The myth of Derek Jeter is colliding head-on with reality right now. Word came Tuesday that Jeter had to pull back yet again on his rehab work for the broken ankle he had repaired six months ago.
At some point, it would seem the fundamental presumption about the end of Jeter's career -- the prevailing idea that the Great Jeter will decide how and when it's time to quit -- should feel at least a bit shakier than it did before, right? Sooo … why isn't he being talked about more like that?
Nobody is speaking with similar sureness about 38-year-old Kobe Bryant's ability to overcome his torn Achilles. He's certainly in Jeter's stratosphere when it comes to determination, and yet there's a real concern that Bryant's injury could be career-ending. Nobody is sure if New England tight end Rob Gronkowski will make it through the coming NFL season, either, after breaking the same forearm twice and now having a plate implanted for a third time -- this time because of an infection. Gronkowski is a 6-foot-6, 265-pound tank and he's 15 years younger than Jeter. It hasn't helped.
Stuff happens. Things go wrong.
And it has nothing to do with character or will.
So while it was tempting to just move on when Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Tuesday that Jeter has not had a "setback" necessarily, you have to wonder: If it looks like a setback and causes Jeter to do far less than he did before, if his comeback date has now been pushed back from April to May to -- now what? Perhaps no earlier than June? -- how is this not a setback?
The Jeter legend is coloring opinions and skewing expectations when the mounting evidence actually suggests he's all too human.
Jeter fielded 45 grounders Friday in Tampa, then took two full days off, then was allowed to take only 21 grounders Monday. Just 21? He remains that fragile a half-year out of surgery? The numbers are so meager, they're stunning.
Remember, two months ago a baby step for Jeter was the day he took four at-bats as a DH in a Triple-A spring training game. Or tried, anyway, to play back-to-back games in the field.
Nobody wants to dwell on that.
The storybook ending for Jeter has always been that Jeter will exercise the $9.5 million player option for 2014, and maybe even play so well this season that he squeezes a couple of more contract years out of the team beyond that. Then at some point he'd make the sort of farewell tour around baseball that Mariano Rivera is doing right now as he comes back from his ACL injury looking as good as before.
But what will Jeter do if he's not Jeter anymore? He already addressed that two seasons ago. Like Kobe, Jeter has already said that if he didn't think he was playing up to his standards, "I'll go home." But that was before Jeter got hurt.
Jeter is still expected back at some point. And it's important to remember that ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell said a week ago that the fits and starts and soreness Jeter has been experiencing all along is not unusual for the procedure he had to implant a plate and screws to stabilize his ankle. That's encouraging. But no one knows when the pain will go away. That's the mystery that doesn't ebb -- and not just for Jeter. The Knicks' Iman Shumpert is back from ACL surgery while Chicago superstar Derrick Rose still sits out.
It's now been 25 days since Jeter was healthy enough to play the field in an exhibition game.
It has been six months since Jeter's ankle broke as he planted his foot in pursuit of a ground ball during Game 1 of the playoffs against Detroit last October.
He plays the most demanding everyday position in baseball other than catcher.
The Yankees have smartly been trying to manage expectations about his condition. But when you link the news together in a timeline rather than getting it piecemeal the way it's been dribbling out, the overall picture isn't pretty: Jeter has gone from pronouncing himself "100 percent" and "all healed up" in the first week of spring training in February and then taking those DH at-bats in mid-March -- even logging five innings in the field at short -- to not being able to do much at all. Time -- and a lot of it -- has moved on and he's gone backward. On Tuesday, Girardi said Jeter would need to replicate a weeks-long, spring training-type program before he can even rejoin the Yanks.
The idea that nothing can stop Jeter is central to his legend. Fate usually smiles on him; it doesn't stiff him. But the rehab of his ankle keeps saying otherwise.
Stuff happens. Things go wrong. And it can have nothing to do with character or will. It's a drag to be reminded of the ways you're no different than anyone else.