Commentary

Derek Jeter's meter not on empty yet

Yankees' shortstop still has some left in tank, and critics will only fuel Captain

Updated: April 3, 2013, 10:09 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

It comes as no surprise that the grim forecasts for the 2013 New York Yankees, widely cast as a remake of the doomed 1965 team, are packaged with preseason eulogies for Derek Jeter. After all, the captain always goes down with the ship.

Even the late, great shipbuilder, George Steinbrenner, would agree that these Yankees look less like his dynastic champs of the '90s and more like the franchise he purchased 40 years ago from CBS for a song, a franchise that hadn't won a thing in eight years.

"I remember George saying he'd bought a bunch of ragamuffins," recalled Gene Michael, his former player, manager, and executive. "What George forgot was that 1973 team was picked to win the American League."

Nobody's picking the 2013 Yankees to win the pennant, not with Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson down and out, and not with Jeter's previously fractured ankle still reminding him that he turns 39 in June. The shortstop will not be out there on Opening Day, and all of his limping and gimping around Tampa have fueled a growing suspicion that this is the beginning of Jeter's end, that he's merely one or two hard grounders away from being stick-a-fork-in-him done.

Only Jeter has emerged from the crypt before, most recently in the middle of 2011, when a brutal 2010 and a bloody contract negotiation left him looking like a first-time marathoner as he staggered toward the 3,000-hit finish line. As far back as 2007 Yankee management worried that Jeter was losing his ability to play shortstop at an acceptable big-league level; Brian Cashman told him over dinner he needed to hire a new trainer and improve his range or else.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Rich Pilling/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter won't be at shortstop on Opening Day.

Jeter survived those crises of faith and last year -- right up until he broke down against Detroit in the ALCS -- delivered a performance that suggested he might honor a prediction he'd made to Michael in the spring of 2007, when the shortstop told the executive he planned on playing for ten more seasons.

For those scoring at home, that means six down and four to go.

"You can't bet against Derek Jeter," Michael said by phone Monday, "because he's got a phenomenal mental makeup and work ethic, and his desire is off the charts. I've seen tough guys play through injuries, but Derek's tougher mentally than anyone you ever want to see. He'll lie to himself just to play, which is a great asset for him, but he does have to be a little careful here."

Michael has been an ardent supporter of Jeter's from the day the Yankees drafted him in 1992. When voices inside the organization wanted to move the kid to the outfield after he committed 56 errors in his first full minor-league season, Michael reminded them that he'd committed 56 errors in his first full minor-league season, too. When Steinbrenner and one of his aides, Clyde King, pushed to demote a struggling Jeter to the minors before the start of the 1996 season, and to deal Mariano Rivera or Bob Wickman for the journeyman Felix Fermin, Michael told the Boss and King to stand down.

Jeter backed up Michael by playing at least 150 games 13 times in 17 seasons, including eight of the last nine, a remarkable run of durability now threatened by an ankle that won't calm down. "It's too early to know how much this injury is going to affect him," Michael said. "As much as Derek likes to say he's OK, he can't tell either, because he's never had this kind of injury before.

"But I do know this: Derek thinks he's going to play, and I never doubt him. You never have to worry about him. Whatever's inside of Derek Jeter, that's what you're going to get."

Precisely why the obits on Jeter's time as a high-producing shortstop are favored to be proven premature. A year after telling Michael of his 10-year goal, Jeter repeated it to the new trainer he hired, Jason Riley, though the captain conceded to both he might need to move to a different position and/or spend considerable time as a DH near the end of that term.

Jeter just doesn't believe that time is upon him, bad ankle or no bad ankle, and neither does Cashman.

"Derek's going to be fine, and he's going to join us sooner than people expect," the GM said over the phone Monday. "His ankle is healed, and his pain now is nothing different from a groin pull or calf pull that needs more time."

Five seasons after that showdown dinner with Jeter, Cashman was asked if he still believes Jeter will be a significant Yankee, and shortstop, for this season and beyond.

"Yes, and he's earned that belief," the GM said. "He's done it for far too long. His pain threshold and ability to play through stuff are incredible. He's not finished writing his book; he's got some more chapters to add. He might not be ready for April 1st, but he'll be motivated by that. He'll say, 'Just because April Fools' Day might be in jeopardy, don't be fooled.'"

Forever driven by real and imagined slights, Jeter might be inspired to match his 2012, or nearly die trying. Mark Newman, longtime Yankees executive, once found a distraught Jeter on the verge of tears in a minor-league locker room, an overmatched teenager wishing he'd taken the scholarship to Michigan instead of turning pro. Newman assured Jeter he wouldn't be a good big-league player, but a great one, and the shortstop made the development guy a prophet.

So all these years later, Newman was asked if we'd already seen all the greatness Jeter had inside of him.

"I'm not a doctor," he said Monday, "but I fully expect Derek to get back from this. His pain threshold, I don't know if it's mind over matter or just his central nervous system being wired in a way that allows him to play through things, but it's like Peyton Manning's. Peyton had all those neck surgeries, and you wonder how he could play that sport and throw the way he has to, and yet he did it.

"Derek's the same way. He'll figure it out. It's really hard to be as driven as Derek is for so long, but some people have done it. Warren Spahn was pitching great at age 42. And the more people say Derek can't do something, whether it's a writer or a fan or a statistical analyst, the more he's determined to do it. He won't continue to play well forever, but just south of forever."

Around 2006, Jeter told Newman he shouldn't bother drafting a shortstop for another four or five years. Throw in another five years for development, and Newman figured Jeter was citing 2016, give or take, as the time he'd be ready to abdicate his throne.

The Yankees drafted a Rochester high schooler, Cito Culver, in the first round of the 2010 draft, and the prospect has some of Jeter's mannerisms (by design) and a big-league handle on the defensive side of the ball. If Culver proves he can hit a little, Newman said, he could have a long and prosperous career in the Bronx.

But he won't be the next Derek Jeter, if only because there isn't going to be a next Derek Jeter. In all his time of watching and studying sports, Newman ranks Jeter with Jack Nicklaus and Pete Rose as the greatest concentrators he's ever seen.

And yes, there are those who know Jeter who believe he wants Rose's career hits record of 4,256 as badly as Rose wanted Joe DiMaggio's record hitting streak of 56. The captain needs 952 to tie.

"Derek's got the swing made for it, and the brain and heart made for it, too," Newman said. "He doesn't throw away at-bats just like Rose didn't, and like Nicklaus never threw away golf shots. Derek's fabulous at one pitch and one at-bat at a time, so I don't know if anyone would ever have a better chance at the record than him."

If Rose's record is a longshot, so is the notion that Jeter is through - or damn close to it -- as the Yankees' starting shortstop. He never planned on his current contract being his last one, even after he was roughed up at the bargaining table.

By his own estimation, Jeter expects to play about four more years, maybe two or three of them at short. His left ankle is in the way right now, but if history tells us anything about the Yankee captain, it's this:

He usually gets what he wants.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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