Derek Jeter is getting old. He can barely hit the ball anymore. Yet this is a good thing.
Yankees fans are going through tough times right now. Well, as tough as it can be rooting for a billion-dollar franchise. Our North Star is fading. The ever-present face of the franchise has been whittled away by time. Derek Jeter just isn’t Derek Jeter anymore.
As the great Joe Posnanski writes:
When I see Derek Jeter’s horrible struggles, my younger self shouts what Jeter is no doubt thinking: That it’s just a phase, that he will figure something out, that he will find a way to adjust. But the left-knee part of my brain tells me that Derek Jeter is done, and I think that part of the brain is right. It isn’t just that Derek Jeter is hitting .250. It isn’t just that he has two extra-base hits (both doubles) this year. It isn’t just that he’s coming off by far the worst year of his career.
Posnanski then goes on to break down all of Jeter’s hits for the year (25 in 112 plate appearances), showing that Jeter has barely even hit the ball in the air. The conclusion: while he won’t be this bad, Jeter’s time as a top-level shortstop is done. Unfortunately, he just signed a three-year $51-million contract with an option for a fourth year.
The Yankees are losing the Captain. As a fan, it should be a frightening thought, but somehow it’s not. To me, Jeter’s demise is oddly comforting. He’s getting old. Shouldn’t we expect that?
We’ve been spoiled over the last two decades. Guys have fought off age and succeeded for way too long.
Brett Favre had the best season of his career at 40. He was done and then he wasn’t. On and off the field, he confused the hell out of us. He defied logic, gravity, and everything else to keep performing after time had already asked him to stop.
Michael Jordan was the best player in the NBA until he retired. He won championships in his last three seasons and MVP in two of the final three. Barry Bonds crushed the ball well into his 30s. He might’ve even had his best season when he was 39. Tiger Woods didn’t age either. His premature marriage derailed his golf game, didn’t it?
The symbolic stars of the past decade showed us—while they were playing—that age doesn’t matter. The best can still dominate when their kids are in middle school. They’re athletes, after all. It’s their job to keep being great.
But that was all so hollow.
Barry Bonds wasn’t real. Favre hit a brick wall after 2009. Woods broke down physically, it just happened while his marriage fell apart. And Jordan had to come back. He had to come back because he had to remind us that it just doesn’t work like that.
All athletes deal with aging in different ways. Some slowly fade out of the game—skills erode year by year, eventually rendering them nothing more than a name. For others, it all falls apart, all of a sudden. And then a rare few find a way to fight off time, but, really, to fight off themselves. They reinvent their games and become a player they never were.
Look at Ryan Giggs of Manchester United. Once a blurry-quick winger, now he’s a calm center midfielder, winning—however bogusly—England’s player of the year award in 2009 at 35.
But whatever path the aging takes, it shocks us. It comes from a place we never expected. Or it comes from a place we saw coming, just were never ready to acknowledge. Or it transforms a player we knew into a player we didn’t know existed.
Posnanski, who has of become the leading journalist in the field of “Proving that star athletes won’t ever be good again because they’re getting old,” compares aging in sports to our own aging:
Getting old is, of course, more stark in sports than just about anywhere else in life. This is because there is a constant influx of youth in sports. There are always new kids in sports. Our games do not get older. The average age of the players stays stunningly constant through the years. It’s the players individually who get older.
That’s partially true, but I don’t think that’s the main reason. We might keep ourselves around groups of similarly-aged people, as Posnanski goes on to say, but there’s always a new phenom out there, waiting to tell you how old you are. Just yesterday, Randy Moss’s daughter committed to play basketball at the University of Florida. Chew on that for a second.
The main reason aging in sports is so shocking is that it takes the 10,000 Hour Rule to a point and then suddenly decides that it just doesn’t apply anymore.
Save for manual labor, with every other job, you keep getting better with age. Experience enhances everything. With every day, your writing, litigation, or sandwich artistry improves.
Yes, this happens in sports, but not too far past your 30s. Then you hit that point, and you’re never the same. Each game, your skills begin to diminish. There’s so much you’ve already learned, that you really can’t get any better as your body loses it. The vehicle that got you there is leaving, but it’s sputtering, spitting out smoke, breaking down before your eyes.
You lose speed. The reactions slow. You can’t move like you used to. Flexibility and explosiveness disappear. Fast-twitch muscles aren’t so fast anymore. It’s awkward and uncomfortable for everyone involved.
Wait, this guy couldn’t do that? I just saw him do it last year. What? Did he just forget?
But then, as fans, I think there’s a point where we realize that it’s nothing more than time. Beatings broke the body down. Each game is another confirmation that this guy just isn’t the same. For all the new dieting regimens and training methods, it’s inevitable.
That’s what’s happening with Derek Jeter. It’s what happened with Ken Griffey Jr. (He fell asleep in the clubhouse just to make sure we knew). And it’s no one’s fault. They’re human. This is how it’s supposed to be. The stars go out to pasture, and we’ll soon forget how it all ended.
—Photo AP/David Goldman