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The indisputable selfishness of Derek Jeter

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Derek Jeter is often portrayed as the perfect team player, but the inevitably poor production of his age-40 season is putting the Yankees in a bind from which only he can free them.

The reason so many people get annoyed with Derek Jeter, or more specifically, what we talk about when we talk about Derek Jeter, is an issue of completeness.

There's the undisputed material: No one seriously disputes that Derek Jeter is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. No one can take away his 734 plate appearances in the postseason, complete with a .308/.374/.465 line that is slightly better than his career regular-season production. Jeter's managed to play for two decades in New York, and hardly done anything but bring positive headlines to his team, help the Yankees make the playoffs in, should they fall short this year, 85 percent of the seasons he collected at least one at-bat.

'The New Yorker' Farewell

He inspires writing like this by Roger Angell: "It's sobering to think that in just a few weeks Derek Jeter won't be doing any of this anymore, and will be reduced to picturing himself in action, just the way the rest of us do... He's been so good at baseball that he'll probably be really good at this part of it too." He's given us many iconic moments -- he's flipped baseballs, smashed his face into chairs. This seems like so much. It seems like it should be enough, the reality of Derek Jeter.

Somehow, it isn't.

There are people who will insist, to their dying days, that Derek Jeter is an excellent defensive shortstop. He's not, as far as we can measure such things. He isn't so horrific that it comes close to invalidating all the things I just mentioned. He's been playing the most demanding defensive position on the field. A bad shortstop may still be a more agile athlete than the best left fielder. Still, despite his obvious shortcomings compared to the average glove at his position, Derek Jeter won five Gold Gloves. He was awarded the award for best defense at the shortstop position five times. That's as many Gold Gloves as Dave Concepcion, more than Roy McMillan. Just to their left, Ken Boyer won five. Adrian Beltre has only won four!

So yes, it irritates the rest of us, that Derek Jeter can't simply be extolled for all the things he is, but also has to be celebrated for all the things he pretty clearly isn't.

I can't speak for everyone in the group of Jeter agnostics, but the hesitance to give over to full-scale worship isn't an anti-Yankees thing. I couldn't get enough of the Mariano Rivera retirement tour last year. I loved covering the unofficial Mariano Rivera All-Star game at Citi Field. And I was particularly taken by Rivera's ability, down the stretch, to not only pitch as well as he ever had for a Yankees team that desperately needed him, but to resume his old multi-inning/as-often-as-needed role for Joe Girardi. It's the kind of production we generally don't see from stars near the end.

We're sure not seeing it from Derek Jeter. He entered Tuesday's action hitting .261/.308/.312, good for an OPS+ of 77. His defense is, by most metrics, is well below average. None of this is surprising. None of it is to Jeter's detriment. He's 40 years old! The number of shortstops who have logged 100 games at shortstop in an age-40 season or later? Five: Jeter, Honus Wagner, Luke Appling, Barry Larkin, and Omar Vizquel.

But this was the deal going in with Jeter and the Yankees, as Steven Goldman pointed out recently:

"The Yankees were either willing to gamble on an unlikely rebound or they figured they would make enough money on a farewell tour that they didn't care how a one-legged double-play machine (on offense, not defense) would affect their chances."

We've seen various attempts to diagnose why he isn't hitting -- Suzyn Waldman and John Sterling were musing on the radio that the farewell tour itself is the problem -- as if poor production by a 40-year-old shortstop who broke his ankle is some otherwise unsolvable mystery.

What we haven't seen, not for a moment, is anyone questioning the basic truth about Derek Jeter that we're supposed to accept just as readily as his defensive prowess: that Derek Jeter is a selfless leader who will do whatever it takes to win.

The problem with that one should be pretty obvious, especially given an August when Jeter's bat apparently headed into retirement a little ahead of the rest of him: He hit just .207/.226/.261 in 116 plate appearances, almost all of them compiled in the second spot in the batting order (there was one exception -- he batted leadoff). This gave the Yankees more of Jeter at a moment when they could have used a lot less of him and provoked the media, quite reasonably, to question Joe Girardi's lineup construction: one player's historic contribution to the team and/or ego was seemingly being put ahead of team goals.

Derek Jeter and Joe Girardi

Derek Jeter and Joe Girardi(Dilip Vishwanat).

That put Girardi in a bind given Jeter's stature. If Jeter were the total team player he's portrayed as being, he'd not only have communicated to his manager that he'd be perfectly comfortable hitting anywhere in the lineup and playing only as often as he'd help the Yankees, he'd tell all of us, too. Short of doing this - of giving Girardi not only private permission, but public cover, it's probably, as Goldman points out, just not worth the hassle, particularly with only a month left in the season.

The cost to the Yankees has been substantial. Jeter is the third-best defensive shortstop on his own team this year, behind Stephen Drew and Brendan Ryan. He's garnered the third-most plate appearances on the team, yet among the 14 Yankees with at least 100 plate appearances, he's 13th in OPS+, behind only the since-jettisoned Alfonso Soriano.

Derek Jeter is no dummy. He knows who is helping the Yankees win and who isn't. Is it asking more of him than he's being paid for to make such a public declaration? Certainly. And the failure to do so doesn't alter the view of Jeter as a first-ballot Hall of Famer, with an ego, understandably struggling to play a position well that few his age have attempted at all. You could argue such a public admission of decline would take more courage than planting your face into a seat along the third base line. But all we seem to be learning about Derek Jeter in 2014 is that he's willing to make any sacrifice to win, provided he remains in a position of prominence while doing so.

Jeter says this is his last year. He's playing for a team that entered September a few games out of the second wild card. If selfless Derek Jeter's focus is really on getting the Yankees to one more October, and not, say, wearing cleats that glorify himself through stats and the moniker "King of NY" we'll hear him publicly declare something humble and unassuming like this:

"I decided last Sunday night on this move. I haven't been a bit of good to the team since the season started. It would not be fair to the boys, to Joe, or to the baseball public for me to try going on. In fact, it would not be fair to myself and I'm the last consideration."

That, of course, was not Jeter's speech, but the man who Jeter passed for most hits by a Yankee, Lou Gehrig. He asked out of the lineup when he didn't think he could help his team anymore. And he had more than pride at stake: he had a little consecutive games played streak you might have heard about, too.

Nor was Gehrig the only Jeter-level star to do this. As Goldman pointed out, DiMaggio retired rather than let his skills deteriorate to Jeter's current point. Mike Schmidt retired in-season when he saw he couldn't do it anymore. (Schmidt also played some first base late in his career.) Willie Mays, too, who was every bit the defender in center field some pretend Jeter was at shortstop, played some first base late in his career with the Giants and Mets. If you can't imagine Jeter at any position other than shortstop, go ask someone who saw Mays play in his prime sometime how weird it was to see him with a first baseman's mitt. But he did it.

Lou Gehrig sits

Lou Gehrig watches the Yankees on the day he asked out of the lineup (Getty Images).

The "selfless" tag somehow didn't get permanently attached to Willie Mays, or Mike Schmidt, or Joe DiMaggio. It did to Gehrig, but he had to die of his own disease to get it.

Again, that Jeter isn't doing this doesn't mean he should have to wait to enter the Hall of Fame, though I wouldn't favor waiving the five-year waiting period, as the Hall did for the dying Gehrig. It doesn't take away from his decades of regular season and playoff excellence. It doesn't invalidate the understandably emotional Yankees fans who are eager to see him one final time this season, nor does it limit the amount of money the Yankees are raking in from the attendance bump that's resulted.

But as we watch this flawed Yankees team try to make it to one final October, it's telling that a man who has inspired such myth to go along with his incredible, actual achievements - the "selfless Derek Jeter" google search turns up around 1,010,000 hits - is holding on just as tight as the sentimental fans.

He'll play another month, and then he'll be gone, and at no point did he change positions (even when the Yankees acquired a superior defender in Alex Rodriguez), at no point did he allow himself to be dropped in the lineup, at no point did he give way for players who will never have his ultimate body of work, but can make the Yankees better right now than he can at 40.

He was Derek Jeter. And he deserved every accolade he earned. And none that he didn't.