Commentary

Only the Captain can right the Yanks

The Bombers need Derek Jeter in the Bronx as much as they ever have before

Updated: July 11, 2013, 7:38 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Somewhere in Scranton, when he is all done begging and pleading for a return to the workplace, Derek Jeter probably enjoys a muffled laugh at his employer's expense. He is a 39-year-old shortstop with a 79-year-old ankle, and the same New York Yankees who nearly ran him out of town in 2010 need him in 2013 like never before.

Major league investigators are closing hard on Alex Rodriguez, preparing to drag him into a sit-down that might lead to the kind of suspension that permanently derails his career. A-Rod could end up being a lot of things between now and his ultimate Biogenesis judgment day, but chances are a Yankees savior won't be one of them.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesThe Yankees yearn for the moment when Derek Jeter trades the RailRiders uniform for his more traditional pinstripes.

And yes, the Yankees do need a savior. They regularly field faceless lineups unworthy of the brand before a home crowd like the one that witnessed Tuesday night's 3-1 loss to Kansas City, a crowd that looked and sounded a bit like Citi Field on a school night in September. Anxiety is high while ratings and run totals are low enough to compel team president Randy Levine to recently concede his club was "desperate" for A-Rod's return to the order.

If the Yankees are desperate for Rodriguez, what does that make them for Jeter?

"I think it will help us," Joe Girardi said of his captain's presence after James Shields outdueled CC Sabathia, who went the distance in vain. "You can't ask him to hit 30 home runs in whatever games we have left, but I think his presence is going to help us. He's used to so many things that happen in New York, and understands the landscape here, that I think his attitude will help."

Unlike Rodriguez, Jeter is actually expected to stick around for the balance of the regular season, assuming his left ankle cooperates. That's a good thing. In fact, that's the best thing the Yankees have going for them right now. Jeter led them with a .333 postseason batting average last fall, and it's worth nothing that his team didn't win another game after he fractured his ankle in the 12th inning of the American League Championship Series opener against Detroit.

But if the season ended today, the Yankees wouldn't have a chance to get swept by anybody in any round. They would miss the playoffs for only the second time since the players' strike of 1994.

Jeter made his big league debut a month after that strike ended, and within a year he helped alter the balance of power in New York. Two transactions transferred a Knicks town back to the Yankees -- Pat Riley's exit and Derek Jeter's arrival -- and nothing's been the same since.

The shortstop held off all challengers for the longest time. He outlasted the superior offensive talents at his position, including some who broke down (Nomar Garciaparra), took performance-enhancing drugs (A-Rod and Miguel Tejada, Kansas City's starter at third), and lost their full-time jobs at short (A-Rod, Tejada).

Jeter took on all comers in New York, too, winning four titles in his first five seasons (or four more than the Mets, Knicks, Giants, Jets, Rangers and Islanders combined in that period), beating back the unloved and postseason-challenged A-Rod for face-of-the-franchise status, and answering Eli Manning's first Super Bowl championship in February of 2008 with his one for the thumb in November of 2009.

Even the latest prince of the city, Matt Harvey, speaks of his desire to emulate Jeter -- at least when he's not making the un-Jeter-like choices to flaunt his physique and fashion sense in the pages of ESPN The Magazine and the New York Post.

But the charmed run was supposed to be over in 2010, when Jeter suddenly looked older than Yogi and Whitey, hitting a feeble .270 that Brian Cashman, GM, used as his own weapon of mass destruction in contract negotiations.

Cashman and his bosses feared Jeter was heading downhill on roller skates, and essentially dared him to take their best offer or go get his 3,000th hit in Topeka. Originally hoping to land another nine-figure deal (his expiring contract was for 10 years and $189 million), Jeter had no choice but to settle for a $51 million guarantee, a price some teammates privately suggested was too steep to pay for a star in decline.

Only Jeter's decline wasn't your average, everyday decline. He delivered a .316 batting average last year, and his 216 hits represented the second-highest total of his career.

Today's Yankees could use 75 percent of that player in the worst way.

"I don't think you ever really know exactly what you're going to get when a guy comes off the DL," Girardi said, "but your hope is they come off and be the player they were before they got hurt."

Despite his protests to the contrary, Jeter needs more time with the Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. He needs to play nine innings in back-to-back games before the Yankees can bring him back later this week, or right after the All-Star break.

"It's possible," Girardi said of a Jeter sighting in the Bronx this weekend.

Not that the manager cared to project a sense of desperation to his floundering team.

"We just won six in a row," he said before losing his third in a row.

If the Yankees aren't unwatchable right now, they're a first-and-goal away from unwatchable. They can barely get the ball out of the infield, never mind knock it around on their way to a half dozen runs.

A-Rod won't be available to save them from themselves, not if Bud Selig has anything to say about it. Mark Teixeira is done, and Curtis Granderson can't swing a bat yet and isn't healing to Girardi's satisfaction.

Someone, anyone, has to add some pop and credibility to this lineup. The Yankees managed six singles Tuesday night, that's it, and only two across the final eight innings.

As is his way, Girardi wanted to credit Shields more than he wanted to blame his hitters. But the manager knows he can't keep surviving with Travis Hafner striking out three times in three at-bats and hitting .217 as his DH.

Jeter can help there, too, on nights his ankle is too sore to cover the necessary ground at short. Truth is, he can help just by showing up at the park.

With a towel slung over his left shoulder, Sabathia said Jeter and his fellow rehabbing stars "will hopefully change everything" when they return to the lineup.

As he spoke in a near whisper, Sabathia stood near a locker occupied only by a few boxes, a basket of fan mail, some pinstriped jerseys and pants, four Yankees caps resting side by side on a shelf, and an empty chair marked by the No. 2.

The Yankees need a familiar face and body in that chair like never before.

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 »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • Rotten Egg
    Ivan Nova is heading to the disabled list with a partially torn UCL.
  • Extras!
    The Braves and Mets are tied at three and head to extra innings at Citi Field.
  • Lunch Money Gone
    The Broad Street Bullies beat down the Blueshirts on Broadway.
  • Who's That?
    Paul Pierce responded to the Raptors GM shouting an exploitative about Brooklyn.
  • Things Could Get Messy
    Forcing Geno Smith into an open competition threatens to stunt his growth as a QB.

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES