Commentary

For 17 years, it's been Derek Jeter

Can't recall his predecessors at SS? That's just another testament to the Captain.

Updated: October 5, 2012, 10:48 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Do you remember the name of the Yankees' starting shortstop for the 1995 season?

Tony Fernandez.

[+] EnlargeAlvaro Espinoza
Mitchell Layton/Getty ImagesThe last Yankees shortstop before Derek Jeter to hold the starting job for more than one season? Alvaro Espinoza.

How about 1994?

Mike Gallego.

1993?

Spike Owen.

1992?

Andy Stankiewicz.

1991?

By now, you've probably gotten the idea.

Before 1996, when Derek Jeter arrived as a rookie and a former first-round draft pick, and made the position his and his alone for the next 17 seasons, Yankees shortstops came and went as if through a revolving door.

The 1991 shortstop was Alvaro Espinoza, who actually had held the job in 1990 as well. Before Espinoza, it was Rafael Santana. Before Santana, Wayne Tolleson, and before Tolleson, Bobby Meacham, and before Meacham, Roy Smalley.

When you throw in the names of just a few of the other guys who passed through that revolving door -- Dave Silvestri, Kevin Elster, Jerry Royster, Paul Zuvella, Mike Fischlin, Robert Eenhoorn -- it really does seem as if Derek Jeter has been a Yankee for as long as Yogi Berra.

In fact, you have to go back more than 30 years, to the days of Bucky Dent, to come up with the name of a Yankees shortstop who held down the position for more than a season or two.

Until Jeter came along.

Of all the remarkable aspects of the continuing saga of Derek Jeter, this must rank as perhaps the most remarkable, the fact that for nearly two decades now, no one has had to think twice to come up with the name of the New York Yankees' shortstop.

Few players in the history of baseball have made a position their own the way Jeter has taken ownership of his.

And as Jeter finishes another remarkable season and prepares to embark on yet another postseason with the Yankees, his 16th in 17 chances, it's important to think about that for a moment.

For most of us, it is difficult to remember a time when Derek Jeter wasn't the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees.

And it's even harder to imagine a time when he won't be.

At 38 years old, an age when most shortstops have moved to either third base or the sofa, Jeter put up one of the best seasons of his career.

In a league in which just a handful of shortstops are older than 30, Jeter outhit every one of them, his .316 batting average higher than those of all but four other players in the American League.

For the fifth time in his career, he led all of baseball in plate appearances. For the second time, he led baseball in hits -- incredibly, 13 years after his first time. And he managed to stay healthy enough to play 135 games at shortstop, a dozen more than in 2011. He appeared in all but three of the team's games this season.

So before we even get into the transformation he made at the plate this year, take another moment to consider the sheer durability and longevity that enabled him to do that. Even without the 216 hits -- 15 of which were home runs, his highest total since 2009 -- that would be remarkable in itself. And by the way, his 32 doubles were the most he has put up since 2007, and more than any of his teammates besides Robinson Cano and Nick Swisher.

By just about any yardstick -- and I am purposefully ignoring such esoteric measurements as ultimate zone rating that purport to "prove" Jeter is the worst-fielding shortstop in baseball, because would you rather see Eduardo Nunez out there? -- it was not just a great season for a 38-year-old. It was a great season, period.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER/US PRESSWIREDerek Jeter is a hero to Yankees fans for his postseason work. But his overall October numbers are similar to the maligned Alex Rodriguez.

"I think he exceeded everyone's expectations," Joe Girardi said. "His leadership, his ability to play hurt. A guy at 38 isn't supposed to get, I don't know how many plate appearances he had, 700 maybe? That's not supposed to happen unless you're maybe a DH. He played shortstop every day; he played hurt. It's truly remarkable. For me, it's one of the greatest seasons I've ever seen considering all the factors."

You can look deeper into the stats for clues to Jeter's resurgence this year -- he hit a slightly lower percentage of ground balls this year than he had the previous two and hit a higher percentage of line drives than he has since 2006 -- but there's really no secret to why Jeter is called Captain Clutch.

Contrary to popular belief, Jeter is not a better hitter with men on base or in crucial situations or in postseason play.

He is simply the same hitter. His career average is .313, his career OBP .382, his career slugging percentage .448.

And his career numbers with runners in scoring position? .303/.395/.423.

In the postseason, the numbers are .307/.364/.465.

And in a season in which most of the Yankees -- including Cano, by far their best all-around player -- couldn't seem to buy a timely hit with Mitt Romney's bankroll, Jeter's numbers w/RISP were .310/.400/.380.

The guy is a marvel of consistency and has been for nearly 20 years now.

That is why, two years later, his disturbing 2010 season is looking more and more like an anomaly, and less and less like the beginning of a decline. There's no doubt he has been a different hitter since the game in which he got his 3,000th hit, and four others to boot, off David Price at Yankee Stadium.

Maybe there was something to Girardi's theory that Jeter was pressing in pursuit of the milestone, because since that game, Jeter has hit .319. Or basically, he's been the same hitter he was before the first half of 2010.

This is not to say Jeter is the same person he was back in 1996. He has changed, and not entirely for the better, especially since his rancorous contract negotiations with the club before the 2010 season.

Apparently, that swig of reality potion didn't go down so easily, and ever since, he has been less accessible in the clubhouse and a lot shorter with the media, even those he has known since the beginning.

But in fairness, although the Yankees probably could have played it even harder than they did -- it's unlikely anyone would have offered an at-the-time 36-going-on-37-year-old shortstop coming off a .270 season anywhere near the three-year, $51 million deal the Yankees eventually forked over -- that deal doesn't look nearly so one-sided in favor of the player as it did at the time it was signed.

In fact, if the Yankees make a strong postseason run this October and Jeter, as he usually is, is a major part of it, it might even look like a bargain.

The truth is, nothing can last forever, and there are times this Yankees team feels less like Jeter's team than Cano's or CC Sabathia's or even A-Rod's, since he loves to take on the role of clubhouse mentor that many assumed was Jeter's turf. In fact, Jeter stays to himself mostly these days, his buddies Jorge Posada gone and Mariano Rivera out for the season with a knee injury.

He has formed a bond with Ichiro Suzuki, a player of his generation, and the two enjoy the loose, joshing relationship of two future Hall of Famers surrounded by what they must look upon as a bunch of kids. And while the prospect of October baseball seems to have energized Ichiro after years in the purgatory of Seattle, Jeter seems to be facing the next playoff run the way he has faced everything, seemingly forever.

"This is what you play for,'' he said after the Yankees clinched the AL East on Wednesday night. "You play for a chance to get to the playoffs, win the division. It never gets old, but we haven't really won anything yet. Now we have to start all over again."

Derek Jeter has been saying that same thing for 17 years now.

It only seems like forever, or at least as far back as when Tony Whatshisname was the Yankees' shortstop.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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