Jeter remains MLB's most consistent SS

Published Jul. 12, 2010 1:00 a.m. ET

In anticipation of the 1996 season, New Yorkers found themselves arguing over their next great shortstop:

Derek Jeter or Rey Ordonez?

Like most sports debates, this one proved embarrassingly premature. I don’t remember much about Ordonez but for a spectacular Opening Day catch and warning issued when one of my colleagues. Anthony Gargano, then of the New York Post, told him never to speak rudely to his girlfriend again, else it result in a beating. I’m happy to report Ordonez heeded the warning.

Ordonez’s demise shouldn’t be held against him, either.

He retired in 2004, after several injury-plagued seasons. And if he wasn’t Jeter’s equal, he wasn’t alone, but merely the first of many on the short end of that comparison. Fifteen seasons later, on the eve of Jeter’s 11th All-Star Game, Ordonez finds himself in some very good company.

There were flashier fielders. There were bigger, stronger, faster men to play the position. There were those who put up — how to say it? — juicier numbers. But none of them was better. I’m obliged to point out Jeter is having a subpar season. Just the same, he’s the best shortstop of his generation, which is to say, the best since Cal Ripken.

These sentiments, for what they’re worth, are a long time coming. I never cared for stars so conspicuously noncontroversial. It was difficult to warm to a guy who referred to the owner and the manager as “Mr. Steinbrenner” and “Mr. Torre.” A bit obsequious, it seemed, for a kid who was juggling starlets.


Still, all these years later, I’m most struck by Jeter’s fidelity to the game. At Monday’s media session, I asked how much weight he had put on since his rookie year.

“I was about 185 when I came up,” he said. “About 195 now.”

He was 21 then. He’s 36 now. Anyone you know managed to put on just 10 in those years? And still spend those years in the weight room?

“I work hard,” he said. “In the offseason. During the season.”

A lot of guys work hard.

“Good genetics, I guess.”

A lot of players were blessed from birth, too. That doesn’t mean they’re still major league shortstops.

“I remember I came up with Jeter,” Alex Rodriguez said. “We were about 18 or 19, and we both said, ‘If we can just play five years in the major leagues …”

Would’ve been great. More than great.

“That was the frame of mind back then,” he said.

Rodriguez was the most physically gifted shortstop ever to reach the major leagues. But again, genetics weren’t enough, as evidenced by his self-confessed steroid use. Jeter was a little different. Jeter’s game wasn’t power. His numbers never jumped much. Even as he played through a chemically corrupted era, he never hit 25 homers, and only once drove in more than 100 runs. He remains, like his weight, without much fluctuation, unbowed to the years.

It’s difficult enough to stay in the game. It’s more difficult, however, to remain a shortstop. According to STATS LLC, Ripken and Ozzie Smith each went to 14 All-Star Games playing shortstop. Jeter is next with 11.

He’s batting .274. Compare that with Carl Crawford, now at .321, the No. 2 hitter for the Tampa Bay Rays. Still, when the time came for Joe Girardi to fill out his All-Star lineup card, he penciled Jeter in second. The Yankees manager’s decision was more than political expedience. It was a well-earned homage.

“Derek Jeter has been to this All-Star Game many, many years in a row,” Girardi said, “and we just thought he deserved to be second.”

Perhaps those many, many years, as the manger put it, are Jeter’s genius. His is a disciplined, practiced contempt for the passage of time. “It’s all a mind-set,” he said. “If you sit around thinking about how you’re getting up there in age, the body starts reacting that way. The mind starts reacting that way. So I always think of myself a young guy.”

Consider the other great shortstops of his era. Rodriguez gave up the position to play for Jeter’s Yankees in 2004. Nomar Garciaparra, just year older than Jeter, is already a year out of the game, and hadn’t played shortstop since 2006. Miguel Tejada was a juicer. Edgar Renteria hasn’t made the All-Star team in four years. Michael Young is now a third baseman. And the seemingly indestructible Jimmy Rollins, two years Jeter’s junior, has played 31 games this season.

Now there’s a new generation of All-Star shortstops. They include players who grew up idolizing Jeter – Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki, who’s injured, and Texas’ Elvis Andrus, who will come on in the later innings. Then there are the Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez — outrageously talented, if a little knuckleheaded — and the Mets’ Jose Reyes.

Reyes is 27. He has played 113 games the past two seasons and will not play tonight. He’s a lifetime .285 hitter. Still, it wasn’t long ago, people were saying he was the best shortstop in New York.