COMMENTARY | New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is coming off his eighth season in which he's been named to the American League All-Star team, finished in the top 10 in the American League Most Valuable Player voting, and played in the postseason. He led the league in hits for the second time in career and, for the first time in his career, led the league in at-bats.
Thing is, he'll be in 39 in June, he's the oldest starting shortstop in the majors, and he's got a surgically repaired ankle. There are even questions about whether he'll be ready for opening day. Oh, and here's another factoid: The 1973 Boston Red Sox are the only team in major league history to have a winning record (89-73) with an everyday shortstop that old (Luis Aparicio).
One can't help but wonder: Is it time for Jeter to move on? To another position, that is. The topic came up in 2011, when Brian Cashman floating the idea of moving Jeter to the outfield. I think it's time to raise the idea of moving Jeter again.
It's gotten to the point where reporters are seemingly tweeting Jeter's every spring training move - from his getting on a treadmill to throwing a ball. Even Jeter's inaction - like making it late to the practice field this afternoon - lights up the Yankee twitterverse as much as his comments about needing a scooter (and whether or not it was motorized) to make it around his Florida mansion this offseason.
"As much as I'd like to be getting younger, I'm not," Jeter told reporters earlier this week during a press conference in which he danced around the topic of his age. "Everybody's getting older. There's always going to be questions. There always have been questions. I don't mind that."
Jeter is in the final year of his contract. He'll earn $17 million this season and has a player option worth at least $8 million for the 2014 season, when he'll be 40. Hopefully, by then, the Yankees can find someone to play shortstop, as Eduardo Nunez is obviously not the answer.
Perhaps Jeter can follow a few other shortstops when it comes to planning the final years of his career. To me, four stand out as examples for Jeter to follow. All four were considered clubhouse leaders just as Jeter is today and I trust that at the right time, Jeter will follow their example:
Pee-Wee Reese, whose career was cut short by 3 years of military service, played 16 seasons for the Dodgers. However, his last two seasons were less than memorable. In 1957, one year after finishing in the top 10 in the Most Valuable Player voting for the eighth time and becoming the oldest starting shortstop on a pennant-winning team, Reese, who turned 39 that season, played a majority of his games at third base. He finished the season with a .224 batting average - 45 points below his career average. In limited action the follow season, he finished with the same average.
Cal Ripken made the permanent move from shortstop to third base at age 36 and, for a time, excelled in his new position. At age 38, he batted .340 in 86 games. However, the next two years weren't so productive. Ripken hit .259 as a 39-year-old. In his final year, Ripken, then 40, hit .239.
Omar Vizquel played in four different decades for six different teams. Once a perennial Gold Glove winner (He won 11), Vizquel spent his final years as a part-time player. Last season, at age 45, with the Toronto Blue Jays, he became the oldest to ever play shortstop - breaking a record set in 1918. He, too, slowly transitioned to a less challenging position by spending time at both second and third base.
Dave Concepción was another longtime shortstop to make the switch. The nine-time All-Star spent 19 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, the majority of which he served as the Big Red Machine's shortstop. In his mid-30s, he began to slowly make the switch from shortstop to other infield positions. In 1987, at age 39, he played 59 games at second base, 26 games at first base, 13 games at third base, and only 2 at shortstop. That year, he hit .319 - 59 points higher than he hit the year before. However, the following year would be his last. Concepción batted only .198 in 84 games.
One hopes that, for Jeter's sake, the Yankees captain can plan his exit from the game gracefully by agreeing to move to another position before he costs the Yankees too many games. Other greats have done it, and Jeter should know that agreeing to such a move will only enhance his legacy as a team player. Personally, I think it's time.
Howard Z. Unger is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn, New York. For the past 15 years, he has written about sports, media, and popular culture. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, New York Post, and New York Times.
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