I've always found it fascinating how one offseason can completely change a player.
Take Derek Jeter, for example. In 2009, he was the engine of a Yankees team that won 103 games in the regular season and a World Series title. He batted .334, had 212 hits, 18 homers, 107 runs, and a .406 on-base percentage. Then he disappeared for a few months, broke ground on St. Jetersburg, shot a couple of Ford commercials, and (probably) hung out a lot with Minka Kelly in a bikini.
The captain came back in April, just five months after finishing third in MVP voting and still 35 years old, and was never close to the same player again. Did his offseason workout schedule change? Unlikely, given what we know about him. Did he suffer a physical setback? Not that we heard of, and given the hyper-kinetic nature of today's media, it's unlikely it could've been hidden.
All signs point back to one undeniable truth: Derek Jeter got old.
It almost seems unfair, but I guess this is one of those things where baseball mirrors life. Mickey Mantle woke up one day in 1965 and couldn't hit a fastball anymore. Kirby Puckett opened his eyes one morning in 1996 only to realize one of those eyes no longer worked. There's a reason carnies on the Wildwood boardwalk keep making money off those "Life's A Bitch" t-shirts. The saying has truth ... and people have horrible fashion sense.
One of the greatest Onion pieces ever is titled "Inexorable March Of Time Brings TV's Jerry Mathers One Step Closer To Death." It's hilarious, oddly poignant, and completely interchangeable. You can swap in Jeter's name and the story doesn't lose any of its meaning (though all the Leave It To Beaver references may convolute it somewhat). Everything ends.
Alex Rodriguez hasn't followed the same trajectory as his partner on the left side of the Yankees infield, even if he'll reach the same conclusion. While Jeter's fall from elite player to JAG status was sudden and preciptious, the decline of our pinstriped centaur has been more like a slow burn.
A-Rod's dip from superduperstar status has a more obvious root cause, of course, that being the hip surgery that cost him part of the 2009 season. Rodriguez has intermittently flashed his old form — including, thankfully, during the 2009 postseason — but he's never been that immortal player of 2005 and 2007 again.
This year, his body seems to be in the midst of a measured breakdown, following a trajectory not unlike my 1988 Chevrolet Celebrity (R.I.P.). He suffered an oblique injury in April that took him weeks to bounce back from. He's had an issue with his non-surgically repaired hip and this week we learned about a banged up left shoulder that both he and the Yankees tried to keep quiet.
A-Rod's maladies have started to manifest right on your TV. Once a 40/40 talent, Rodriguez now runs like a lumbering power hitter. Watching him round the bases makes me cringe — I feel like every step is groin pull, hip twinge or Chien-Ming-Wang-foot-explosion waiting to happen.
Rodriguez turns 36 next month, so this shouldn't be too much of a surprise. That he's signed through his 42nd birthday is a surprise, no matter how many times I remind myself (thanks Hank!).
The good news in all of this? Rodriguez is still a productive player and a worthy cleanup hitter despite his advanced age. His contract will never be viewed as anything but a disaster, but as long as the slow burn isn't overtaken by the cliff dive, the Yankees will survive.
The Leave It To Beaver guy, however? That dude is screwed.
Dan Hanzus can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @danhanzus.