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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The Yankees’ Problems Go Far Beyond One Fractured Ankle and a Blown Call

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So Nick Swisher’s gregariousness—long an irritant to opponents—is no longer charming to the home fans when he’s 4 for 26, lost a ball in the lights in right field, and they’re looking for someone, anyone to blame for Derek Jeter’s ankle injury no matter how ludicrous the shifting of responsibility is? Swisher is surprised and “hurt” by the fans heckling and booing him?

Indicative of the need for vast chunks of the fanbase to awaken to an unexpected and unforeseen reality, Swisher is the case study of how things truly are for the Yankees when the “magic” disappears or decides to shift its allegiance to another venue.

The search for reasons that there were blocks empty seats at Yankee Stadium for playoff games is a bunch of noise. No one can pinpoint exactly why it’s happening in spite of Randy Levine’s complaints or baseless theories. It could mean anything. In a poor economic climate, fans may not have the money to purchase the seats, pay for the parking, indulge in the concessions. It could be that some have become so accustomed to the Yankees being in the playoffs every year that it’s lost its specialness and they’re paying scant attention to the how and are making the unsaid statement of, “Let me know when the World Series starts.”

The World Series will start on October 24th and the Yankees still have time to be a participant. But barring a miraculous turnaround, they will instead be cleaning out their lockers while it’s going on. Some, like Swisher, will be doing it for the final time as a Yankee.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t call for instant replay when it negatively influences you, but laugh heartily and say smugly, “Them’s the breaks!” when Joe Mauer hits a ball that was clearly fair and was called foul; or when Jeffrey Maier has become a folk hero and part of the “Yankees lore” when he interferes with a Jeter home run ball that wasn’t and may have turned the entire 1996 ALCS in the Yankees’ favor and been the catalyst for their dynasty. Jeter, after that game, was asked what he would say to the young Maier and with the remnants of his antiquated fade haircut still in place and in the formative years of being a Yankees’ hero, he said, “Attaboy!!!” with undisguised glee at the Yankees winning in a similarly unfair fashion as they’re complaining about losing now. Except the Mauer and Maier calls changed the games entirely and the blown call on Omar Infante was only made because Infante made a mistake rounding the base and that the subsequent Yankees’ pitchers couldn’t record one out to make the point moot.

It’s the condescension and self-indulgent arrogance that is currently reverberating on the entire Yankees apparatus from the front office, to the YES Network, to the sanctioned bloggers, to the media, to the players, to the fanbase.

We want justice when it benefits us.

We love the players as long as they perform for us.

We function with dignity and class as long as we win.

Players join the Yankees because they offer the most money and they win. But when a player says no as Cliff Lee did, it’s because he doesn’t appreciate the “privilege” of being a Yankee, not because he and his wife preferred Philadelphia or Texas or because his wife didn’t brush off the same abuse that is being heaped on Swisher now was being hurled at her (along with spit and beer) in the 2010 ALCS.

It’s a wonderful world to live in where there’s no responsibility and money can be tossed at every problem to solve it.

The reality hurts when it hits like a sledgehammer. This faux history and concept of invisible baseball Gods smiling on the Yankees is eliminated by the truth. It was the need for capital in a musical produced by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee that led to the selling of Babe Ruth to the Yankees. They started winning shortly after getting the best player in the game and it turned into a circular entity. The more they won, the more money they made; the more money they made, the more free agent amateurs wanted to play for them because they paid the most in bonuses and they won. It continued on through Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. The amateur draft was implemented in the mid-1960s and the Yankees collapsed. They began winning again through free agency in the mid-late-1970s and it started all up again. There was a long lull and lucky—not smart, lucky—drafts garnered Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte. Amateur free agents upon whom they stumbled and nearly dumped such as Mariano Rivera and Bernie Williams turned into stars. They drafted a skinny shortstop, Jeter, in the first round of 1992 and got a historic player. This talk I’ve seen of a method to the madness with “doing the most damage in the later rounds of the draft” is pure better-breeding, blueblood idiocy. Any team that drafts an infielder in the 24th round who develops into Posada, or a lanky lefty like Pettitte in the 22nd round—both in the 1990 draft—is lucky.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t make it more than it is.

Jeter gets injured and rather than being treated as an athlete who happened to get hurt in the middle of a contest, on Twitter it morphs into “a funeral procession,” and those who laughed (sort of the way the Yankees laugh at the Mets and Red Sox when misfortune hits them), are “justified” to have been thrown over the railing at Yankee Stadium. Jeter is analogous to a “wounded warrior being carted off the battlefield.” No. He’s not. He’s a very rich athlete who got hurt. That this type of thing was said while there are actual soldiers being carted off real battlefields and coming back missing limbs, burned beyond recognition, or dead makes this type of comparison all the more despicable.

Yes. Murdering someone makes logical sense when things don’t work out for you. That’s the way 12-year-old, bullying mentalities think. “If I don’t get to play with your toy, I’m gonna break the toy so you can’t play with it either.” “If I don’t get to win, I’m taking my ball and going home.”

When Rivera got hurt, there was this identical dynamic.

There’s an impenetrable fortress of delusion among these fans who have known nothing but winning in their time as Yankees’ fans. They don’t realize that sports is a diversion and these are human beings doing a job. A true tragedy occurred in 2006 when Cory Lidle crashed his plane days after the Yankees had been eliminated by the Tigers. Days earlier, he’d been a guest on WFAN with Chris Russo and, when Lidle said he was enjoying a beautiful day in New York City with his daughter, Russo indignantly said something to the tune of, “Well, if I’d just lost a playoff series I wouldn’t be out enjoying the day.” Lidle replied, “What am I supposed to do? Sit home and cry?”

In the Jimmy Fallon movie Fever Pitch, as the Red Sox fell behind the Yankees 3 games to 0 in the ALCS of 2004, Fallon’s character is out drowning his sorrows when he spots then-Red Sox players Johnny Damon and Jason Varitek out having dinner. An epiphany hits him that they’re human beings who are doing a job and will then go out and live their lives after the fact and that includes going out and having a nice dinner. There’s no reason to cry; a tantrum won’t help; and there’s no hiding in their homes musing on what went wrong.

Because it’s a job.

This incarnation of the Yankees from 1996 to now has never had to do a rebuild. They never had to worry about money because George Steinbrenner, for all his faults, was willing to spend under the theory that success on the field would beget profit off it. And he was right. But now the Boss is gone and GM Brian Cashman is hell-bent on getting the payroll down to a reasonable level so the new luxury tax regulations won’t drastically increase the bottom line. Is it due to a mandate from Hank and Hal Steinbrenner? Or is it Cashman trying again to prove that he belongs in the fleeting upper echelon of GMs currently inhabited by the likes of Andrew Friedman and Billy Beane who are specifically there because of limited resources and their own cagey maneuvers that sometimes work and sometimes don’t?

Cashman tried to rebuild his farm system so the Yankees didn’t have to rely on the checkbook to save them. In 2008 that resulted in a missed playoff spot and was, as usual, covered by spending, spending, spending on Mark Teixeira, CC Sabathia, and A.J. Burnett. They’re still seeking young pitchers with cost certainty and upside and have Manny Banuelos (Tommy John surgery), Dellin Betances (can’t throw strikes), Michael Pineda (acquired, abused, and on the shelf with a torn labrum), and Jose Campos (the invisible key who hasn’t pitched or been heard from since May).

Annual contention and a World Series or failure sentiment is a great roadmap to disappointment. As the Phillies, Angels, and Red Sox have proven, money doesn’t buy a playoff spot, let alone a championship. The Red Sox and Mets have proven how quickly it can all come apart.

That can happen to the Yankees.

As they age, they decline (Alex Rodriguez); get hurt (Jeter and Rivera); outlive their usefulness (Swisher, Curtis Granderson), and bear the brunt of the outrage that the championships are not being delivered as they were in the past.

Are they prepared to pay Robinson Cano the $200+ million he’s going to want as a free agent after 2013? While they’re trying to cut costs and know that Cano isn’t the hardest worker in the world and whose laziness will extract an increasing toll on his production when the game is no longer easy for him? Does Cano look effortless because he’s so good or is it that he doesn’t put in much effort? And how does that portend what a player like him is going to accomplish as he’s guaranteed an amount of money that he’ll never be able to spend is coming to him no matter how he performs? He doesn’t run ground balls out now in the playoffs, is he going to run them out when he’s 35 and has 5 years to run on a contract that the Yankees can look at A-Rod’s fall and know is disastrous? The days of a player putting up Barry Bonds numbers at ages 36-42 ended with increased drug testing and harsher punishments. A-Rod is a 37-year-old player and this is what happens to 37-year-old players regardless of how great they once were. They can’t catch up to the fastball, they have to start their swings earlier in case it’s on the way leaving them susceptible to hard breaking stuff and changeups.

There’s no fixing it.

The Yankees might come back and win this ALCS. To do it, they’ll have to beat the best pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, pitching at home as the Tigers have a 2-0 series lead. It can be done. The Yankees can still win the World Series. Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that they do. Will it be enjoyed or will there be a la-de-da, “we win again,” attitude that has set the stage for this rickety foundation and imminent collapse?

How much cake can a fan eat? How many pieces of chicken parm can Michael Kay stuff into his mouth? Like Wall Street, how many yachts can they waterski behind? When is enough enough?

Whether your personal investment and fantasyworld of egomania lets you see it, win or lose this dynasty is coming down and it’s happening right before your eyes.

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