Richard Justice

Jeter defying all who wrote him off

Justice: Jeter defying all who wrote him off

Jeter defying all who wrote him off
ARLINGTON -- Looking back on it, Derek Jeter did attempt to tell us there'd be more times like this. Let's give him that right up front. Our hats are off to you, buddy.

The thing is, we were so busy writing his career obituary that we really didn't listen. Just between us, if your friendly neighborhood columnist had a nickel for every aging player who said the same thing, he'd be on easy street.

They always talk about mechanical adjustments and working harder and being patient. They warn us not to doubt them because haven't they always delivered in the past?

In this case, our mistake was failing to recognize that Jeter has never been like other players. He has always been more driven, more gifted, more of almost everything.

Jeter is at that point in his career, beginning his 19th season, where we can realize how lucky we've all been to watch this guy play baseball. Still, when he was hitting .260 last season, it was so easy to believe his best days were behind him.

Maybe you've heard Jeter isn't finished. He did indeed make some mechanical adjustments when a calf injury forced him onto the disabled list last June -- and in the 81 games since, he has been just about as good as ever.

In those 81 games, Jeter is hitting a blazing .354. He's back to hitting the ball to right-center, spraying it here, there and everywhere.

"I keep telling him it's like 1999 again -- three hits every day," teammate Alex Rodriguez said.

Or four hits.

That's what Jeter had in the Yankees' 7-4 victory over the Rangers on Monday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

All those four hits did was raise Jeter's batting average to a cool .411. He got all four against Rangers starter Derek Holland and is hitting a dazzling -- wait for it -- .629 against lefties.

Wait, it gets better. Scouts have clocked Jeter going from home to first in 4.2 seconds, which is better than the 4.3 MLB average. During the opening series in Tampa Bay, one scout had him at 4.16.

Did we mention that Jeter is a couple of months away from his 38th birthday, that he's long past the point where he should be in decline?

"I don't put anything into you guys' age," Jeter told a group of reporters. "Ah, it gives you something to write."

Turning serious, he said, "We're all getting older. That's pointing [out] the obvious. Just because you're getting older doesn't mean you can't do things."

To revisit last season, this resurgence makes perfect sense. Jeter was hitting .260 when he went on the disabled list. He returned to his home in Tampa and hooked up with his former hitting coach, Gary Denbo. Together, they junked some adjustments in his stride Jeter had been attempting to make.

He returned to the Yankees on the Fourth of July, got hot shortly after that and has been hot ever since. Against the Rangers, he collected singles in the first, second and fifth innings, and then doubled in a run in the sixth.

"When I stay back, I feel as though good things can happen," Jeter said. "I went through a long stretch when I didn't stay back. Now, I'm staying back. But it's not like this is the first time I've done it in my career. It has nothing to do with age, has nothing to do with anything. If the mechanics are good, the results will be there."

Jeter looks so good at the plate, so smooth and so confident, that it does indeed feel like 1999 all over again.

"He's amazing," Rodriguez said. "You see him in batting practice, and the ball's jumping off his bat to all fields. When you go 10-15 rows up in batting practice to all fields, that's pretty impressive. I think whatever he was doing in the second half, he's just building on this year."

In the manager's office, reporters begin throwing out numbers. Could Jeter hit .400? What about .350?

"I'd sign up for it right now," Joe Girardi said.

No, Girardi said, he's long past being surprised by anything Jeter does. On the other hand, Jeter did hit a very human .270 in 2010. Wouldn't it be easy to presume that average was an indication he was in decline?

"Sometimes you go through years like that," Girardi said. "Sometimes you just have tough years. I'll never forget what Joe Torre said one day. He said, 'I hit .360 one year and .260 the next year. I was the same guy.' This is a tough game. I'm probably more surprised when [Jeter] struggles than when he does well."

Besides, age is relative.

"I always think of him ... like a kid," Girardi said. "When I came over [to the Yankees in 1996], he was a kid. Maybe it makes me feel better about how old I am. He's playing like he's 25."

Like many of the rest of us, Girardi is enjoying watching Jeter slap the ball all over the field, run around, have fun, look pretty much like the Jeter we've always known.

"He's off to a great start. He feels good physically, and that's the most important thing," Girardi said. "When he went through his struggles last year, there was one thing I wasn't going to do. I wasn't going to doubt him. I know his heart and his character and how hard he works."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.