Commentary

Derek Jeter, a shortstop to the end

Captain never intended to give up the only position he ever wanted to play

Updated: February 19, 2014, 5:20 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Derek Jeter, shortstop, was never going to play another position for the New York Yankees or anyone else. He was never going to let himself get bumped over to his right, like Cal Ripken Jr. did, because he understood that his home between second and third was too big a part of his identity, too central a part of his public life.

He also understood that lining up in left field in 2015 would've been tantamount to Joe Montana lining up at flanker in the end.

"The idea's never come up from anyone in the organization," Jeter said at a retirement news conference Wednesday that he refused to call, you know, a retirement news conference.

Actually, Jeter himself brought up a position change seven years ago in a trainer's room conversation with Gene Michael, telling the longtime executive that he wanted to play another 10 seasons and would be willing to switch to first base or designated hitter to do it. Michael was among the team officials in attendance at the news conference and among the many in Yankeedom thrilled that Jeter, 39, would finish his career right where it started, right where he always belonged.

"We have a lot of questions about our infield, but I have confidence that Derek can still do it at shortstop," Michael said. "I wouldn't be surprised at all if he has a good year. I'm happy for him that it's ending like this. He's been important to us, but we've been important to him, too. We've both gotten a lot out of it."

Jeter realizes that this has been a two-way street, that the franchise brand has enhanced his own, which is why he said, "the thing that means the most to me is being remembered as a Yankee." Second on that list is being remembered as a shortstop, and Jeter started making that clear during his worst minor-league season in Greensboro, N.C., in 1993, in the middle of his 56-error year, when his teammate and close friend R.D. Long sat him down in a diner and tried to prepare the kid for a switch to the outfield, a topic that had been discussed at the front-office level.

"I'm never moving from shortstop," Jeter told Long that day. "It's never going to happen. Never."

And so it never did. An old Yankees shortstop himself, and a former prospect who had his own 56-error season, Michael paid a visit to the teenage Jeter, noticed him fielding grounders with his left foot out in front one inning, his right foot out in front the next, and told him to find a routine and stick to it the way Ripken did. Jeter was in the majors less than two years later.

Consider all the scouting reports and media criticisms and metric evaluations he overcame along the way. A Greensboro executive named Tim Cullen, a former big-league infielder, had told Michael that young Jeter was "the worst shortstop I've ever seen." Ron Washington, once a coach in the Mets' system, said he wrote up Jeter as a future third baseman, "not no god damn shortstop."

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDerek Jeter walked away from his retirement news conference Wednesday like he intends to walk away from his baseball career at the end of this season: as the Yankees' shortstop.

Once upon a time, Rey Ordonez (remember him?) was supposed to challenge Jeter for New York, New York supremacy at short; Jeter survived him, and Jose Reyes, too. Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada were challengers to his standing among the top American League shortstops, and Jeter outlasted them all. Tejada became a multiple PED offender, Garciaparra was run out of Boston before the Red Sox started winning titles, and well, we all know what went down with A-Rod.

In fact, Jeter summoned the name of the banished Rodriguez -- without being prompted -- in answering a question about his desire to remain a shortstop, and whether that desire compelled him to retire before the club could consider moving him as a concession to gravity and age.

"This has been my job since I signed at 18 years old," Jeter said. "I've never thought about playing another position. I've never been asked to play another position. ... I know [reporters] have speculated about that ever since we [traded for] Alex years ago, the speculation that I would switch positions, but it's something that's never been brought up. I take a lot of pride in doing my job, and so I didn't think about that when I announced this."

The day the Yankees acquired Rodriguez was the day Jeter made it crystal clear he wouldn't ever surrender his job without a bloody fight. Just having his sworn frenemy A-Rod on the same team, in the same room, as a possible replacement at short in case things went south was enough to leave Jeter looking as if someone had just stolen his bike or his dog or both.

Rodriguez was forced to play third and like it. Jeter punched back again in the fall of 2007, when general manager Brian Cashman took him to dinner and told him that the sabermetric crowd was right, that Jeter needed to improve his range for the sake of the team, or else. The captain replaced his trainer, embraced a fresh fitness regimen, and took the field as a new man by 2009, the year he claimed his one-for-the-thumb ring.

The ankle fracture in the 2012 playoffs and the leg injuries that limited Jeter to 17 games in 2013 conspired to change the expectations in Jeter's 20th and final season. But this was Cashman on Wednesday, a million miles removed from that 2007 dinner:

"We need [Jeter] to play shortstop. We need everything that Derek Jeter can provide like we have for the last however many years he's been here. Now more than ever."

Cashman said of Jeter's retirement announcement on Facebook, "No one saw this coming." Of course, that's exactly how it was designed. Jeter has always wanted to control the message and the narrative arc of his iconic career.

The captain swore that his leg injuries had nothing to do with his decision and that Mariano Rivera's farewell tour had nothing to do with it, either. As the rehab sessions wore on, Jeter said he realized a couple of months ago the game had become too much of a job and that it was time to start a family and the second phase of his business and philanthropic life.

But he's got six or seven months of baseball to play first. "I plan on having a good year," Jeter said.

And he can plan on having that good year at shortstop. Jeter knows that by taking the mystery out of his endgame, by declaring 2014 his final go no matter what, Cashman and Joe Girardi wouldn't dare move him to another position -- even if he can't reach anything in the hole by July.

All the way back to his youth league days in Kalamazoo, Mich., where a coach named Courtney Jasiak temporarily stationed him at third base until an older boy moved on, Jeter has loathed the idea of being anything but a shortstop. He turned out to be a good one, too, one of the best of all time.

"I was a ground-ball pitcher who relied on my infielders making outs for me," Mel Stottlemyre, Joe Torre's pitching coach through most of Jeter's prime, said by phone, "and I would've loved looking behind me every day and seeing Derek Jeter at short. People criticized his range, but his game awareness was as good as I've ever seen. That play in Oakland, the flip play, nobody's ever made that play, for a reason.

"Derek could've hung around a couple of more years at another position, but I'm glad he's going out the way he is. Really, he's going out on top."

To nobody's surprise, Derek Jeter is going out the way he came in. As a shortstop, and one who is good enough to hold off all comers.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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