By Ernie Palladino
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Along with his clutch hits, clean fielding, and instinctive base running, Derek Jeter showed again Monday why baseball is going to miss this guy.
He’s just so smart.
For all Jeter has done in his 3,000-plus-hit career, his head has always stood shoulders above the competition. He might have made the occasional physical mistake, but mentally he was, and apparently still is, as close to flawless as anyone in baseball. And you can include several managers in that group, too.
So, to Monday night. Yanks are up by two with one out in the eighth inning of a their 5-3 victory in Cleveland. Jason Kipnis is on first, and Asdrubal Cabrera is looking at a 1-0 count.
On the next pitch, Kipnis takes off for second as Cabrera pops the ball to third. Kipnis has been around for three years already, so he’s old enough to know better than to fall for a fielder’s deception. But Jeter never has been your ordinary fielder. So, as Zelous Wheeler floats into foul territory to grab Cabrera’s pop, Jeter comes to second base, making like he’s going to take a forceout throw from first.
Kipnis hits the dirt, then pops up and rounds second by a step as Jeter signals Wheeler to throw to first for one of the easiest double play of the season.
The old master, quite satisfied with himself, had hoodwinked a gullible base runner.
These occurrences don’t happen every day. It may not happen again this season. And it probably wouldn’t have happened Monday night had Jeter not only had command mentally of the situation, but had put on the Academy Award-winning performance he did.
This is Jeter, of course. Always was.
The signature play, of course, was his flip home from the foul side of the first-base line in the 2001 ALDS against Oakland. There isn’t another shortstop in the majors who would have placed himself in position to make that throw. Though the Yanks had actually drilled that play once or twice in spring training, just in case a right fielder overthrew his cutoff, the occasion hadn’t come up during the season.
But Jeter remembered. Seeing Shane Spencer’s ball go over Alfonso Soriano’s head as well as first baseman Tino Martinez‘s, Jeter continued the path he had already begun when the ball reached Spencer. Twenty feet from home, Jeter scooped the ball and flipped to Jorge Posada, who tagged out Jeremy Giambi a hair’s breadth from home plate.
Those once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-season plays are the things that separate Jeter from everyone else. A lot of players get hits, though no Yankee had ever amassed that kind of total before Jeter. That has also been a hook to greatness. But the Yanks would have lost that ALDS if not for a play that still has those A’s shaking their heads in wonderment to this day. The Yanks might well have lost Monday if not for his fundamental movement and convincing acting that had Kipnis walking off the baseline thoroughly embarrassed.
This is why opponents stage farewell ceremonies for him. Jeter has not just been vanquisher and conqueror, but illusionist. He appears out of nowhere. He convinces people they see things that don’t really exist.
There has been an artistry to Jeter. Even the beaten can appreciate that.
When he stands at shortstop in the first inning of next week’s All-Star game in Minneapolis, it won’t be in recognition of just the hits total. With a guy like Jeter, you honor the entire package. It’s a big one. Along with the power and the hits and the glove, his mind remains the savviest in baseball.
The game will miss that as much as anything.
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