David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
DETROIT - Derek Jeter’s brief academic career at the University of Michigan was among the topics discussed with the Yankees’ captain before Tuesday night’s game at Comerica Park. But when someone suggested he could continue that education post-retirement, Jeter laughed.
“You saw that movie ‘Back to School’ with Rodney Dangerfield?" Jeter asked. “That’s going to be me right there.”
The first thing that comes to mind is a somersaulting Jeter doing a Triple Lindy, asthe bug-eyed Dangerfield does in the film. But the Yankees, in hoping for the typical Jeterian performance at age 40, have asked him to do something with the same degree of difficulty in his final season. Jeter, by the way, implored us again Tuesday not to call this a “farewell tour.”
“It’s like you’re just going around shaking hands and kissing babies,” Jeter said. “We’re still trying to win.”
The task of figuring out how to do that -- and where Jeter fits into the whole equation -- belongs to Joe Girardi, who was the first to put the ceremonial aspect of this season in perspective. Back in April, when asked about depriving fans the chance to see Jeter in person, the manager said it wasn’t his job to stage a farewell tour. The priority was to give Jeter proper rest, to keep him functioning from wire to wire.
Now here we are, a month from the finish line, and Jeter apparently running on fumes. With the ground ball-producing Brandon McCarthy on the mound Tuesday night, Girardi started Stephen Drew at shortstop and used Jeter at DH for the fourth time in nine games.
That was as many DH turns for Jeter as during the previous 120. A big reason for that is the change in personnel for the Yankees, who acquired both Drew and Martin Prado at the trade deadline. Along with Carlos Beltran’s return to rightfield, those moves have given Girardi the flexibility he didn’t have in the first half.
On Tuesday, Jeter had two of the Yankees’ nine hits, a pair of singles, in a deflating 5-2 loss to the Tigers. The first was a signature flare to rightfield, the second an infield chopper that a charging Ian Kinsler bobbled on the run. Jeter was erased by a double play each time.
He wasn’t the weakest link Tuesday. But with a dip in production lately, could he be tiring in his first full season back from ankle surgery? And at this stage, especially if Jeter is a bit gassed, there’s little doubt Drew is the better defensive option at shortstop. But Girardi didn’t want to look too far ahead when asked about his plans for Jeter in the coming weeks. “I’m just taking it day by day,” Girardi said.
After a 20-year marriage, the Yankees and Jeter only have another month together, so Girardi has no intent of causing any friction now. But this is a subject that’s impossible to look at objectively. In his previous 22 games entering Tuesday night, Jeter was batting .211 (20-for-95) -- by far his worst prolonged stretch of the season -- with a .227 on-base percentage. Before that, his low point was June, with a .272 BA and .309 OBP in 25 games.
The way Jeter has been trending recently, either he’s due for a September bump or the workload is catching up to him after playing 107 games at shortstop. And with the Yankees in the midst of a perilous run that could make or break their season, Girardi is faced with managing both the Jeter parade and his team’s playoff push. We’re waiting to see how that will pan out as the manager walks that DH/shortstop tightrope.
“I like to play every day,” Jeter said. “I like to play shortstop every day. Everyone’s aware of that. But I get it. I understand it. We’ve had a long stretch here. I don’t know what [Girardi’s] plans are. My job is to play.”
Girardi won't tell us what his plans are, either. He probably doesn’t even know.
As much as Girardi is a stickler for preparation, there’s no data that can help him solve this one, no hard statistical solution. Not for the Jeter conundrum.
Maybe the best thing to do is what everyone has always done with Jeter -- have faith that he’ll deliver when it counts most. Just keep writing his name in the lineup. It’s worked for the past two decades. And the Yankees aren’t going to stop now.