By Sweeny Murti
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As I was driving home early Sunday morning, still thinking about the sight of Derek Jeter lying on the infield dirt with a broken ankle, I flashed back to the last—and only other time—any of us have seen that kind of look in his eyes.
It was a night in Toronto, Opening Day 2003, when he separated his shoulder sliding into third base. Jeter would miss six weeks.
Mike Mussina was scheduled to start the game in which Jeter would make his return. I asked Mussina two days beforehand about what it meant to get Jeter—who still was simply the face of the Yankees, a few weeks away from officially being named team captain—back after a long absence like that.
Mussina’s response was one that I still think belongs chiseled in granite and displayed in Monument Park:
“We can put on the uniform, and we can play in the Stadium, but we’re not the New York Yankees unless Derek Jeter is playing shortstop.”
That’s the way it feels as the Yankees try to do something now that we all knew would happen someday, but holding onto our youth would not allow us to think about it just yet—the Yankees will try to get to a World Series without Derek Jeter — and Mariano Rivera.
I say get to, not win, because there is still some accomplishment in winning a pennant in baseball, and without these two pillars it would indeed be an accomplishment getting to the World Series, especially now that they trail Detroit two-games-to-none. There is still a difference between being the American League champion and the conference champion that lost the Super Bowl.
The Yankees still have an opportunity to make this an October that doesn’t feel like a funeral.
It begins now.
“I feel good,” Joe Girardi said before the Game 2 loss dug a deeper hole. “I’ve seen the resolve in that room so many times, where they’ve been questioned, people thought we panicked. We laugh at it in there when people say that. And they’ve gotten it done, so I feel good. This is a great chance for a lot of people to really show their mettle. As an athlete those are the things you want. This is a challenge. It was a challenge with Derek, and now these guys get a challenge to show how great they are.”
That challenge falls most squarely on the shoulders of Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano.
A-Rod has been slowly getting buried this week. The poor regular season had him one foot in the grave. Getting pinch-hit for had us picking out his plot, and when it happened again we went looking for his headstone. We picked out the coffin when he was benched before Game 5 against the Orioles. Now A-Rod is being given another chance.
For all of his nine years in a Yankee uniform, A-Rod has been in Jeter’s shadow. No matter what he did, it was always in comparison to Jeter. A-Rod has a chance to pull himself out of this baseball grave that’s been dug for him. If he has the physical skill to do it, then he needs to show the mental resolve to accomplish it. So far—1 for 7 in this series, 3 for 23 in the postseason.
Cano has been the Yankees’ best player for most of the last three years. But he has always been overshadowed by the larger personalities (and salaries) around him. Consider that he is 29 years old and made $14 million this year, making him the youngest and lowest paid Yankee infielder.
Cano’s time is now. He can make the Yankees his team for the rest of this decade. A big postseason performer for the Yankees in 2010 and 2011, he was unable to carry the most torrid September stretch that any Yankee has ever had into this postseason. The great ones can get a pass for one bad series in a winning effort. This is Cano’s chance to step up again, and show he is ready to accept the torch being passed down to him. With an historic 0-for-26 drought weighing him down, Cano is letting the torch burn out before he can even get a running start.
The Yankees need the type of leader that Derek Jeter has been for many years. No big speeches needed, just go out and play to win. That is how he went about it as he helped the Yanks overcome 0-2 deficits in his younger days (’96 World Series vs. Atlanta, ’01 Division Series vs. Oakland). Jeter might never admit to us what he says to whom at times like this, but it’s a good bet he is pushing his teammates to kick it into that extra gear. And Joe Girardi thinks he was doing that before he even left the field early Sunday morning.
When Girardi and trainer Steve Donahue tried to get Jeter and his broken ankle off the field, Jeter insisted that he not be carried. Instead he draped his arms around the pair’s shoulders and limped off while hanging his injured left leg in the air. Why was it important to Jeter to not be carried off the field, even though he had just broken his ankle?
“Because that’s who he is,” Girardi said. “He sends messages through the way he plays a lot of times, and the way he goes about his business. He’s going to have his conversations one-on-one with people, but he sends a message everyday by the way he goes about his life, and he was sending a message: we’re gonna be fine.”
During the course of the regular season when the Yankees were felled by injuries to Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, and CC Sabathia, and Mark Teixeira, and A-Rod, among others, it was Jeter who spent little time making excuses and went right to work on getting ready for the next day’s battle. Soon batting practice would roll around and Jeter would be riding his teammates, setting a loose environment, and reminding everybody that it was business as usual for the Yankees.
This is what they keep telling us now. That it is business as usual and they just have to go out and win a game. The question is who is telling them that, and do they believe it?
This team is begging for leaders, and Alex Rodriguez and Robinson Cano are the next in line. If they have it in them, they will be in line to receive the spoils of Yankee greatness.
If they don’t have it in them, this baseball season will be over in just a couple of days.
Do you have any confidence at all that New York can get this done without Derek? Be here in the comments below…