While many were starting to prepare their obituaries on the storied career of Derek Jeter, as recently as the early stages of the 2011 major-league baseball season, Brian Butterfield remained unimpressed. He was certain the New York Yankees captain would bounce back.
“He’s always been tremendously dedicated, always been a selfless guy, a great teammate,” the Toronto Blue Jays third base coach said on Thursday. “I’m not surprised at anything he does and he might do it for another 10 years as far as I’m concerned.”
With the Yankees in Toronto challenging for yet another division title in the American League East, Jeter – at the so-called advanced age of 38 – is once again the catalyst.
The Yankee shortstop came into the game hitting a lofty .320 and leading the American League in hits with 208 – the oldest player to collect at least 200 hits in a season since Paul Molitor did so at age 40 in 1996.
Jeter is also just the fourth player in MLB history to record a 200-hit season 14 or more years after doing it for the first time, joining the likes of Ty Cobb, Pete Rose and Molitor.
The Yankees (90-66) could have used some of Jeter’s offensive magic Thursday night but were stifled by a solid pitching performance from Toronto starter Brandon Morrow in a 6-0 Blue Jays (69-87) victory.
Morrow tossed a solid seven innings of shutout ball with Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia each knocking home runs to help lift Toronto to victory.
Butterfield has a better take than many on Jeter’s highlight-reel of an 18-year career as he was in the Yankees organization as a roving minor-league instructor when New York made Jeter their first-round pick (sixth overall) in the 1992 draft.
Butterfield got his hands on him the following year in the fall instructional league in Tampa after Jeter batted .295 in his first full professional season at Class-A Greensboro, but had also committed a whopping 56 errors in 126 games.
“Derek injured his wrist toward the end of his first [full] professional season and I think it was actually a blessing,” Butterfield said. “When he came to the instructional league he couldn’t hit so it was 50 days of just defensive work. And that was fantastic, especially for a young shortstop with some upside.
“He was able to concentrate, we were able to do video, we were able to morning and afternoon workouts. And it was just concentrating solely on defence. And he didn’t have to think anything about hitting.”
Butterfield said Jeter got better, and quick. “He’s got great aptitude,” Butterfield said.
Many felt Jeter’s slide was inevitable following a dismal 2010 season when he batted a career-low .270 and the chorus didn’t dim any over the early portion of last year.
Armed with a new swing, Jeter looked overmatched as his average slipped to .242 over the first month of the season and the pressure was ramped up for manager Joe Girardi to bury him in the batting order.
In mid-June, Jeter suffered a calf injury that landed him on the disabled list for the first time since 2003, and he came back a changed man.
Our for a month, Jeter returned with his old hitting mechanics in tow and the affect was dramatic.
On July 9, he recorded his milestone 3,000th hit with typical Jeter panache – on a home run against David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays – and he would go on to hit .327 over the second half of the season, a surge that hasn’t yet abated.
“When I saw him in spring training this year I couldn’t believe how good he looked,” Butterfield said. “He’s always looked great, he’s always kept himself in great shape, takes great care of himself. But he looked even more streamlined.
“He talked about his diet and how he’s got a cook, he’s got someone who takes care of his meal planning.”
And now Jeter is taking care of the Yankees.