter with him. And it's not only because some of the analytics, especially metrics about his defensive range, are notably unkind to him.
Jeter genuinely doesn't believe you can fully measure a baseball player with stats. And so even a topic as cheerful as his current batting average often becomes another of those questions Jeter answers with a question: Isn't the best measure of a player whether he helps his team win? If he plays the game the right way?
"I'm just here trying to win games," Jeter says, still rifling through his locker before the Toronto game this week. Then almost five hours later, as if to underscore the point, along came this: Moments after closer Rafael Soriano sucked the wind out of Yankee Stadium by serving up a three-run, two-out home run to the Blue Jays in the top of the ninth and blowing a sure-looking win, Jeter led off the bottom of the inning with a home run to left field to keep the Yankees alive. But they eventually lost in the 11th. And the AL East race tightened again.
"Captain Clutch comes up with that big bomb," Yanks outfielder Nick Swisher sighed. "It was too bad we couldn't win the game."
The home run was Jeter's 14th, more than double his total of six last year.
All told, Jeter has been hitting around .325 in the season and a half since he ditched the new hitting mechanics he tried through last May. He used a three-week stint on the disabled list for a strained calf to work on returning to the original stance that made him great. He's never said it publicly or as bluntly as this, but essentially, Jeter just seemed to slide all his chips into the middle of the table while he was rehabbing and say to himself, Why the hell am I listening to anyone else? I'm Derek Jeter.
And he's been raking ever since.
What Jeter's revival suggests is that his troubles weren't just about hitting mechanics -- they were also about restoring his self-belief. Remember, as O'Neill noted, Jeter has always been a "see the ball/hit the ball" hitter. ("Pretty much," he nods.) And that's a reactive approach to hitting, predicated on still being talented enough to pull it off.
But as Jeter himself might put it, he didn't know what to expect at age 36 or 37 because, well, he'd never been 37 before, right? So he took some advice after 2010. He tried to change. But he ultimately went back to believing that, even at his age, he was still good enough to pull off hitting the way he always had.
In essence, Jeter's revival happened because Jeter bet on Jeter.
"I don't think I'm doing anything different this year [at the plate] than I did before. I just took that one year off," he says. "I worked all that winter, all through spring training and into last season on something new. But you get to the point where you've got to say, 'I just can't do it.' I can't hit and be thinking about, 'My foot has to be here and my hands have to be here.' It was too hard -- at least for me."
The natural follow-up question right about here seemed to be to ask him if all of this has been an important reminder to trust himself first.
But once again, Jeter looks like he's surprised that you're surprised.
And he says: "Nope."
Jeter takes his glove out of his locker. He's ready to take the field for BP. And one more time, just for good measure, he repeats, "I've been doing this a lo-o-o-ng time. I always believe."
At 38 years old, Derek Jeter leads the American League in hits. Surprised? He isn't.