Derek Jeter's extended absence has caused quite a stir, if not an A-Rod type of stir, especially since his team can't seem to cope without him. Jeter did score 1,869 runs over the years for a reason; he knows how to get the New York Yankees from A to Z.
But lost in the conversation about how much the Yankees have missed Jeter's bat, his intelligence, his baserunning and his presence on the field and in the clubhouse was this historical footnote:
That fractured ankle might've permanently fractured Jeter's chance -- however remote -- of breaking Pete Rose's hits record of 4,256. Jeter has never acknowledged that he's actually pursuing Rose, and his default position on individual milestones is well known. He doesn't care about them, or so he says.
Truth is, Jeter does care about the hits record, and did ask a friend a few years ago about where Rose stood at the same age. If you give Jeter 60 hits for the year after his expected Sunday return to the lineup in the Bronx, he would finish the season he turned 39 with 3,365, 85 short of Rose's total at the end of the season he turned 39.
The Hit King racked up another 806 hits over parts of six seasons, and after the ankle and the quad it's hard to imagine Jeter lasting that long. It's also hard to imagine him finding a way to reach the one career goal he's never shy about confirming for public consumption.
This was Jeter in the spring of 2001, after he won his fourth World Series title in five years and after Alex Rodriguez declared that his best baseball friend wasn't a $252 million player: "I'm not trying to beat Alex's record anyway. The only record I'm concerned with is Yogi's record, and that's the 10 championships."
This was Jeter in the spring of 2010, after he finally won No. 5 at 35 and after he was asked if he still thought catching the old catcher, Yogi Berra, was a realistic proposition:
"Yeah, because I think it gives you something to shoot for. You never sit around and be happy with what you've done. A few people have won five, so you try to move past those guys. Ten is the highest number, but there are a lot of steps along the way."
A common-sense appraisal of Jeter would rule out 10, or even nine, at this point, meaning he's definitely not running down Yogi just as he's most likely not running down Rose. And that's fine. Jeter's had a hell of a run, and he'll arguably go down as the greatest shortstop of them all.
He's already a top-10 all time Yankee, and he's in the conversation (with Yogi, Mariano Rivera and Whitey Ford) for the unofficial title of fifth Beatle, behind the Babe, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and the Mick. But Jeter can still give himself a major legacy boost starting Sunday at Yankee Stadium, assuming he tells Joe Girardi something along the lines of, "Put me in, Coach."
As it stands now, this 54-50 Yankees team won't make the playoffs, not from eight games back of Tampa Bay in the division, not from 3½ back of the second wild card. The Yanks can't hit, can't score, can't come from behind and can't survive with CC Sabathia throwing glorified BP.
Alex Rodriguez couldn't hurt the team's chances, despite how he finished last season, but he's likely staring down the barrel of a major suspension. Curtis Granderson will surely add some competence and power to the batting order, but the Yanks' chief deficiency -- even after adding Alfonso Soriano -- is their lack of production from the right side, not to mention some confidence throughout the order.
Jeter would give the Yankees plenty of both. He spent Saturday with a bunch of minor leaguers in Staten Island, trying to loosen up his recovering legs so he doesn't have the kind of embarrassing setback he suffered in his one-and-done comeback game July 11.
Chances are, Jeter will enter himself into the lineup against Tampa Bay and fail to produce the kind of magic he delivered against the Rays in 2011, when he went 5-for-5 and homered for Hit No. 3,000. But if he can just get the ball out of the infield, and make a couple of plays, and do something smart on the bases, maybe, just maybe, Jeter can inspire a seemingly hopeless team to believe in itself. And if Jeter, at 39, can carry these Yankees along for his 17th postseason appearance in 18 years, that's going to be a pretty-looking cherry on top of an enormous cake.
It sure won't equal an 11th championship, or Hit No. 4,257, but this pursuit is a bit more realistic and, if you subscribe to Jeter's stated team-centric dogma, a bit more appealing to the captain.
Can he do it? Can he hold up physically?
Who knows? But watching him try will make the Yankees a lot more interesting than they've been for nearly four months.