Sports Perspectives by Mark Elder

Friday, 6 February 2009

DJ to CF for NYY in 2009?

Derek Jeter is one of my (sports) heroes.  No, he’s not as historically significant as Malcolm X or Marcus Garvey.  He’s not a revolutionary and he probably never will be, but he makes and has made my life better and he brings a good many of us pride.  The New York Yankees have made my summers enjoyable for the past 19 or 20 years, since I really understood what the hell you’re supposed to do with a baseball, and Derek has been a big a part of that as any, so I’m going to address an old story that’s simultaneously a non-story and a potential future story:

Is Derek Jeter better suited to play center fielder than shortstop?

ESPN Insider online has a nice piece about the possibility of a move from SS to CF for DJ.  The answer is yes.  But the real answer is no.  The analysis is a familiar one:  as Jeter’s defensive range continues to erode, his remaining defensive attributes are more relevant to those of an outfielder than a shortstop, and the Yankees have no center fielder of whom to speak, so why not employ the slick fielding underpaid youngster at short, where there are more chances than center, and move the captain back a few meters?  He can continue to produce offensively and the Yankees will have a chance at being a great defensive team instead of a mediocre one.  With Molina calling games, Posada at DH and Derek in center field, the Yankees could be the top defensive team in the league behind Chien-Ming Wang, one of the top three ground-ball inducing starting pitchers in the world.  Sounds brilliant, right?  Well it is.  But it’s too brilliant.  Jeter tracks pop-ups and bloopers better than any shortstop I’ve ever seen, including Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra and any Johnny-Come-Lateleys you can name.  His range is average to his right (maybe a little below average this season, as he is turning 35) and it’s straight up not good enough going to his left.  I’ve seen balls that were clearly on the shortstop side of the bag go to Cano because Cano has excellent range and, when he’s mentally focused and prepared to play, he gets an incredible jump on the ball off the bat.  He still accounts for more runs than he costs the team because he gets on base well and is sure-handed when he needs to be, but not 21 millions dollars worth of runs, to be sure.


Jeter snares a foul pop-up, twisting his body as the ball heads for the crowd


Let’s analyze this rationally, and then realistically:

-Jeter tracks balls in the air better than balls on the ground; and everyone knows this.
-Jeter has a strong arm and excellent body control.  He is a good athlete in addition to being a good baseball player.
-Anecdote is not data, but I have never seen Derek Jeter misplay a ball in the air into an error, and I have seen hundreds, if not thousands of Yankees’ games.
-Jeter can still make a nice play in the hole and give you an amazing jump-throw from the outfield grass all the way to first – no hops, but that’s about it.  More and more often as the years go on, his dives in the hole come up empty, and the numbers support that.  10 years ago, he’d snare it.  Just 2 years ago, he’d knock it down.  Now, the ball trickles through to Damon, who is the MLB version of your neighbor’s kid who your kid doesn’t want to play with because he throws like a girl.
-Going to his left, Jeter is slower than other good shortstops.  If he’s going to get there, his is the glove you want the ball in, but if there is a good chance for another SS to glove the grounder, and a poor/slim chance for DJ to glove the grounder, you’re giving the other team extra outs.
Rationally speaking, given these points, and the fact that center fielder for the New York Yankees is STILL one of the most important, high-profile positions in all of sport, the Yankees should move Derek Jeter to the outfield immediately.

Now let’s be realistic.  Derek Jeter is not just one of my sports heroes, he is that for about 30 million people across the nation.  He is SOLELY responsible for making shortstop of the New York Yankees the glamour position it is today.  Prior to Derek Jeter, it was center fielder of the New York Yankees that commanded your respect, admiration and awe.  Mickey Mantle, Bernie Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth – all Yankees, all outfielders.  Shortstop?  Who was the Yankees shortstop in 1995 before Jeter was called up.  I know this, but only because I have a problem.  If you’re only moderately obsessed with the Yanks — you know, you’re obsessed, but you have it under control — then you might not know that it was Tony Fernandez playing the 6 position for 103 games in 1995.

Derek is an icon, a legend, a champion, a hero.  He’s the embodiment of the Yankees.  He’s a Yankee for life.  Is there a diner in the Bronx that would be so bold as to hand this man a tab after he eats?  I don’t think so.  (Whether Mr. Jeter has been to a diner in the BX borough in the last decade is an unrelated question)  The man has given us four championships, six pennants, 11 division titles and two wild cards.  How dare I even address the topic of asking him to play a different position?  I should never have even broached the subject.  I apologize.

Until Derek Jeter ASKS to switch positions, until we have a stud shortstop waiting in the wings, until it becomes clear than no amount of spending on other positions can compensate for Derek’s poor range as a 6, we have no right to move him to 8.  Why?  Because as long as you can win with this guy at his position of choice, you find a way to do it.  The Yankees may have found that way.  They have home run hitters at the corner infield positions, both of whom have strong arms and good defensive instincts, both of whom have won Gold Glove awards.  They have a second baseman with incredible range and a great arm.  They have TWO plus defenders who can play center field (neither of whom can get on base for shit) and a few others who are solid in the outfield tracking fly balls.  Molina behind the plate has had his right arm surgically replaced with an AR-15 and the Yankees have three ace pitchers who miss bats like nobody’s business.  Cap it all off with the greatest relief pitcher of all time, and you have the talent around Jeter to compensate for his degrading defensive abilities, without depriving us of the occasional flashes of brilliance.  Don’t you want to see Jason Varitek’s BA drop below .200 when DJ snares his slow grounder in the hole and jump-throws him out from left field somewhere, as newly-acquired Mark Teixeira streeeeetches toward short?  I know I still do.  Don’t rob us of that, Yankees.  Don’t tell us that our hero is ALREADY so mortal that he must vacate the position he made relevant before his $189,000,000 toll has even been paid.  Let Jeter be larger than life for a few more years, and then let him receive gobs and gobs of praise for coming out “of his own volition/accord” and telling Girardi that he will play outfield if it means more World Series championships for his beloved franchise.  That day will come and we irrationally heap the love all over him again, but until that day, just pay guys like Sabathia, Teixeira and Burnett so that Derek doesn’t have to carry the burden of winning alone, and is weaknesses will not be glaringly obvious to the casual observer.  If we can win with Jeter at short, we’ll be reliving the glory days, and honestly, what Yankees fan doesn’t want to do that?  In the first year of the new Stadium, let the icon play the position he made iconic until it becomes painfully clear – to HIM – that he is costing the team a chance at victory.  At the moment, he is still good enough, still wiley enough and experienced enough and sure-handed enough to play shortstop for the best team in baseball.

However, when I step back and take off my pintriped glasses, if I must, though only for a moment, I can see that the Yankees organization sees the day coming when he, and perhaps Alex Rodriguez, move back to center field and right field, respectively.  They have not signed a long-term center fielder or right fielder in years, and I don’t think they will.  Admittedly the day is coming, but there is glory between now and then, I’m certain of that.  Think about how much easier it will be for either or both to make that move AFTER winning a title.  How much easier is it to step back and say “this is for the team, for the future” than to imply “this is for the team, but it’s long overdue, I’ve been playing the wrong position for years and you may therefore infer that I’ve cost you, the fan, multiple championships in doing so, if only for my own ego.”  After the 2010 season, Jeter will move, and do so gladly as the reigning MVP of the World Series.  ESPN talking heads:  get your praise ready now, you’ll be showering him with it then.


Tuesday, 13 January 2009

A few words about Tony Dungy and coaching

Filed under: Legacy, Race — Mark @ 17:14

Tony Dungy retired yesterday and so naturally the media (quick side note:  am I a part of “the media,” or is the “blogosphere” still entirely separate?) has rushed to recap his professional career and capitalize on this discussion on his legacy and place in history.

Tony, like all NFL coaches, has been linked in the NY Post’s Page Six to both Victory (see 2007 Super Bowl) and her fat sister, Agony of Defeat (see every other season of his career).  He is far from unique in this way.  The list of good and great coaches who have won exactly one championship is long and storied, though Dungy, unlike any other coach, found his way into the playoffs every season of his coaching career.  Much will be said this week about how Mr. Dungy is a better man than coach, and that is saying a lot for a coach who never missed the playoffs and seemed to win 12 or 13 games every season he was in the NFL.  We’ll be reminded that he is the only Black coach to win a Super Bowl, and we’ll learn a bit about his life’s work of helping young men to find a good and righteous path toward personal, financial and spiritual success.  All of that is wonderful, and I do admire Mr. Dungy quite sincerely, both for his professionalism and his ability to set aside football in favor of greater personal outreach, but the question sportswriters ask themselves, or are asked by their editors, when a man of Dungy’s stature retires is “how will you remember him/her?”

I will remember Dungy as a man who did not try to do too much, and as a result was able to accomplish more than he may know.  I’ve had many a conversation of late about the inherently slow nature of progress, and I think that Dungy’s choice to lead by example and help individuals through personal outreach is helping to lay the foundation for a stronger future for the Black community. 

The reason is simple.  If progress is slow, attempts to circumvent the process, to take a shortcut straight to the end game, will fail and set us back instead.  Dungy did try to succeed, don’t get me wrong.  He did not sit at his desk one morning laying out a plan for tempering his inevitable triumphs.  The point is that he clearly has a similar vision for progress – a vision for a stronger, healthier, more prosperous Black community with strong families and faith – but he did not take the podium and turn it into his pulpit.  He used his fame and acclaim to reach out on a personal level.  He leveraged his position to get peoples’ ears, but he has, to date, kept the most dangerous, controversial truths private.

Mr. Dungy’s crowning achievement is that he managed to be different without ruffling any feathers, and he did so in a world that initially rejects change with resounding and overwhelming force – then subsequently flocks to it at light speed.  The NFL coach is supposed to be a loud and fiery disciplinarian with white skin, brown hair and a stiff, thin upper lip.  Dungy is none of those things and his level of success is precisely equal to that of the best modern-day coaches who perfectly embody that stereotype (think Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, who replaced Dungy in Tampa and won the Super Bowl in his first season with Dungy’s team).  The stereotype of the Black man, especially in NFL circles, is similarly linear.  The NFL’s Black man isn’t supposed to be soft-spoken, spiritual, smart and savvy.  Dungy apparently shredded that memorandum upon his induction into the head coaches’ club and continued about his business, winning football games and helping people his way.

Dungy didn’t win five straight super bowls and history will not remember him as Victory’s greatest lover.  Nor would he wed Defeat (as Marv Levy did in the 1990s), and it is better for all of us that he vacates his throne somewhere in the middle.  What we needed from Dungy was not to write a story of incredible, unfathomable success.  Eldrick has done that – blown every white player ever to cross him completely out of the water – but it hasn’t meant that Black people are equally respected and represented in the sport of golf.  Dungy may have wanted to crush the competition on an annual basis, his failure to do so means more for progress.

If Dungy, or his disciples Jim Caldwell and Lovie Smith, had achieved disproportionate success by bucking tradition and stereotype, they might be able to change convention and even stereotype, but they wouldn’t be making progress for the long run.  As long as Black people mimic each other and have similar levels of success, they will continue to be grouped together.  Similarly, any disproportionate level of success will be mimicked by white and Black alike, and in the ultimate copycat league, it would be the system he devised that won.  Sure, he’d be credited with creating the system, but we’re not ready for that yet.  Dungy’s value to progress comes from the fact that he is unanimously acclaimed for his work on and off the field, unversally respected as a man and as a professional, and the fact that he got here without following a trend or inciting a paradigm shift.   He doesn’t and didn’t fit a description, nor has he single-handedly created a new description that GMs must seek out.  He is calm, cerebral and clever.  He treats his players as professionals, as adults.  As such, if a man with a bright football mind and a similar philosophy is considered for a head coaching position, there is now a precedent, but not a strong enough one to force out the old guard. 

As Mr. Dungy steps down, he leaves behind a lasting impression in the NFL community.  He has demonstrated that, regardless of the race and age of NFL players, they can be treated with the respect befitting of a professional adult.  He simultaneously proved to the NFL that a Black man could be victorious at the highest level in the sport of football, and that there is no such thing as “the Black coach;” there are only Black individuals employed as head coaches.  He did not try to be white, he did not try to be Black, he did not fall victim to the myth that a Black man operates a certain way.  Dungy never felt compelled to succumb to convention.  He just did what he felt was right to the best of his ability and he got the same results as Bill Cowher, Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren and Tom Coughlin.  He has forced me to remember him as an individual.  I will not forget that he is the first Black man to lead a team to a championship, but I will remember first his character and his tireless efforts to achieve relatively modest gains, independent of his race.  It takes a lot for me to say that I can remember a man independent of his race, and that is why I believe we’ve put another foot forward on the path to progress.  As Wyclef Jean’s father told him the night he played Carnegie Hall in front of America’s powerful elites, you have made it when people can see through your wardrobe, through the dark skin and scars, and see the man.  Above all, I will remember Mr. Dungy as a man who made it, and a man who has taken us one step further on our individual paths to make it.

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