Commentary

Yankees, Derek Jeter face hard truth

As ankle injury takes its toll, fans must accept Captain might never be the same

Updated: March 21, 2013, 7:52 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- In retrospect, the Yankees were asking an awful lot of Derek Jeter even before the rehab setback that now puts his Opening Day status in jeopardy.

Jeter had a truly exceptional 2012 season, leading all of baseball in hits (216), plate appearances (740) and at-bats (683), batting .316 and playing 135 games at shortstop as the oldest player at that position in baseball.

It was probably unrealistic to think he could repeat those numbers this season, at age 38-going-on-39, even before the moment in the wee hours of Sunday, Oct. 14. when Jeter's already compromised left ankle snapped underneath him on a routine play in the 12th inning of an ALCS game.

Derek Jeter
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsCan Derek Jeter repeat his 2012 performance? With a lingering ankle injury that may turn him into a part-time shortstop in 2013, that seems like wishful thinking.

Once that happened, what was unrealistic became improbable, if not impossible.

Now, the Yankees are planning for the ever-more-likely prospect of an Opening Day without Derek Jeter, who while his team is headed north may well be headed to the disabled list.

Deep down, we all knew this day was coming, but after the way he played last season, few of us could have expected it would come this soon.

But in hindsight, the clues have been there for the past five months. Many of us were too blinded by the consistency and dependability of Derek Jeter to accurately read them.

All winter long, we were told that the broken ankle, and its subsequent surgical repair, complete with a metal plate and screws that Jeter can feel just below the surface when he runs his fingertips along the scar, would not affect him at all this year, that he would be ready for this Opening Day as he had for 16 of the previous 17.

Even if we suspected it before, the events of this week confirm that was a fantasy, the stuff of comic-book legends, not flesh-and-blood human beings.

In a lot of ways, what has happened to Derek Jeter since Oct. 14, and what is likely to happen to him next, is a metaphor for the entire Yankees 2013 season.

It was probably unrealistic, too, to expect a team to lose Nick Swisher, Russell Martin, Raul Ibanez, Andruw Jones and Eric Chavez over the winter, and Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson for all or substantial parts of the season, and more importantly, lose the 160-plus home runs they provided, and be as good or better than it was with them.

It still may turn out that way, because not a game has been played yet and a lot of random and unexpected things can occur over the course of 162 baseball games.

But it's doubtful if Derek Jeter will ever again be the player he was in 2012, if only because the events of this week remind us of something many of us have chosen to forget: That he is human, made of the same stuff as the rest of us, even if for most of his life his stuff has performed a lot better than our stuff.

But the fact that Derek Jeter, as determined and single-minded an athlete as I have ever known, needed to be shut down after playing just 13 innings in the field spread over three preseason games -- four innings one night, five innings two nights later, and four innings the next day -- followed by two days off indicates that this recovery is going to be a lot more difficult than anyone could have imagined.

Just as Jeter was urged to "drink the reality potion" by a team official during his acrimonious contract negotiations two years ago, it is now time for the Yankees to drink some themselves.

How can Derek Jeter be expected to endure the rigors of playing shortstop day in and day out, nine full innings at a time, if he couldn't even get through three partial spring training games?

It's too much to ask anyone, even someone as "remarkable" as Derek Jeter, the word Brian Cashman used to describe him on Wednesday afternoon.

And the reality that the Yankees and their fans have to swallow is that in addition to all the other losses they've already endured before a game has even been played, now Derek Jeter is probably going to be no more than a part-time shortstop for them in 2013.

That means, barring an unexpected blockbuster of a trade, a lot of Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix out there, and a lot of breath-holding when a ball is hit to shortstop.

Chances are the Yankees could have overcome the loss of any one, or even two, of their remaining marquee players if Jeter had been able to make it back the way he was expected to.

But adding the loss of Jeter, even for a brief period of time, on top of the losses of A-Rod, Granderson, Teixeira and all the departed free agents makes this a season to test the resolve of even the most optimistic of Yankees.

As Robinson Cano, newly arrived back in camp after his transcendent performance in the WBC, said on Thursday, "We just gotta go out there, play hard and try to just stay in the race until Granderson and Teixeira are back."

He didn't mention Jeter, probably because like everyone associated with this franchise for the past 17 years, he just assumed that No. 2 would be out there, as always.

But something changed this week while Robinson Cano was away.

Derek Jeter, who for the better part of the past two decades has seemed superhuman, showed us that he is human after all.

That's a reality the Yankees knew they would have to confront someday.

Just not this day, or this year.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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