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Sunday, February 17, 2013
Taken for granted? Derek Jeter?

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- If any major league player with a $17 million paycheck and more than 3,000 hits on his résumé could be said to have been taken for granted, Derek Jeter is that player.

Over the past decade or so, as the New York Yankees have stockpiled superstar after superstar, from Jason Giambi to Alex Rodriguez to Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia, it has seemed as Jeter has moved further down the list in prominence on the roster, even if he still carried the label of Captain.

Nobody talked much about his importance in the lineup as they relied on one "big, hairy monster" after another, to borrow Brian Cashman's favorite phrase, to fill the seats and hit the home runs and win the important games.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter, who broke his ankle in October, hopes to be in the lineup on Opening Day.

Derek Jeter? Just a guy who played every single day, inhaled anything hit at him and slapped a lot of singles to the opposite field.

Well, here we are in 2013, and while just about all of the big, hairy monsters have either come and gone or proven, for various reasons, to be less than advertised, Jeter is still here, and no one is calling him overrated or overpaid.

In fact, in a lot of ways, Jeter may once again be the MIP -- Most Important Player -- on this team.

This year, with the ballclub perceived by many of its own fans to be aging and in decline, with its attendance having waned steadily since opening that money pit of a new ballpark in 2009, and without a highly touted -- and high-priced -- free agent coming to town to give it a boost, it is time for the Yankees and their fans to rediscover Jeter.

Barring catastrophic injury, this will not be his last season in pinstripes -- he holds an option on 2014, an option he will almost surely decline if he can duplicate his outstanding 2012 season, forcing the Yankees to relive those contentious negotiations of two winters ago -- but it could one of his most important.

Like Mariano Rivera, Jeter will be trying to do the improbable this season, which is to return to his customary high level of play not only at an advanced age -- he will turn 39 on June 26 -- but coming off a broken ankle that required surgery and is now being held together by screws and a metal plate.

But Jeter will also be expected to do something Mariano will not -- give Yankees fans, discouraged by the lack of tangible improvement this offseason and dismayed by high ticket prices, a reason to come to the ballpark.

Back in 2007, some bright bulb in the Yankees organization thought A-Rod would be that guy, which is why they not only ignored their own GM's decree not to bargain with him if he opted out, but bid against themselves in giving him 10 more years and $275 million, with the additional sweetener of $30 million in performance bonuses based on home run milestones they were sure he would accomplish as a Yankee before packed houses.

That plan isn't looking so good right now. Does anyone really think A-Rod will hit his first milestone, No. 660, as a Yankee, let alone No. 763?

That deal was a slap in the face to Jeter, who was heading toward his own milestone of 3,000 hits.

So was the privately stated position that the Yankees would soon be Robinson Cano's team, that Eduardo Nunez was being groomed to replace Jeter as the shortstop of the future, and the minority opinion two years ago that it might be best to let Jeter test the free-agent market rather than negotiate a new deal with him.

Now, once again, the Yankees need Jeter.

It is almost as if they forgot what they had in him, simply because he went about his business devoid of drama.

Well, surely they remember now.

Nobody is going to buy a ticket to Yankee Stadium to see A-Rod this year, especially since he won't be in the lineup until after the All-Star break at the earliest. And as great as Mo is, no one buys a ticket to see him, either, for the simple reason that you can never be sure when he will actually get into the game.

As long as Jeter's rehab goes as planned -- and he and manager Joe Girardi insist he is still on schedule to be ready for the April 1 season opener -- you can buy a ticket with full confidence that Derek Jeter will be in the game.

And playing as hard as he did as a rookie back in 1996.

And that is more than you can say about some of his teammates. As talented as Cano is, you sometimes get the feeling that he isn't quite all-in.

Jeter, on the other hand, is all-in, all the time. He played the final month of last season on an ankle that was on the verge of snapping. He deflected any and all questions about the injury, scoffed at the idea of taking a day off, until he finally had no choice when the bone broke under him as he tried to scoop up a routine double-play ball.

He is our Joe DiMaggio, who once famously answered a teammate who wanted to know why he busted it every single day as follows: "There might be someone out there who is seeing me play for the first time."

Jeter has played it that way for 18 years now and assuming he is fit to go on April 1, will play it that way for a 19th season, and who knows how many more beyond?

And unlike a lot of those big, hairy monsters, Jeter has always played to the level of his paycheck. Since those messy contract negotiations two winters back, Jeter hit .297 in 2011 and a team-leading .316 last year. Now the $17 million a year he got from the Yankees in his last contract looks like an eminently fair wage.

At his news conference on Sunday, he deftly sidestepped a question about next winter -- "I've never gone into a season like that; it's strictly on getting back this year," he said -- but you couldn't blame him if he drew some extra motivation knowing that if he can duplicate 2012 this year, he can turn the tables on the Yankees for what happened in 2010 next year.

"Two things I've learned around the Yankees," Teixeira said. "Don't bet against Mo. And don't bet against Derek."

In many ways, the 2013 Yankees look like a diminished ballclub. They did not get measurably better in the offseason, and in replacing the 37-year-old Rodriguez with the 35-year-old Kevin Youkilis, got only marginally younger.

But they still have Sabathia and Teixeira and Cano and Rivera, and most of all, they still have Jeter, who for the past 18 years has showed them all how to play the game.

This season, the Yankee most taken for granted might turn out to be the one they need most of all.