Derek Jeter is a Yankee immortal, at least as far as James Fiorentino is concerned. In the bowels of the Stadium, just outside the Yankee clubhouse, the 24-year-old Middlesex, New Jersey, baseball-card artist fidgets, standing in front of his latest creation: a giant oil painting of 15 Yankee immortals. His goal: to get the only active Yankee among this collection of greats to sign it.
Jeter emerges from the Yankee clubhouse, shakes hands without eye contact. The shortstop grabs a blue Sharpie and, with a practiced stroke, John Hancocks it quickly but precisely. He gives the painting only a cursory glance, focusing only on where he should sign, not on the fact that he’s sitting to the right of Mickey Mantle and above Lou Gehrig. As he poses for a quick snapshot with Fiorentino—”No problem”—before retreating to the pre-game spread, it’s easy to wonder where Jeter is going to fit into the real Yankee pantheon. Fiorentino has no doubts. “Pretty awesome,” he says, with thinly disguised zealotry.
When fans look back on this Yankee dynasty, as sure as we cherish the image of Reggie Jackson’s ‘fro or Mickey Mantle’s corn-fed grin, we’ll remember watching Derek Jeter grow up in public, fast and right before our eyes, as if he were an orchid blooming in front of a time-lapse camera on the Discovery Channel. Back in 1996, you’d come to the park for the first game of a home stand, and lo and behold, the coltish young shortstop would be better than he was before the road trip. By the fourth inning, he’d show you something he couldn’t do a week, a day, an inning ago. Turn on an inside fastball. Lay off that tempting slider off the plate. Dance through a double play like Savion Glover. Go first to third on an outfielder who’s thinking about his stock portfolio.
Of course, the team noticed, too. It’s no accident that Jeter was issued the number 2. Someday, that number will almost surely be up on the bullpen wall, retired and slotted neatly between Billy Martin and Babe Ruth.
And Jeter soon earned the prime locker space next to the vacant stall once occupied by Thurman Munson, all the better to handle a pile of fan mail big enough for a Backstreet Boy. He was the living embodiment of Waite Hoyt’s old saw: It’s great to be young and be a Yankee.
But today, at 27, the days of Derek Jeter as a work in progress seem like a distant memory. Look at Jeter’s career stats, and there’s much to like. Age for age, he’s got more hits than Wade Boggs had, scored more runs than Barry Bonds. He’s already hit more home runs than Phil Rizzuto did in his whole career, and he should pass the Scooter in RBIs sometime next year. His .319 career batting average ranks behind only Ruth, Gehrig, Combs, and DiMaggio among Yankees.
He’s already got a foot and a couple of toes in Cooperstown. The problem is that at the same age, so did Chuck Knoblauch. And Don Mattingly. And Darryl Strawberry. Examine Jeter’s numbers more carefully, examine the trends and not just the bottom line, and you might want to sell short. No one really wants to say it, but at an age when he should be reaching his peak, Jeter has been slipping for the better part of two seasons, marooned on a plateau, a promise of greatness leveled off to a guarantee of solidly-above-averageness. In the first half of this year, despite packing on 20 pounds of muscle and five years of experience, he’s showing less power and less patience today than when he was a rookie. (See chart.) Star quotient aside, the apt statistical comparison isn’t to A-Rod or Nomar, but to Jeff Cirillo.
While it has been concealed in the wake of Chuck Knoblauch’s Wagnerian fielding woes (Der Throwingdung), Jeter’s defense has been suspect, too. His fielding percentage and his range factor (see chart again) have been declining since 1997. Sure, he still makes that over-the-shoulder grab better than anyone this side of Randy Moss. He also moves to the left about as well as Strom Thurmond. Why isn’t it fodder for the tabloids that the highest-paid Yankee in history has taken a giant step backward? It’s because Jeter has remained the stereotypical stand-up guy: accessible, quotable—to a point—respecting his dad, and loving his mother. How can you dump on a guy who dumped Mariah Carey? If Satchel Paige was right and every ballplayer is a moving target, improving, declining, but never standing still, it begs another question. Where’s that elusive pivot point when the Cyclone of a player’s talent reaches its apogee and, basically, it’s all downhill from there?
Like teenage boys, baseball players peak early, maybe too early. The Babe was only 26 when he had his best season, DiMag was the same age when he notched 56 in a row, and Mantle was 25 when he won the Triple Crown. Many, if not most great players have had their best seasons, those proverbial career years, by age 27. So if it is indeed behind him, when, exactly, was Derek Jeter’s peak? Rewind two years almost to the day. Before the All-Star break of 1999, Jeter had the kind of half-season that put him toe-to-toe with A-Rod, Nomar, and Honus Freakin’ Wagner, too. He hit 14 homers, drove in 60 runs, scored 73. He hit .373 with a .611 slugging percentage and a .454 on-base percentage. Drop those numbers in the middle of Babe Ruth’s career, and no one will bat an eye. Jeter was as automatic as an ATM, he reached base on opening day, and he didn’t wear the big collar again for an astonishing 53 games. For four remarkable months, Jeet played as if he had stepped out of a copy of the All-Star Baseball video game rigged by a hacker, every at bat ending in an opposite-field double, or at least a frozen-rope line out. I can only imagine what it was like watching DiMaggio in 1941, and I imagine it was like watching Derek Jeter in 1999. Now? Jeter was one of six Yankees on the All-Star team, but his trip to Seattle was mostly payback from the boss he still calls Mr. Torre, who understands that in years hence, when A-Rod and Nomar are both healthy, Jeter might just have to watch the midsummer classic on TV.
So, as Derek Jeter enters the second half of the season, and maybe of his career, what does the future hold? Maybe this all-too-ordinary start is the result of nagging injuries or even worry about his younger sister, who was diagnosed with cancer during the off-season. Maybe he’s simply caught up in the malaise of being on a team filled with players—Tino, Paulie, Scott, and Chuckie—playing out the string on their Yankee careers, and perhaps even their baseball careers. And there’s always the possibility that, next season, with a new crew to impress—Drew Henson, Nick Johnson, even Barry Bonds or Jason Giambi—Derek might again start to party like it’s 1999. But whether or not that happens, let’s remember that the Yankee pantheon is populated by mortals—the center fielder who went through two livers, the first baseman who had a disease named after him, and the catcher who never learned how to fly. A not-so-young shortstop who has lost the capacity to surprise us is hardly the stuff of tragedy.
At a time when Derek Jeter should be entering the prime of his career, his offensive and defensive numbers have slipped for three consecutive seasons, and his 2001 stats are worse than those of his rookie year.