Commentary

No. 2 does right thing staying at No. 2

Even at age 40, an ever-confident Derek Jeter best serves Yanks in the two-hole

Updated: September 4, 2014, 10:03 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

In 2007, with Joe Torre in the middle of his final season as manager of the New York Yankees, a YES Network broadcaster named Joe Girardi confided in a couple of friends that a gathering storm would hover above Torre's faceless successor and ultimately swallow the poor sucker whole.

"I feel sorry for the next Yankee manager," Girardi said at the time, "because he's the one who's going to have to tell [Derek] Jeter he can't play shortstop anymore."

As fate would have it, Girardi beat out Don Mattingly for the right to be the guy to either move a diminishing Jeter to another position or drop him in the batting order -- or both. Seven years later, Girardi still hasn't had that conversation with his captain.

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Jeter's defensive resurgence, .334 batting average and World Series title in 2009 postponed that meeting indefinitely. So did his league-leading 216 hits in 2012, at age 38. But with a 40-year-old Jeter swinging a heavy bat and running on heavier legs, with his performance in August all but begging for a Girardi intervention, the manager couldn't bring himself to carry out his own prophecy and humiliate a legend in the final weeks of his career.

And that left Jeter with the burden of doing the deed himself. Some wanted him to walk into Girardi's office and take one for the team, like Mattingly did in the summer of 1994, when the first baseman endorsed Buck Showalter's decision to remove him from the three-hole in favor of Paul O'Neill.

Only this much is clear: In his mind, by declining to make the same offer on his second spot in the batting order, Jeter is doing what's best for the Yankees. He believes he is following the same team-centric path that inspired a generation of parents to dress their kids in No. 2 jerseys at the ballpark and at home.

People inside the organization who have spoken with Jeter recently came away with no hint from the captain that he might be considering a surrender of his job at the top of the order and no suggestion that he feels he can't be part of the big-picture solution in an unlikely drive to the playoffs.

This shouldn't come as any surprise, either. Jeter's greatest weapon as a major leaguer has always been his unbending belief in himself. That's why he was such a calming presence on four World Series title teams in his first five seasons in the world's most volatile marketplace. That's why he could pull himself out of the crypt in 2011 to make career hit No. 3,000 a home run, of all things, on a magical 5-for-5 day.

That's why only five men in the history of baseball have more hits to their names than Jeter.

Yes, some smart people have said and written smart things about why Jeter belongs in the bottom third of the lineup, not in the top third, and they have the numbers to support their cases. Jeter was indeed dreadful in August, and Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are indeed more productive offensive players, and Gardner does indeed look sort of funny as the three-hole hitter for the New York Yankees.

But Jeter believes he's one at-bat from going on a tear right out of his dynastic prime. To the average person, that might be a delusional thought. Jeter isn't average. He isn't normal. He isn't wired like you and me.

Jeter has never feared the consequences of failure, which allowed him to make oversized, pressure-packed moments feel manageable and small. He thinks he can lean on muscle memory and rise above his old-man limitations down the stretch, and he isn't afraid to be wrong. Jeter also has a history of strong Septembers (and Octobers, too) on his side and the hope the cooler weather to come could reinvigorate an aging athlete crawling to the finish line.

In Wednesday night's 5-1 victory over the Red Sox, which saw Jeter get caught drifting off third base in a bizarre first-inning double play (it was Gardner's fault in the end), the shortstop did deliver four representative at-bats. He singled through the left side in the first, lifted a moderately deep fly to center in the third, sent a signature inside-out laser to right field in the fifth that was caught, and walked and scored in the seventh.

Progress in baby steps, anyway. Of that liner to right, one team official said: "That's the hardest ball I've seen him hit in a long time."

Girardi will take it and run with it in support of Jeter, his guy. He said in April he "wasn't hired to put on a farewell tour," and he now clings to his own numbers and a half-hearted protest that goes like this: Hey, the rest of our lineup stinks, too.

Girardi was never going to do to Jeter what he did to Jorge Posada. Brian Cashman? He's confronted Jeter on sensitive issues at least three times over the years. He charged him to fully support Alex Rodriguez in 2006, challenged him to improve his defense and training regimen in 2007, and fought him over money in the bloody contract talks in 2010.

But this case is different. Cashman wasn't about to go toe-to-toe again with the captain, not with so little time left on the shortstop's clock and not with the general feeling around the Yankees that Hal Steinbrenner doesn't want Jeter embarrassed during the final turn of what will more likely be a long kiss goodbye -- for considerable financial gain -- than a credible postseason run.

With the manager, general manager and owner playing hands off while sending out a team wearing patches in Jeter's honor, the shortstop was left to review the lineup and ask himself this question: Should I stay, or should I go?

Actually, Jeter would never ask himself such a thing. But if he did, he would surely consider that a fading Mattingly took the plunge to the five-hole in July of '94 because his replacement was batting .383, and neither Gardner nor Martin Prado will ever be mistaken for Paul O'Neill.

As a struggling minor leaguer in the early '90s, back when a teammate and friend suggested he might want to prepare for a switch to center field, Jeter shot back: "I'm never moving from shortstop. It's never going to happen. Never."

And it never did. Over these final 25 games, No. 2 will never offer to move from the No. 2 spot, either.

It's just the way he's wired. People who want Jeter to do the right thing for the team need to understand something:

In his mind, he's already doing the right thing.

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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