It took me 20 minutes to find the notebook that included an unused Derek Jeter interview. I knew the notebook was in my home office, but I didn’t know it was buried beneath several more old notebooks, a book about how to win at blackjack and a compact disc player. Yes, a CD player.
I searched for the notebook because Jeter’s disappointing performance this season reminded me of a conversation we had six months ago. On a random morning in Tampa, Fla., I asked Jeter about the future. Jeter didn’t want to discuss being in the final year of his contract with the Yankees so I asked him about the years beyond 2010. Just how long does Jeter want to play?
“As long as I’m having fun, I’m going to keep playing,” Jeter said. “Why would you put limitations on yourself?”
That was a typical response from Jeter, who oozes with confidence on his worst day. Jeter’s ability to keep things simple is a trait that other players wish they had. Baseball is a grind, a draining game that can became tougher when the mind is cluttered. Jeter eliminates the clutter. In 2010, the clutter has multiplied because Jeter has deteriorated into a .264 hitter.
But, back in March, Jeter was a linchpin player who was five months removed from a season where he batted .334 and helped the Yankees win another World Series title. As Jeter pulled his knee guards and sliding pants out of his locker, he stressed why he intended to keep going and going.
“I don’t feel,” he said, “like I’m hanging on.”
At the time, Jeter’s words were innocuous. He was right. He wasn’t hanging on. But, as Jeter struggled this season, I thought about those words. Jeter has been late on too many fastballs and has been fooled by too many breaking pitches, the signs of a hitter who is guessing. For the first time in his glorious career, Jeter has heard a consistent buzz about whether he is hanging on. That’s why I needed to find my notebook and revive my interview. Suddenly, Jeter’s words weren’t innocuous anymore.
On the night where the Yankees honored George Steinbrenner with a massive monument at Yankee Stadium, Jeter slapped two hits in an 8-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Jeter punched a single past Matt Garza in the sixth inning to deliver the go-ahead run on Monday. It wasn’t a thing of beauty and it barely sneaked past the infielders, but it worked. Curtis Granderson followed with a three-run homer.
When manager Joe Girardi has been asked about shifting Jeter from the first or second spot in the lineup, he has dismissed the question. Girardi has been publicly supportive of Jeter, hoping that he will prove the manager right, a la Mark Teixeira. The Yankees are still waiting, still hoping.
Since Jeter was benched for a game against the Texas Rangers on September 11 and had a 300-swing tutorial with Kevin Long, the batting coach, he is 11-for-33 with five walks, five runs batted in and seven runs scored in eight games. Long worked with Jeter on adjusting the movement of his left leg, the front leg that Jeter uses as a timing mechanism, so that the leg moves forward and gives him a clearer path to the ball. That adjustment should also help Jeter have a better chance against inside pitches.
While the adjustments have helped Jeter be more productive, it is a testament to how much he has struggled that an encouraging eight-game stretch is even being evaluated. Jeter has always been a player the Yankees could depend on, especially in October. The Yankees must hope that Jeter’s 2010 postseason will resemble his other postseasons, not his 2010 regular season. Jeter has a .313 average, a .383 on base percentage, 175 hits and 20 homers in 138 postseason games.
If Jeter has another superb postseason, the questions about the regular season won’t seem as loud or as pertinent. Six months ago, Jeter didn’t dispute the notion that he would like to play three or four more years. He did mention that he won’t “watch baseball” after he retires.
No baseball? Not even an occasional game? I asked Jeter how he was going to avoid watching baseball if he had plans to eventually own a team.
“If I own a team,” he said, “I’ll be watching those games.”
But, in Jeter’s world, those days are in the future, the distant future. Jeter still believes he has a lot of playing, not some hanging on, to do.
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