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Jeter and Federer, Inside-Out

By an uncanny stroke of luck, I was at Yankee Stadium last night when Derek Jeter delivered base hit number 2,722 for his career, surpassing the tragic Lou Gehrig for the all-time team record. This NY Times tribute by George Vecsey sums up my feelings pretty well. At-bat for the second time during a lull in the squalls that fell throughout the day and threatened to postpone the game, Jeter smashed a single inside the first-base line. A righty hitter, he’s made a living by “inside-outing” the ball to right field. This isn’t the easiest way to get hits, but it works with relentless consistency for him; it’s an underappreciated kind of motor genius that’s allowed Jeter to pile up a mountain of (mostly) singles that will likely place near the very top of the all-time heap in number of hits.  I’d be shocked if he didn’t finish at least among the top ten in that category.

I typically attend exactly one game per year, at the invitation of an old law school friend who’s had season tix forever. This was my game for 2009, arranged a couple of weeks ago and, by great fortune, turning into an event I’ll long remember. I’ll have lots to say about the Yankee organization in an upcoming post (most of it not very good, I’m afraid), but for today I wanted to pause to acknowledge the relentless, consistency cum excellence of Jeter that sometimes covers a multitude of institutional sins.

So there I was in a cafeteria-style diner this morning, reading about Jeter and looking for news about the sodden U.S. Open, when I ran across an article about Roger Federer’s charmed year. More than one sports yakker (OK, all of them) have focused on one shot that the precise Swiss delivered at this year’s French Open as the inspiration for Federer’s renaissance. Down by a couple of sets and a break point to German Tommy Haas and on the verge of being bounced out of the tournament, Federer took a decent return of serve by Haas and converted it for a winner by running around his backhand side — and crushing an inside-out forehand within millimeters of the line. After that,  a renewed Federer ran out the match, the tournament, and then Wimbledon. Oh, and he and his wife then had healthy identical twins just in time for his return to the U.S. for the hardcourt season, where he’s continued to thrive all the way through to the U.S. Open semifinals.

And among Federer’s many ridiculous motor skills is the ability to hit this inside-out forehand, again and again, with lethal accuracy.  Doing so requires footwork and timing that the other players just can’t duplicate. For the sake of comparative elegance I’d like to say that this is his signature shot  in the same way that the inside-out base hit is Jeter’s, but Federer has so many options and so much expression in his game that one can’t really designate a signature shot.

But Jeter’s better and more complex than his inside-outing facility, too. Because he also has the ability to play his best when the stakes are highest. (Compare: Alex Rodriguez.) Sitting in a hotel room in State College, PA, with David asleep on the bed, I was startled from my drowsy hazy during the playoff game with the Oakland A’s in 2001 when Jeter appeared — from who-knows-where — near the first-base line to cut off a throw from right field and then shovel the ball to catcher Jorge Posada, who then applied a tag at home plate to the lumbering Jeremy Giambi, nailing him by an inch. Game saved, sweep averted, and the Yankees then went on to win the series. What on earth was the shortstop doing there? “That’s where I’m supposed to be,” I recall him answering, as though puzzled by the question.

What’s inside Jeter and Federer comes out in ways that continue to delight and amaze. Given the brutal logic of physical decline, neither can be expected to remain at the top of his game for much longer. Enjoy them.

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