Don Mattingly: Derek Jeter 'the greatest'

Updated: May 8, 2011, 10:35 AM ET
By Mike Mazzeo | Special to ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Los Angeles Dodgers first-year manager Don Mattingly hasn't been able to pay much attention to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter's hitting struggles.

But Mattingly, who was Jeter's teammate for a short stint in 1995 before his retirement, wants everyone to know that Jeter will go down as "the greatest that's ever played here," regardless of how the Yankees captain's illustrious career ends.

"I really think it's just full-circle with players," said Mattingly, who played all 13 of his major league seasons with the Yankees (1983-95) as a first baseman before hanging up his cleats at age 34. "You're coming up as a rookie and everybody loves you because you're coming up through the system and all that. Then you hit a period of your career where you get questioned about how you can't do this or you can't do that anymore.

"And then, once this all gets blown through, it's gonna get to the end where he's gonna be [thought of] as the greatest that's ever played here."

The 36-year-old Jeter, a .313 career hitter, is batting just .250 this season (27-for-108). He has just two extra base hits, and according to FanGraphs.com, has a career-high 71.6 ground-ball percentage and a career-low 11.6 line-drive percentage.

"It's gonna happen," Mattingly, who was a .307 career hitter, said of the effects of age. "And it's gonna be natural the way it happens. It happens for everyone. And unfortunately Jeet's not gonna be immune to what happens to everyone."

The Yankees signed Jeter to a three-year, $51 million contract in the offseason with an $8 million player option for 2014, which includes a $3 million buyout.

Jeter was the leadoff hitter for Friday night's game at the Texas Rangers.

Jeter missed Thursday's game against Detroit, a day after leaving a game with a right hip problem. Manager Joe Girardi described it then as day-to-day, and Jeter said it was nothing serious.

"He said he just felt like his hip popped, you know, like it just needed to pop," Girardi said Friday before the game. "Yesterday he felt better and today he's fine so I put him back out there. He didn't necessarily have an injury. He just said it felt stiff."

While Jeter was back, Nick Swisher was scratched from the original lineup Friday because of illness.

Mattingly battled persisting injuries toward the tail end of his career, but claimed that had nothing to do with his decision to retire.

"Mine was [wanting to be with my] kids. Period," Mattingly said. "It was that simple. I know a lot of people talked about my back and other things. And I know I had slowed down for sure, but I still felt like I could play. But I couldn't live with my boys growing up, and they weren't coming to New York anymore. They were back playing Little League, and they were getting to that age. And I knew if I signed another deal that I wasn't gonna know them.

"I wish I could've been able to play in a championship that next year [1996, Jeter's rookie season]. But as far as my kids are concerned, it really has been a great decision."

Mattingly said he's been enjoying his first year as a major league skipper. He just wished his team had a better record. The Dodgers are currently in third place in the National League West at 15-17.

"I like it a lot. I love what I'm doing," Mattingly said. "It's not quite working out the way I wanted it to right now. We're two games under .500, but that doesn't really change how much I enjoy it. I love the challenge of it for sure."

Although Mattingly said he enjoys being in Los Angeles, his heart will always be in the place where he became one of baseball's stars: New York.

"When I fly in here, it feels like home," Mattingly said. "I grew up and played my whole career in New York, so I know how to get around. That being said, I feel the same now when I fly into L.A. It's the same in that sense, but I [haven't] forgot where I came from."

Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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