Commentary

Yankees bend over backward for Jeter

All the tiptoeing around easy DL decision proves Cap still has psychic hold on Bombers

Updated: June 15, 2011, 8:12 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- In the end, the Yankees did the smart and sensible thing by putting Derek Jeter on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday because of the strained-calf injury he picked up Monday night. It was the run-up to the decision that made it feel like the tensions between the team and "The Captain" -- not just his well-established loathing for taking time off -- remain an elephant in the room.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIThe Yankees handled putting Derek Jeter on the DL -- a no-brainer -- with kid gloves.

The machinations before the Yankees' announcement didn't feel like your normal, run-of-the-mill roster decision as much as a reminder of how the care and feeding of Jeter, who turns 37 in two weeks, remains a sensitive topic for the team. And a preview of potentially pricklier times to come.

If the team has to go through this much stagecraft over a no-brainer about how to handle a Jeter calf injury, what will happen if Jeter ever does find the Yankees floating the idea of, say, a position switch or dropping him down in the batting order?

Everyone involved -- both team officials and Jeter -- agreed Jeter's now-interrupted march toward 3,000 hits, a mark he needs just six more to reach, was not a factor. And that's believable. As manager Joe Girardi said, "It's going to happen."

So what else do you make of bending over backward to show just how much Jeter's feelings were being considered here?

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who doesn't make himself available for comment as much as he used to, made the rounds on the two New York sports radio stations not long after 3 p.m. Tuesday -- or just before the time the Yankees' clubhouse was opening -- and he hinted Jeter was headed to the DL. But he didn't speak with the larger than usual crowd of reporters gathered at the stadium. Cashman left that to Girardi and Jeter, who conducted separate news conferences about a half-hour apart.

Girardi -- who went first -- didn't field one question about the Yankees' second rematch at the stadium with the Texas Rangers, who drubbed them out of the American League Championship Series last year, or the eye-catching starting pitching matchup between CC Sabathia and the Rangers' Alexi Ogando (7-0, 2.10 ERA).

(Oh. Right. The game ... )

Girardi said he was concerned and that because Jeter has the type of injury that is easily reaggravated or made worse, it would be more prudent to be overly cautious with Jeter.

Jeter said he was hoping to talk the Yankees into waiting six or seven days, in the hopes he might heal quickly and not have to sit out a second week that he could play.

Girardi was asked who would be the "tiebreaker."

The Yanks' manager explained the doctor handling Jeter's case was coming to the stadium to meet with Jeter and team officials in person.

For a calf injury.

Then Jeter would get a chance to express his thoughts, and ultimately, Cashman would make the final decision.

"I'll give my opinion, but he controls the roster," Girardi said.

Jeter didn't back off his wish to stay active, which is typical.

Asked what his argument would be, he jokingly began his news conference by saying, "I can't give you all my information. I'm still pleading my case." Did he hope to talk the Yankees into delaying the DL decision a few days? "I'm trying, man. I'm trying. I'm trying hard," he said. Again, typical.

The little surprise was Jeter's answer when someone asked him whether he'd "feel badly" about the Yanks perhaps being left a man short after they play these next three home games against Texas, and then head off on a six-game road trip to play the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, two National League teams against which he wouldn't be able to DH if he were still too sore to play in the field.

This was Jeter's complete answer: "We played last year a lot of times short. We've played without Russell [Martin] the last few days. I think we've been at National League fields before with guys who were unable to play. If it's just a day or two, to be honest with you, I don't think it would be that big of a deal. If it's an extended period of time, then yeah, you don't want to have your team playing short. I've been sick playing at the Mets' stadium, even went home and we were a man short, so those kind of things happen all the time."

Jeter finally got around to saying he'd be fine with whatever the team decided. But, as someone later joked, "He took a long, strange route to the ball."

It probably was just Jeter's age-old stubbornness about missing a game talking again. But at this point, you couldn't blame Jeter if he had a little paranoia or mistrust about how the Yankees' brain trust really views him after what was said before he got the contract extension he signed in the offseason.

What's that old line about you're not paranoid if people really are out to get you?

If Cashman's dare to Jeter to go test the market if he didn't like the Yankees' early offers lingers in the air, it's because of the suggestion latent in that remark: the idea that the Yankees were prepared to do without him.

You or I can say Cashman's remarks were just the usual posturing that goes on in negotiations, but all that really matters is what Jeter thought: "I'm not going to lie to you. I was angry about it," he said.

Jeter also said that same day he signed that it was over and he wouldn't talk about it again. And he hasn't. But Jorge Posada, his close friend, did grumble, "I guess that's how they do things around here now," when the Yankees went public with the embarrassing details of how Posada asked out of a game against the Red Sox in May.

For the next 15 days now, the Yanks get the chance to kick the tires on young Eduardo Nunez, who will start at shortstop instead of Jeter. Nunez got off to an encouraging start Tuesday, going 2-for-4 with an RBI single and a run scored in the Yankees' 12-4 win. Afterward, Nunez spoke about how Jeter has made a point of volunteering to help him this season. He also credited Jeter for counseling him before the game about what pitches the Rangers' Ogando throws since Nunez faced him just once before. "He said wait for a fastball. And I hit the fastball. He said, 'I told you!'" Nunez recalled with a laugh, when asked to replay his RBI.

But be careful what you wish for, Jeter critics.

Watching great players deal with their advancing age is often painful. And Jeter ain't what he used to be, it's true.

But he's still batting better than five of the other players the Yankees started Tuesday night, and he still plays a perfectly serviceable shortstop. He's not Willie Mays falling down in the outfield or Pete Rose thrashing around the last three or four years of his career. So it's a little puzzling why the Jeter bashers keep collecting acolytes at the high rate they do. Up in Boston, they're still touting grizzled old Jason Varitek as a grand old warrior. Out in San Francisco, they still roar for Barry Bonds at AT&T Park, although it's been years since he retired and despite all the wrong things he's done. Yet Jeter is confronted with people here who are only too happy to clear him a seat on the bench, if only for two weeks. What explains that? Why hasn't this turned into a long, sentimental joyride for Jeter? Is not being the player at 37 that you were at 27 a crime?

The idea that the Yankees' chances of contending are better over the long haul or in the postseason with the unproven Nunez rather than Jeter at shortstop is hardly a sure thing. The idea that the Yanks don't need Jeter at all? Preposterous. Forget what the WAR or OBP says, or whatever else the sabermetrics say. Jeter still has a psychic hold on this team and this city. And all the tiptoeing and parsing of everyone's statements Tuesday was a vivid reminder of just how true that remains.

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