Aging process strikes again
Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada experiencing what eventually slows every major leaguer
As part of the cycle of a life in baseball, players will slow down. It's not always because the body just can't find that fifth gear any more. It may be the result of the mind and heart needing a jump-start, and that says nothing about fortitude after grinding it out for years.
We can find inspiration through the lens of one career or a group of champions. In finer detail we see the walks of Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada, two examples of steadfast patience and consistency. This year shows that even Jeter and Posada are not exempt from the bell curve of a major league career. If you have the good fortune of playing long enough, it is inevitable that you will slip and slide down the other side of the curve. The question is: Will it be gradual or will it be like being pushed off a cliff?
They both are fighting it, but with reason. In the museum of baseball, their careers have been works of art. Jeter has meshed great team success with athleticism on the bases, and the glove with a deadly bat that perennially has put up 200 hits a season. He seems to be on the gradual curve. Posada has gritted his way through a tough skill position with big hits and a competitive spirit. But the events of this past week have put Posada on a steep downhill.
As Jeter creeps toward 3,000 hits, Posada is revealing the very human insecurity that he may not be getting it done. The Yankees have a dilemma, which comes with the territory as a championship franchise. What do you do with aging legacy players? How do you evaluate their performances? Is it a "slow start"? Should we "wait and see because our team leaders are invaluable"? Did Jeter's two-homer game mean the beginning of a hot summer or the beginning of the end? Words like "slow bat" are getting thrown around as if it is a novel evaluation or a permanent state of despair.
Not to worry. Every hitter is told he has a slow bat at one time or another. I remember hearing the "slow bat" criticism in 2002. As a competitor, I didn't see anything as permanent, even if my bat was slow at the time. It is something mechanical, I told myself. I will get out of it.
But maybe you won't have that chance because around the corner is the day when you lose the protection that allows you to work through it, that allows you to struggle because of who you think you are. You are caught off guard because you developed this delusional expectation that your name had been written in blood on that lineup card every day. You shudder at the thought that it had been in pencil all along or that your only way in is through the nine-hole.
Protection came because your contract bought you the visibility, or because your team is flat-out winning, or because you are just so good that it seemed like a no-brainer. We forget that the protection can disappear as the direct result of arbitrary lines in the sand, like age or timing. Other times it is the product of key decision-makers projecting that you are as good as you are going to get and you are only getting worse. And when those decision-makers have Yankee-like pressures to win, the process moves even quicker.
To the likes of Jeter and Posada, such a fickle report card is completely unacceptable. They want to be the ones who know what they have lost. The only problem is baseball players are terrible self-evaluators who need denial as much as they need a rocket arm.
Part of a player's success hinges on bucking conventional opinion. Baseball requires so many different skills to be a major leaguer that you can always find a player's hole -- bad on backhand balls in the hole, doesn't hit sliders well, poor two-strike approach -- especially if you only take a snapshot. Players have heard every explanation for their strengths and weaknesses, so why should they be defined by them now? If a player is still standing, it doesn't really matter. It only matters when you are not in the lineup, you take yourself out of the lineup or you are just plain riddled with self-doubt.
In 2002, I was the struggling big leaguer. I showed declining numbers from 2000 to 2002 and my coverage went from five bars to no signal. It was no longer in the Phillies' best interest to lose ballgames and allow me to figure it out. Marlon Byrd was trending, so letting me work out of my "slump" (that is what I called it) was only going to make me more expensive on a team that didn't do much winning. Why not give the young, inexpensive player, who still has a few years before he has financial leverage, a shot? A fair question.
Suddenly, I was on the pine for the first time in my life, and I did not like it. I remember my manager, Larry Bowa, and I disagreeing about it on the field one day during batting practice. I thought I needed time, but my clock had run out. When it does, you start paying attention to the clocks of other players. In any given year, even the most rock-solid players get off to slow starts. That year, Travis Lee and I became the lineup "shake-up" casualties although it could have been almost anyone in our lineup.
Paranoia kicked in. Why me? Who pulled the plug? The front office? The manager? Or the horror of questioning yourself: "Maybe I did lose a step."
Experience can create confidence that at times can be self-deceiving. Facing a pitcher so often that you know what is coming doesn't mean you will execute what's in your mind. Jeter and Posada have faced a boatload of pitchers a bunch of times and feel comfortable that there will be no surprises. The surprises come, though, when they aren't quite getting to Jon Lester's cutter even though they used to hit it in their sleep.
Despite sitting on the bench for more than a month and dealing with the heavy loss of my father, I hit .350 over the last six weeks of the 2002 season. I called a meeting with Phillies GM Ed Wade to vent. He probably knew that I was not of sound mind, but he was patient with my meeting. At one point I listed just about every pitcher I sat out against during the season even though I had dominated them -- Leiter, Vazquez, Benes, et al. Not to mention my .290 career average going into that year. I rhetorically asked, "How do you get out of a slump if you are not playing, let alone playing against pitchers who you destroy?"
So how are the Yankees going to handle this? I walked into my GM's office without a fresh long-term deal, without being part of a championship machine, without being an All-Star over multiple seasons. What would Jeter say if his season becomes a roller coaster of starts and stops? And what would he have done in my shoes?
We may find out soon enough, certainly in the next three years, the length of his contract. In fact, he can take note by watching what is happening to Posada. Jeter may be more of an untouchable, but there is no such thing as slightly untouchable.
I was a free agent at the end of that 2002 season, making my benching all the more frustrating. I had been marginalized and had nothing with which to sell myself for the next contract. The Phillies made an offer and ultimately the best offer I would see, but I wanted to go to a place where I was assured of playing every day. So I left the comforts of Philadelphia -- my alma mater, my house, my mom (a recent widow at the time) being within a two-hour drive, a great city all around for me -- and went to Texas. Jeter and Posada really don't have those options. Can you imagine either of them in a Padres uniform?
Is the Yankee core slowing down? Absolutely, because they are old by baseball standards and are supposed to slow down. The steroid era established an unrealistic bar that players would actually get physically better with age, but that was superhero stuff. They are supposed to slow down but provide something else that is productive to their team. Maybe it is wisdom, positioning, anticipation, will, traits that get lost when players cut corners and find illicit ways to not age. (Yes, I am assuming that steroids were not in the equation). They both can still contribute; the big question is whether they will be able to do so in a smaller role.
That can be answered in how the Yankees handle their situations. Jeter will not passively accept a new role overnight just as Posada will need to be comforted that he is part of the team even though he isn't directly involved in every single pitch. The Yankees will still win ballgames, and they can make moves around their core in the meantime. And let's not forget these core players may actually get hot and produce. Mix in some needed days off and exploit good matchups and it can work out, especially after Jeter gets his 3,000th hit with grace and class.
It happens to the best of the best. The game keeps on moving at one speed, and suddenly you feel like you can't quite jump in and keep up. But part of keeping up has less to do with routine in the gym or the batting cage than it does the mental and emotional exercise of coping with a new day. It often takes longer than fixing your swing. The better player you have been, the longer it will take to accept anything less than being the guy who needs the uniform ripped off his back, even if it takes skin with it. Unless you are the one to take the uniform off voluntarily.
For Jeter and Posada, what's left is finishing strongly and being the rare player who can go out on his own terms whenever that day comes. Right now they are both feeling the slow push out the door, and even though they are programmed to push back with the heart of a champion, they have doubts, fears and questions. Playing against these guys for as long as I did, I understand that they are special players. When they got an opportunity, they kicked the door down. Every major league team is loaded with great résumés from yesteryear, every bit as good as the Yankee players before they became Yankees. The difference with the Yankees is their intangibles; they don't run faster, they don't throw harder, they don't have quicker bats, but they are marvels at getting smarter and better with experience and success.
Unfortunately, all great things have to come to an end. The proverbial door will ultimately close on them, and then in a flash they will find themselves wondering how they will be remembered. If it's any indication, Posada was met with a rousing ovation Sunday after his emotional and mental need to pull himself out of the lineup the other day.
Yet maybe an even better indicator came in response to a request I made to Derek Jeter. Just before my son was born, I sent him a text message. In it, I asked him if he would send me a personalized bat for my then-unborn son to put in his nursery. The next day, the bat arrived in a package on my front steps.
It is near impossible for players like Jeter and Posada, in the thick of big careers, to know what the other side of life looks like, to know that it will be OK no matter what they hit this year. But if it is any consolation for Jeter and Posada, they will be remembered fondly. And if a twisted case of amnesia causes the masses to forget, one father won't, and neither will his son -- the one with a very cool signed bat hanging in his room.
Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and on the board of the MLBPAA (MLB Players Alumni Association). His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released in May 2010. Click here to buy it in paperback on Amazon.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dougglanville
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