Jeter’s Wants and the Yankees’ Needs Can’t Function Simultaneously

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Derek Jeter has gone from being an ageless wonder bent on proving his critics wrong to an aging albatross who might not even be able to play next year. That’s according to the media. To make matters worse, the Yankees can’t consider moving Jeter to another position like third base if they don’t have Alex Rodriguez because it would be an “insult” to their heroic captain. Nor can they import a legitimate veteran shortstop just in case he needs to play regularly for fear of usurping Jeter’s spot.

The Yankees biggest mistake in Jeter’s 2013 season was entertaining the notion that he could push his rehab from ankle surgery so hard that he’d be ready for opening day. The club is allergic to placing Jeter and A-Rod in the same category, but the restraint they showed with A-Rod and his hip surgery should have been implemented with Jeter as well.

Of course, they didn’t want A-Rod to be able to play at all and Jeter is a monolithic institution at shortstop who’s not afraid to use his cachet to get what he wants even if that hurts him and the team.

Jeter came back too soon in the spring and reinjured his ankle. He returned in July, played one game and strained a quadriceps. He came back late in July and strained a calf in early August. Now his ankle is barking again. He’s also hitting .190 and can’t function effectively at shortstop. He shouldn’t be playing.

Amid all the accolades doled out to Jeter for playing clean during the steroid era and refusing to use those little extra helpers to boost him, the little extra helpers are what keep a player on the field when he’s 39-years-old and breaking down physically after two decades of playing hard and playing the extra games the Yankees played on an almost annual basis with post-season berths. This is what happens to older players.

The same appellations of Jeter being a marvel who shoves it to his doubters are applicable in the opposite direction as well as his status makes the Yankees keep acquiescing to his demands and he’s shoving it to the hand that feeds him. He’s not able to contribute but is forcing his way into the lineup by the sheer fact that he’s Derek Jeter and the Yankees have to give him what he wants. If they want to contend next year, however, they’re going to need to at least find a competent backup shortstop whom they can trust every day if need be and it’s clear by now that Eduardo Nunez isn’t it. Or they can move Jeter to third base if and when A-Rod is suspended.

The “I’m a shortstop” bit has to end sometime especially if he’s no longer capable of being a shortstop. Jeter rebelling or accepting these facts will show how cognizant he is of the new reality and how far he’s willing to go to sabotage the team to get what he feels is rightfully his whether it’s good for the 2014 Yankees or not.




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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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