Friday, September 13, 2013

The Captain at the Crossroads?

By Jeff Kallman

Even Yankee haters have to take pity upon the Empire Emeritus once in a while. Until they got bastinadoed for two out of three by the Red Sox last weekend, and losing the two in ways the Red Sox used to lose it to the Yankees with races on the line, they'd been making a surprising showing of just hanging in this year's race despite patchwork, the disabled list, and no little controversy involving a certain third baseman.

Now, they're going to face the rest of the season, never mind a postseason that looks a little less likely for them at this writing, without a man whose value to the franchise remains considerable whether or not he's in the lineup or on the field. Derek Jeter's ankle — fractured once in last year's American League Championship Series; fractured a second time in spring training — has taken him down for the count for the rest of the year.

The ankle isn't broken again, but it's balky enough to put the Captain on the disabled list and thus finish him for the season. The question no Yankee fan really wants to ask is whether this could mean, at long enough last, the end of the line for maybe the greatest spiritual leader the Yankees have had since Mickey Mantle and Don Mattingly.

You knew something was up when the Yankees jerked a few chains and came up with Brendan Ryan, whom they landed for a player to be named later in a deal with the Seattle Mariners Tuesday night, even as the Yankees were beating the Orioles in Camden Yards. Ryan isn't exactly a youth movement (he's 31), but he has something the Yankees need — a glove. He's a throwback to the good glove/gimpy bat shortstop whose defense was, in fact, cited by recently when that site's writer Ben Lindbergh analyzed Jeter's declining defense over the past few seasons — a decline that began when Jeter finally wrung the fundamental flaws out of his defensive game.

The problem isn't with his skills but his age. General Manager Brian Cashman took him out to dinner after the 2007 season and told him point blank his defense was hurting the Yankees, Lindbergh observed, after which Jeter went to work to fix his number one flaw: his positioning. In 2009, that improvement plus his hot season at the plate helped take the Yankees to their most recent World Series win. Then his age began catching up with him in the field, though he continued to hit respectably.

He's still had his milestones, of course. He became the first Yankee to bag 3,000 hits in the 'Stripes in a way that had Yankee fans and no few others saying "it figures," tagging David Price for the big knock and sending a full count curve ball into the left field bleachers. When he returned from the DL this season to help the Yankees say a formal farewell to Hideki Matsui, Jeter abetted the celebration by hitting the first pitch he'd see in regulation competition all year long over the right field fence.

But how much more can Jeter have left in the tank? His ticket to Cooperstown is all but punched and stamped. He's got the World Series rings to prove his value to his team over all those years. He's done everything within his power to keep playing and his body is doing everything in its power to remind him he's only human, after all, and with a finite baseball playing life.

Will it take an unflattering scouting report to show up in print to convince Jeter that nobody wants to see him end it with prolonged embarrassment? Such endings have happened to only too many athletes, some of whom have worn Yankee uniforms, too.

It took just such a scouting report — the Dodgers had prepared it, then loaned it to the Giants for the 1951 World Series, and somehow it ended up in Life for one and all to see — to convince Joe DiMaggio it wouldn't be a good idea to hang around for 1952 even at the same six-figure salary he was paid for 1951.

Mickey Mantle hung around for a few years longer than his body wanted him to do, too, until he finally couldn't take it anymore, even though the faltering Yankees (three years into their dark decade post-1964) needed his box office appeal, even after getting his wish to pass Jimmie Foxx on the all-time home run list. Willie Mays hung around beyond his body, too, likewise bedeviled by a few financial considerations, until he finally saw reality, declared 1973 his last season, and embarrassed himself stumbling in center field on a play he once made in his sleep in the World Series. Steve Carlton's anti-retirement tour put a big stain on his sterling career, though not enough of one to keep him from the Hall of Fame.

Can football fans forget the sad sight of Joe Namath trying one more comeback with the Los Angeles Rams? Can boxing fans forget Muhammad Ali boxing himself into Parkinson's syndrome because he just had to have one more championship belt a couple of more times, when he probably should have called it a career after Manila?

Will it be Jeter going up against the ghost of Ted Williams, instead, in another sense? Williams was haunted by a 1959 that felt lame by his standards and he was hell bent on going out like a champion if he could. So he signed up for 1960, hung up a splendid season that ended famously with that final at-bat home run in Fenway Park, and walked away.

Maybe Jeter writes off 2013 as an aberration, behaves himself enough to let the ankle heal all the way, exercises his 2014 option (at $9.5 million, no less), no matter how badly stung he was during his last contract negotiations (and only a fool would believe Jeter would decline the option in a bid to force a new deal out of the Yankees, who haven't been spending like Yankees these days, but who know his market value wouldn't exactly be what it used to be), and plays as well as a 40-year-old shortstop can play.

He has that kind of pride. Every day of his major league career has been nothing if not an exercise in a man's will to deliver the best he has to deliver. Nobody wants to see Jeter embarrass himself less than Jeter does. This isn't a man who wants to be remembered for a twice-fractured ankle reducing him to a bad, sad impersonation of what he once was. It shouldn't shock anyone to see Jeter back in 2014 playing with at least minimum credibility out of maximum effort.

But the ankle, and the rest of his body, may send him another message before spring training arrives. And it may not be the message Jeter or Yankee fans want to hear. It's hard enough to lose a franchise icon — with or without the prospect of a postseason trip — even if it's only the ravage of time that does it.

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