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Friday
Jul202012

Can we hold back Father Time? Check out Derek Jeter, hitting .300 at age 38.

Derek Jeter, the revered shortstop of the New York Yankees, got two more hits Thursday night, bringing his batting average to .313.

That's more amazing than I, a minor baseball obsessive, had realized.

Jeter is 38-years-old. As an aging Yankees partisan myself, whose own treks to the YMCA clearly constitute a fool's errand, I wondered if a 38-year-old hitting .300 in Major League Baseball was a big deal. So I contacted Dan Bernstein, a co-host of a sharp and entertaining afternoon drive-time show on all-sports WSCR-AM in Chicago. He also happens to be a fellow parent of an Oriole in a park district baseball league for seven- and eight-year-olds. Our Orioles went a joyous and surprising 10-4 in the regular season, then saved our worst for last and got bounced out of the playoffs in the second round; a finale seemingly of greater chagrin to the parents than the kids, who segued seamlessly from defeat to snacks and now enjoy the rest of their summer apparently not wracked by self-doubts or second-guessing over the loss to the Rangers.

Bernstein is a data-loving sports savant and Duke graduate in an age in which the sports world crunches numbers the way Fortune 500 consumer marketing departments and bigtime political analysts like Charlie Cook have been doing for decades. There are whole sites devoted to trying to make assessments of athletes far more empirical than one might imagine.

Bernstein relies a lot on Scott Lindholm of Davenport, Ia., who is part of a burgeoning cottage industry of numbers-dissecting sports geeks. Those now even include the general manager of the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association. He was profiled the other day in the New York Times.

Far quicker than it takes my aging body to lift a few weights and do about as few sit-ups, Bernstein had passed along Lindholm's handiwork on my query. It turns out that, in the entire history of baseball, players at age 38 or older have hit .300 in a season only 66 times. Indeed, if my cross-checking of the list of such players is correct, only 44 individual players have done it.

  Babe Ruth, for example, did it just once, at age 38 in 1933. Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox did it thrice, with Luke Appling (in the 1940s) and Sam Rice (in the late 1920s and early 1930s) leading the pack by accomplishing the feat four times apiece.The first to pull it off was Jimmy Ryan of Washington in 1902.

In recent years, the most notable player is Moises Alou, who did it three times between 2005 and 2007 while playing for the San Francisco Giants and New York Mets. Among the others probably known to current fans are Pete Rose (twice, 1979 and 1981), Tony Gwynn (1998, 1999), Willie McGee (1997), Cal Ripken (199), Barry Bonds (2003, 2004), Jeff Kent (2007) and Kenny Lofton (2005, 2006), among others.

At first glance, one might be struck by how spread out the these elite players are over the past century. It leaves the impression that, even factoring in dramatic changes in salary and physical training (and steroids), it's been a pretty difficult feat at any time.

  "Many names on that list are simply great hitters who sustained their ability over time," says Bernstein.

    "What stands out to me is the span across all eras of baseball, and the lack of obvious steroid guys (except for Bonds, of course, and perhaps Jeff Kent.  Alou?).  Looking at the percentage of these seasons that have come from Hall-of-Famers and those to be -- and some on the fringes of the conversation -- one could conclude that to hit .300 at age 38 or older primarily requires you to be a damn fine hitter."

Yup. So here's to Derek Jeter for his impressive self-discipline and longevity but, in addition, to simple greatness.

And I think I'll take a pass on the Y today. Who am I kidding?

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