Derek Jeter's near-magical ability to hit his mark in the big moment, to rise to the occasion, has been the subject of some of this century's worst sports writing, and sparked an understandable backlash in baseball fans who got sick of hearing him slobbered over. But even those who rolled their eyes when the sports media went off on one of its over-the-top paeans to Captain Clutch would concede that Derek Jeter deserved a large percentage of that slobber.
So this season -- a "nightmare," as Jeter has repeatedly called it -- has been jarring, even though we all know even the most larger-than-life stars are just people, and that people age and their bodies change, and that the end of the road for athletes is rarely neat or easy.
When Jeter came off the disabled list for the second time this season on July 28 (after just a one-game return earlier in the month), he did it yet again: In the very first pitch of his very first at-bat, he homered. "He's back!" crowed the headlines. But he wasn't; Jeter strained his calf four days later. Determined to help the Yankees with their tantalizing playoff hopes -- only one game out of a wild-card spot, going into Thursday, despite everything -- he came back in late August… this time for all of 12 games.
That makes 17 total games played in this lost season. And Jeter is 39. The number of players who have performed at a high level at that age, let alone those who've come back from very serious injury to do so, is not very large.
It's been discussed so often that it seems like it should have its own roster spot: Derek Jeter's Surgically Repaired Ankle. This time it's not any new injury landing him on the DL, but a more general issue.
"The new information is that although the bone is healing, has healed, you know, there's a complicated structure there, the ankle. Between ligaments, soft tissues, muscles, tendons, a lot of components need to be strengthened up or he's going to continue to have problems," said general manager Brian Cashman on Wednesday. "You've gotta let the pain dissipate, give it a chance to strengthen the ankle back up -- we're just not going to have enough time to do that by running him out there in any capacity… it puts him in a vulnerable situation and risks re-injury or further injury. That's not something we're willing to do."
Jeter has a $9.5 million player option for 2014, and he is expected to exercise it for a variety of reasons -- because no one walks away from that kind of money (which no other team would match now), because he wants to stay a Yankee, and because he will not want to go out like this, to echo Mariano Rivera's words after his leg injury last season. Rivera, indeed, did not go out like that, but returned to have a strong final year. Like so many things that Rivera does, though, this is not nearly as easy as he has made it look.
It's been no fun for fans to watch Jeter's health struggles -- or even for enemies, really; Red Sox fans think this stinks too -- but one can only imagine how miserable it must be for Jeter. This is a man who for the better part of two decades has answered every inquiry about his health, potential injuries or lingering physical problems with "fine." "It's fine." "I'm fine." "Fine." It became a running joke with reporters. But of course no one, however many nationally televised home runs they hit at crucial moments, how picturesque their jump throws to first, or how unanimous their Hall of Fame support, is fine forever.
Baseball, and sports generally, are full of stories of people who struggle, work harder than you thought humanly possible, and overcome all sorts of terrible odds to get themselves back on the field, back in the game. We look at these stories as inspirational and, of course, they are. But we spend less time on the other side of that tale: Those who struggle, work harder than you thought humanly possible, and still never make it back. Whether Jeter falls into that latter category will have nothing to do his work ethic or his determination or his leadership or his "clutchness," and everything to do with genetics and luck and medical science.
"I will never doubt Jeter because of who he is," said Joe Girardi. "If he believes he can get back, I believe him."
Fair enough. If anyone can do it, Jeter can. But what if no one can do it?
This would be a tough late-career blow for any player; it's especially galling for one whose timing has always been so perfect. It's not a nightmare, though, any more than all of Jeter's great moments were a dream -- just the uncaring, uncooperative reality.