Long stay at shortstop
Derek Jeter turned 36 Saturday. That may not be an age that is considered a milestone, but I have always thought it was. After all, once you’re 36 for the first time in your life you’re closer to 50 than 20. You may not be starting the back nine of your life, but the halfway house is clearly in view.
As for a professional athlete, 36 is definitely on the back nine, unless you know anyone playing in the pros in his or her 70s, excluding Minnie Minoso, of course. Yet in this day and age of dedication to conditioning and nutrition, the pro athlete can endure far long than his antecedents, and there are few in baseball in better shape than Derek Jeter.
It is hard to think of him as getting old. Other than natural maturity, I have not seen any great change in his approach or demeanor from the 21-year-old kid who came to the Yankees’ spring training camp at Tampa, Fla., in 1996 ready to assume the role of shortstop.
The plan was for regular Tony Fernandez to move to second base and be ready to switch back if Jeter did not handle the job. Fernandez got hurt and was out for the year while Jeter went on to win Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year honors and help the Yankees win their first World Series championship in 18 years.
Long ago and far away, sure, but all these years later Jeter is still a main cog on the Yankees at one of the sport’s most demanding positions. And he is in no mood to think about playing someplace else, not in a different city and not at a different position.
Yet Jeter has reached that age which historically players at his position often move to another position. No better example exists than Cal Ripken Jr., a player Jeter admires and emulates, who was shifted to third base in 1997, the year he turned 36. He played only three games at shortstop after turning 36, not counting the 2001 All-Star Game.
Two other Hall of Famers, Ernie Banks and Robin Yount, were moved from shortstop in their early 30s due to arm injuries that hampered their effectiveness in the middle infield. Banks went to first base, and Yount to center field.
A couple of years ago, I sat down with Jeter and talked to him about the Yount move. This was a time when Bernie Williams’ career was winding down, and I queried whether he had given any thought to playing center field in the future.
Not a word, just a blank stare from those piercing green eyes. “I just thought maybe we’d talk about it,” I said.
He grinned and said, “Then I guess you’ll have to find someone else to talk to about that.”
Needless to say, I never brought the subject up again, and I am not going to do so here, either. I have been of the opinion since that day that shortstop is where Derek Jeter belongs for as long as he wants to play it. If he was not coming off shortstop for Alex Rodriguez, he wasn’t coming off shortstop for Jack O’Connell.
And why should he? It is not as if he is Phil Rizzuto, who hit .195 at age 36 and was a part-time player the next year and a half. Or Pee Wee Reese, who won a World Series with the Dodgers at that age in 1955 but was moved to third base two years later. Or Joe Cronin, who played very little shortstop after the age of 35. Or such Hall of Famers as Joe Tinker, Travis Jackson, Arky Vaughan and Lou Boudreau, who were retired as players before they turned 36.
Further research shows plenty of evidence that moving off shortstop is not all that warranted. Hall of Famers Honus Wagner and Luke Appling played more than 130 games at shortstop when each was 41. Rabbit Maranville, another Hall of Famer, finished 10th in the National League MVP race when he was 36 in 1928. Dave Concepcion was the Reds’ regular shortstop until he was 38, and as late as the age of 40 Omar Vizquel played 143 games at shortstop.
There are two shortstops that really stick out to me and with whom I hope Jeter will keep company – Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. They share an amazing distinction. Shortstop was the only position they played in their entire careers – 2,518 games for Little Looie and 2,511 games for the Wizard of Oz. Each made the All-Star team playing shortstop at age 36, which Jeter will do next month.
Aparicio’s last year was 1973, the first year of the designated hitter but he was never used in that spot, and Smith spent his whole career in the DH-less National League. Jeter has been a DH in 17 games, but the only position he has played in the field is shortstop. He celebrated his 36th birthday with game No. 2,193 – and counting.