Derek Jeter’s Surprise

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The “surprise” isn’t that Derek Jeter is going to be out of action until (at least) after the All-Star break, but that anyone thought he’d be back and healthy so quickly after a serious ankle injury and surgery and be ready for opening day. The obvious joke is that Yankees extended spring training is turning into their version of the Roach Motel: they check in and don’t check out. It happened last year with Michael Pineda who, ironically, was on the last pitch of his rehab outing when he tore the labrum in his shoulder and hasn’t been seen since and now it’s Jeter.

The truth is that the constant harping on Yankees’ superiority has no basis in reality, especially when it comes to medical issues. If that wasn’t understood before, it has to be getting through now as the Yankees are continually having problems with the health of key players Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Pineda, Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner. Many of the problems were mistreated and misdiagnosed with the programs either failing or hindering the players’ return to health.

This isn’t an indictment against the Yankees; it happens with every team and not much can be done to change it. Players will get hurt and they’ll suffer setbacks.

Regarding Jeter, the question has to be asked if Jeter pushing so hard negatively affected his recovery. In retrospect, the club might’ve been better off telling him—not asking, telling him—that if he wanted to play in spring training, it would be with a local Junior College team because he wasn’t going to be in the lineup for the Yankees until he was deemed by the doctors to be healthy and able to perform, not 60%, 70% or whatever percent—healthy and able to perform.

This injury was called a “new fracture” by GM Brian Cashman. This suggests to me that perhaps Jeter was compensating for the original ankle fracture and injured himself again. That stems from the “I need to get back and prove I’m better” compact with himself that has made Jeter who he is.

If you asked Jeter if he regrets pushing so hard to be ready for opening day, he’d probably say no and he won’t be convinced otherwise. If Jeter were still in his 20s, then maybe he could’ve pulled it off, but the ravages of age—whether we like them or not—must be acknowledged and accepted. While it hasn’t been said, Jeter’s determination to get back on the field in time for opening day probably spurred him to push the envelope in his rehab to expedite matters and all he may have succeeded in doing was delay his return more. Part of the reason Jeter has accomplished everything he has is that determination to prove doubters and those who diminish him as wrong and to achieve his goals on his schedule by his rules. But he’s about to turn 39. The metabolism slows. The body takes a longer time to heal. The outlawed and questionable drugs that might’ve help to speed his recovery are overwhelmingly unlikely to be an option for the image-conscious Jeter. As a result, like a former powerful politician who isn’t used to waiting in line at the movies, in a restaurant, or anywhere else, Jeter has to wait to get back on the field just like everybody else.

This was an important season for Jeter’s future. His contract is up at the end of the season and he has an $8 million player option for 2014. If he had a big year, he could’ve leveraged that into a contract extension through at least 2015 with an option for 2016 and a significant raise. Now he’s obviously going to exercise the option whether he plays this season or not and the Yankees are not going to be beholden to the past and pay him because he’s Derek Jeter. If he can’t play up to the levels he and the club are accustomed to or at least be competent, the Yankees will have no choice but to cut the ties after 2014. He’ll be 40 at that point and expecting his defensive range to be even adequate after the ankle woes is delusional. He won’t move to another position either, which is a Jeter frailty along the lines of pushing his rehab. Sometimes there have to be concessions.

I keep getting the image of the film Born on the Fourth of July starring Tom Cruise where he plays Vietnam vet Ron Kovic who was shot and rendered paraplegic. In the film, the character was in the hospital and in the midst of his denial was using a walker to drag his legs behind him as if he was “walking.” But he wasn’t going to walk again and only succeeded in falling and breaking his leg so the bone stuck out of the skin. Jeter’s plight isn’t that permanent, but it’s in the same ballpark with the same mentality of ignoring the reality and pushing forward even if it only makes things worse.

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Paul Lebowitz’s 2013 Baseball Guide is now available on Amazon.com, Smashwords, BN and Lulu. Check it out and read a sample.

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