Like Mattingly, the Greatest Test of Jeter’s Leadership Could Come When It’s Time to Step Aside

(The following is being syndicated from The Captain’s Blog).

Don Mattingly was a fixture in the three-hole for over a decade.

For most of his career, Derek Jeter has been a mainstay atop the Yankees lineup. Since the start of the 1998 season, the Captain has started only one game lower than third in the batting order, and that time he was called upon to hit cleanup. That’s why the idea of shifting Jeter back toward the end of the order has become such a controversial topic.

Even before the ink dried on his new four-year extension, there were rumblings about how long Jeter would last as prominent figure in the batting order. Joe Girardi has always been quick to deflect that speculation, but with his shortstop hitting .242/.308/.263, the questions are likely to begin once again.

During Saturday afternoon’s telecast on YES, Michael Kay broached the topic of batting order position with Paul O’Neill by asking him about the time he permanently replaced Don Mattingly in the coveted three-hole. Although the conversation was inspired by Nick Swisher’s constant movement throughout the lineup, it was impossible to not think of Jeter, which made O’Neill’s further elaboration all the more interesting.

Manager Buck Showalter, who earlier this season reacted harshly when asked about switching Mattingly and O’Neill, began contemplating the new-look lineup last month and then discussed it with both players”. – Jack Curry, New York Times, July 21, 1994

Although Mattingly had frequently batted second and fourth during his prime, the third slot was his primary home since he first emerged as a superstar in 1984. As the 1994 season progressed, however, an impending lineup change seemed unavoidable. Nonetheless, even with O’Neill batting over .400 well into June, Showalter continued to resist the change by deflecting the mounting questions. Soon, however, the Yankees’ manager could no longer put off the inevitable.

The changing of the guard finally took place on July 20, 1994 in Oakland. Although O’Neill incorrectly recalled that the occasion occurred in Texas, his memory was dead on in one regard: Mattingly was exceedingly gracious when it came time to make the change. Always the consummate teammate, Mattingly deflected any notion of resentment and fully embraced the decision. In other words, he did what Captains do.

If I was the manager, I would have done it a long time ago with the way Paul is seeing the ball. I talked to Paul about it. You want to try to get him the most at-bats.” – Don Mattingly, quoted in the New York Times, July 21, 1994

As the discussion progressed, O’Neill also talked about the importance of where a player hits in the lineup, stating that it not only conveys status, but also signifies the manager’s expectations. The former Yankees right fielder took things a step further by saying, “when you get past sixth you start wondering if you still belong to be out there.”

Paul O’Neill ascended to the third slot in the lineup on July 20, 1994.

If a very good player like O’Neill was so sensitive to his position in the batting order, one can only imagine how a future first ballot Hall of Famer like Jeter might feel about a demotion. On the surface, it sounds like a simple decision to move the struggling Jeter from the top of the order back down to the bottom, but there are many implications that need to be considered.

When Mattingly was removed from the three-hole, he mostly occupied the fifth and sixth slots, which were still within the comfort zone described by O’Neill. If Jeter is moved down, however, the likely landing spot would be seventh. Even for a player as mentally strong as Jeter, such a free fall would have to instill doubt. As O’Neill explained, it might even make him wonder if still belongs out there.

At some point, Derek Jeter will have to relent to the passing of time. Whether that moment is now, however, remains to be seen. Like Mattingly before him, Jeter’s past performance should afford him some extra rope to prove that he is still capable of occupying a prime position in the lineup. But, when that time runs out, it will be incumbent upon Jeter to fully endorse the change. That is, after all, what Captains do.

Yankees’ Lineup and Box Score, July 20, 1994
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10 thoughts on “Like Mattingly, the Greatest Test of Jeter’s Leadership Could Come When It’s Time to Step Aside

  1. I would think that the only thing mitigating Jeter’s situation is that there’s no replacement for him that would be an improvement in the line-up. As far as his position in it, batting him at the top seems kind of silly considering his last 900 PA’s or so.
    On the other hand, Jorge has no such luxury-there’s a guy at AAA who very likely would be a huge improvement, and who could catch a couple times a week to boot.

  2. I certainly hope Jeter lives up to the standard set by the previous Yankee captain and understands it is for the good of the team that he bats further down in the order. As a big Jeter fan, my first hope is that he “figures things out” and gets back into a groove. Having seen him in person Saturday for the first time since I moved away from NY in 2002, it was shocking to see how much he has declined, so I don’t really expect it. His sac fly and the other fly ball he hit were weak, at best.

    Should he be dropped to the 7th spot in the order, perhaps he’ll realize his time is up. I would then hope he’d meet with the organization and prepare for his retirement before his contract is up, giving the team the opportunity to find a suitable replacement (I don’t think it’s Nunez). While this is somewhat unprecedented, it’s what a Captain should do.

  3. The Phil Hughes situation — in which tests were only ordered as a last resort means to eliminate a remote possibility rather than confirm a reasonable suspicion — got me thinking about how another captain named Gehrig declined fast and ugly. He refused to even consider — until he was practically useless on the field — the possibility he was done. And not until then did he take himself out of the lineup and seek medical testing. He never suggested a lower place in the lineup for himself and nobody else did either.

    Perhaps Joe G and Brian C should order a battery of tests on Derek the next regularly scheduled day off they give him — just to eliminate the remote possibility of some heretofore unconsidered problem — and, in doing so, use it as a graceful way to have “the conversation” everyone appears to believe can’t happen. …Nobody has to know. They flew Martin in and out for three days of thorough medical testing and physical exams before signing him without a soul in the media or public finding out. They know how to do it. That’s what I’d do.