Jeter will go down swinging

BY Ken Rosenthal • April 1, 2011

The confidence of superstar athletes is unwavering. It is part of who they are, part of why they’re great. It is why so many of them cannot admit to declining skills, why so many of their careers end ugly.

Derek Jeter is not at the end. Few in baseball will be surprised if he bats .300 again this season, plays an acceptable shortstop and leads the Yankees back to the playoffs, all while collecting the 74 hits he needs to reach 3,000.

Yet, Jeter turns 37 June 26. The image of him as a younger man is frozen in our minds — at 26, he already was a four-time World Series champion. But as the Yankees continue their season-opening series against the Tigers (MLB on Fox, Saturday, 4:10 p.m. ET), Jeter’s decline is a subject of relentless chatter in New York and something of a national fascination.

People in sports say it all the time: It never ends well with superstars. Jeter, an immensely proud and accomplished player, is not likely to be an exception. If anything — and it’s painful to think this, much less write it — his twilight years could be more unpleasant than most.

Superstars rarely make good self-evaluators; they believe anything is possible, and often prove it in their primes. Jeter, playing for the sport’s most famous team in the nation’s most demanding market, had a spectacular 14-year run before finally stumbling last season. He did it not simply by staying positive, but by rejecting any hint of negative thought.

Don’t tell him, as the Yankees did last off-season, his value is not what he thinks. Don’t tell him he can’t play shortstop, or he shouldn’t hit at the top of the order. Most of all, don’t tell him last season might have been the beginning of the end.

“Last year is over,” Jeter told reporters Thursday before collecting a walk, a run and an RBI in the Yankees’ 6-3 victory over the Tigers. “That’s the assessment of it. We’ve talked about it enough. I talked about it all spring, all off-season. It’s over with. It’s done with.”

He is implementing a new approach at the plate, something he started toward the end of last season. It’s not a new stance, not a new swing, but a simple matter of Jeter minimizing his stride and taking a more direct path to the ball. Jeter notes, correctly, it is not the first time he has made an adjustment. But when your batting average drops from .334 in 2009 to a career-low .270 in ’10, the questions will come.

Manager Joe Girardi adjusted the Yankees’ lineup to start the season, dropping Jeter to the second spot, behind Brett Gardner, against right-handers. Gardner offers more speed than Jeter, and his .383 on-base percentage last season was the highest of any Yankee regular. But Jeter might no longer be suited to hit second, either. He had the highest groundball rate of any major-league hitter last season, making him a prime candidate to hit into a high number of double plays.

Jeter’s defense, too, is under scrutiny — he again was rated as one of the worst-fielding shortstops last season after rebounding in ’09. Another season of slippage would create greater concern than his spot in the batting order. There is no other obvious spot for Jeter in the Yankees’ defensive alignment — and no obvious replacement for him at shortstop.

Yet, in the opinions of some rival scouts, the focus on Jeter’s shortcomings are a bit much. One scout, while acknowledging Jeter’s diminished range, says 90 percent of major-league clubs would be comfortable with his defense. Another offers the kind of compliment that drives sabermetricians and Jeter’s other critics nuts, noting that Jeter plays well within his range and “somehow carries his aura to keep the team together.”

Here’s a question, though: For the Yankees, at this moment, how many shortstops would be better? Troy Tulowitzki, for sure. Hanley Ramirez, assuming he could handle New York. Stephen Drew, maybe. But from there, the list narrows rapidly. The position is not nearly as deep in quality as it was 10 years ago.

Jose Reyes isn’t as consistent or durable as Jeter. Neither Jimmy Rollins nor Alexei Ramirez gets on base at nearly the same rate. Starlin Castro and Ian Desmond lack experience, Rafael Furcal is too frequently injured. Elvis Andrus, for all his defensive gifts, failed to hit a home run last season and had the second-lowest slugging percentage in the majors.

Jeter surely is aware he is still better than most shortstops, and that should only stiffen his resolve. Still, he cannot go on forever, and surely he is aware of that, too. Not that it will be any easier for him to accept. Not when he has been so great for so long.

Think of Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., a player whose stature in some ways compared to Jeter’s. Moving Ripken from shortstop to third base was like moving a mountain. Ripken initially resisted the change when the Orioles tried to install a younger, inferior player, Manny Alexander, in 1996. Only after the team signed free agent Mike Bordick that off-season did Ripken fully endorse the shift. Ripken — who, like Jeter today, was soon to turn 37 — respected Bordick.

Ripken was stubborn in other ways as well — his consecutive-games streak went on for more than 500 games even after he broke Lou Gehrig’s record. No one should have expected anything different, of course. If Ripken had not been stubborn, he never would have caught Gehrig in the first place.

It is that way with Jeter now. It is that way with most great ones. Yes, Mike Mussina retired gracefully after a 20-win season. Yes, Jorge Posada calmly accepted becoming a DH when the Yankees gave him sufficient notice. But while both may make the Hall of Fame, Jeter is at a level beyond.

Don’t tell him no. Don’t tell him anything. Jeter will block out the negative talk. He will ignore the ticking clock. He will fight to the end.

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