Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Derek Jeter's last laugh

In the fading twilight of Don Mattingly's career, every contribution by the erstwhile Hit Man was cause for celebration in the Bronx.

Mattingly was adored by Yankees fans in a way that was almost familial. He wasn't just loved, he was protected. A bad back had robbed the captain of the torque necessary to be a productive offensive player, but on the days Mattingly did find the short porch in right, a standing ovation was always in order.

There was no getting around the fact that Mattingly had no business being an everyday player by the end of his run in New York. In his last two seasons, Mattingly hit 13 homers in 830 at-bats. His OPS was a Joey Cora-like .754 in 1995, his final year before retirement.

Mattingly took heat for his lack of production, but the old media model was still in place, limiting the vitriol. WFAN's Chris Russo was outspoken in his criticism, and George Steinbrenner was accused by Mattingly himself of planting negative stories with the help of Bill Madden, columnist for the Daily News.

But with no Internet and the nasty snark streak that it helped create, Mattingly's final years played out with an air of dignity that could never happen today.

Just ask Derek Jeter. The current Yankees captain rivals Mattingly in fan adoration levels, but Jeter has faced scrutiny that Mattingly never could've imagined. Even when Jeter was in his prime, he was described by some as grossly overrated. As he's grown older, the sniping has increased considerably — first about his range at shortstop and later about his ability at the plate.

Last winter was open season on Jeter, as his ugly contract situation combined with an underwhelming 2010 campaign made for a turkey shoot. Things didn't get better as he staggered toward 3,000 hits this spring. Kevin Long's new swing model was unceremoniously scrapped (a black mark for the venerable "Cage Rat") and Jeter scuffled in April, May and June, hitting .250, .274 and .239, respectively.

In June, a calf injury sent him to the disabled list on the precipice of 3,000 and suddenly Jeter was literally limping toward the milestone. Jokes about the big hit being a misplayed infield chopper were commonplace. Derek Jeter, the great and dignified Yankee, was washed up ... and a lot of people seemed to be enjoying it.

Of course, Jeter has since altered that narrative. The shortstop put his swing back together, and is hitting .343 with three homers, 34 RBIs, 33 runs and eight stolen bases in the 51 games since his return to the lineup. His breakup with Minka Kelly may be the only blemish on an otherwise sterling summer.

Predictably, you've heard less about Jeter's revival than his supposed downfall. I suspect this bothers me more than him, however. Jeter's unflappable nature was on full display in the HBO documentary about his quest for 3,000. This was a guy with his career at a crossroads, who was being questioned on a near-daily basis about whether he was still a player, and he never blinked.

The doc was a fascinating look into Jeter's life while also distilling the core brilliance of his mastery of the media. Even when you think you're in, you're not. Jeter never lets us see him sweat. The emperor always keeps his clothes.

And that's why we can only speculate this morning about Jeter's satisfaction with how this 2011 season has played out. He won't gloat now, just as he wouldn't pout then. He is the finest example of how a professional athlete in New York — or any market — should carry himself. Just as Mattingly was a generation before.

Dan Hanzus can be reached at dhanzus@gmail.com or on Twitter @danhanzus.

2 comments:

Uncle Mike said...

I never did buy into the Cult of Saint Donald Arthur of Evansville. Then again, how many titles would Jeter have won if he knew that, odds are, out of the bullpen would come Bob Shirley, Greg Cadaret or Steve Trout?

But the fact that teams with Mattingly in uniform -- here and in Los Angeles -- still don't win Pennants should remind everyone that there's very good, and then there's great, and, of these two, only Jeter reached it.

Hopefully, it won't be his LAST laugh.

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