Commentary

Derek Jeter pays price for extra effort

The Captain is just six hits away from 3,000, but his body broke down Monday night

Updated: June 15, 2011, 8:15 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter has forever honored an unwritten pact with the paying public, a deal revolving around the one aspect of competition entirely within the athlete's control:

Effort.

Joe DiMaggio said he always gave it in case there was someone in the crowd who had never before seen him play, a credo Jeter embraced on his way to 2,994 hits, or 780 more than The Clipper collected in his own iconic way.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
AP Photo/Bill KostrounJeter exited the game after limping out of the batter's box in the fifth.

Only playing hard and playing hurt exacted a heavy toll on DiMaggio, who retired at 36 with a broken-down body, a .263 batting average and a burning desire to keep his legacy intact.

All these years later, a 36-year-old Jeter was batting .260 and racing to become the first New York Yankee to 3,000 hits by Thursday's artificial homestand deadline when the vile forces of gravity tugged on his right calf and pulled him back to earth.

The Yankees called it a Grade 1 strain, and if Jeter were available to comment after his MRI he surely would've said he would return to the lineup the only way he knows how -- ASAP. No captain who busted up his cover-boy face on a teeth-first dive into the stands against Boston in 2004 and then played against the Mets the following night would ever allow a silly little calf strain to keep him down for long.

Injuries, Mariano Rivera said, "can happen to anybody."

They just don't happen to Derek Jeter.

"He's not one to come out of the game unless it's serious," Mark Teixeira said after the shortstop hobbled out of the fifth inning of this annoying 1-0 loss to Cleveland. "We knew it wasn't minor because he pretty much plays through everything."

Only manager Joe Girardi guessed Monday night that the Yankees and their anxious fan base "won't see him in there" Tuesday night against Texas, leaving Jeter to make history in Wrigley Field over the weekend, or in Cincinnati next week, or maybe even back in the Bronx after that. No matter how it goes down, it wouldn't be the end of civilization as we know it.

But this much is clear: Monday night's injury did more than inspire thousands of Thursday ticket holders to rage at their TV screens, and to curse the high-def images of Jeter limping to first on his fly ball and then down the dugout steps and into the clubhouse tunnel, out of sight but definitely not out of mind.

It reminded everyone why Jeter is the diminished player he's been for the last year and a half. Sixteen seasons of manning the most physically taxing position in the sport -- outside of the masked man behind the plate, of course -- have stripped the shortstop of his explosiveness and left him to rely on his resourcefulness, experience and smarts.

Jeter has played more than 2,500 regular-season and postseason games, often without regard for his physical well being. In 2001, Game 5 against Oakland, he crash-landed into the photographer's pit after a catch at the wall and was never the same player for the balance of that postseason, Mr. November homer or no Mr. November homer.

On opening night in Toronto in 2003, Jeter made a head-first dive into third base while the covering catcher, Ken Huckaby, awkwardly landed on his left shoulder, leaving a writhing Jeter with a dislocated shoulder and the only significant injury of his career.

The captain wasn't thinking of his repaired shoulder 15 months later when he took flight into the stands against the Red Sox, and emerged with a face so battered and bloodied that Alex Rodriguez declared, "He looked like he got punched by Mike Tyson."

Just as Jeter was being treated that night, this was the very first thing he told trainer Gene Monahan: "I'm playing tomorrow." The shortstop was indeed in the starting lineup posted inside the visitors' clubhouse at Shea.

Five years later, after a physical renaissance made him a five-time champion and, at 35, nearly a league MVP, Jeter looked like someone who could punch singles into right field long enough to rack up 4,000 hits, maybe even take a run at Pete Rose.

But 2010 happened. And then the first two months and change of 2011 happened. All those long days and nights of running out every ground ball, of honoring DiMaggio's dogma without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs, reduced Jeter to a whisper of his once dynamic self.

He isn't nearly as supple or athletic as he used to be. So after singling in the first, and after digging hard and extending at the first-base bag to prevent a double play in the second, Jeter buckled when he lifted his soft fly in the fifth.

"I think coming out of the box it happened," Girardi said. "And then I saw him pulling up at first."

It wasn't what Jeter's manager and former teammate wanted to see.

"We need him for our team," Girardi said. "It's our leadoff guy and our shortstop. ... I'm worried about him."

Jeter turns 37 in less than two weeks. He said the only pressure he's felt in his pursuit of 3,000 is the pressure to get there at home, and to create the kind of moment he shared with the fans when he broke Lou Gehrig's franchise record for hits.

It appears the shortstop's body couldn't cover the tab.

"It wasn't a question of, 'Can he stay in the game or not?'" Teixeira said of the sight of a limping Jeter. "It was, 'Get him out of the game.' ... You knew it was something a little more serious."

It was something that reminded all witnesses of Jeter's extensive wear and tear, and of a noble willingness to play hurt that reminded Monahan of certified ruffians the likes of Thurman Munson.

But like other no-pain, no-gain Yankees, time has caught up to Derek Jeter. Somewhere, somehow, the captain will get to 3,000 hits, one hobble at a time.

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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