By Ernie Palladino
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Whether Derek Jeter appears at shortstop on Opening Day or has to wait until April 6 or beyond is immaterial. A handful of games at the start of a 162-game schedule won’t mean a lot in the big picture.

What is meaningful is that Jeter’s left ankle problems have become emblematic of something that should be far more troubling to Yankees fans. It is the symbol of goodbye.

Goodbye to Yankees dominance. Goodbye to the aging core players that gave this franchise such a great run. The captain, who so characterized the run with a calm, steadying hand inside the clubhouse and on the field, will never lead again consistently, and without that the Yanks may well turn rudderless.

You see, one has to be on the field in order to lead. Whether Jeter will admit it or not, he’s not going to be there. Not consistently enough to be a factor, anyway. That ankle is going to be a constant problem for him now, simply because it is attached near the bottom of a 38-year-old body. Chassis that old just don’t heal the way a 28-year-old body would. So what American League opponents couldn’t do to Jeter — slow him down — Mother Nature is doing just that.

The Yanks can count on one thing from Jeter from here on in. He’s going to be in and out of the lineup this year. Maybe a day here, a day there at first as that cranky ankle barks at him. But those days will stretch into the occasional week, and perhaps a stint or two on the disabled list. The first one could come this week if Brian Cashman decides a complete shutdown will facilitate his major league arrival.

Again, whether he plays on April 1 or April 6 is immaterial. The question is, can he play on back-to-back days? Will the ankle ever cooperate? Can he hit and field with the consistency of a one-year younger Jeter?

It’s all a question mark. But what is not in doubt is that the Yanks are an old team, and old teams generally don’t survive long-term. If the Yanks fall from their 95-win perch of last season into mid-80s mediocrity, it won’t all be because Jeter wasn’t there to pull them out of the death spiral. He is simply a symbol, the most venerable of the everyday veterans who grow older as the days peel off Joe Girardi’s calendar.

Alex Rodriguez, another oldster now saddled with off the field problems, wouldn’t have been around until after the All-Star break anyway because of hip surgery. Mark Teixeira won’t be around at the start of the season because of a bad wrist. Curtis Granderson is still recovering from a busted forearm.

On the pitching side, there’s a question of migraines for closer Mariano Rivera.

The headache Cashman will have heading into Opening Day with the Red Sox will be significantly more intense than anything going on in Mo’s head, however. He’s got an old team, now symbolized by Jeter’s ankle, which the GM cutely characterizes as “cranky.”

Translation: It hurts like all get-out.

Is it part of the healing process? Yes.

Will it be a lasting problem? Perhaps.

Might things have gone much smoother with it were Jeter 10 years younger? Absolutely.

Time doesn’t stop, however. People grow old. Jeter has grown old, as have many of the Yankees who were integral pieces to their great run of success over the past two decades.

Jeter’s ankle could represent the end of that. We may be saying farewell to the good old days.

Maybe we already did that in the top of the 12th in the opener of last year’s ALCS, when that left ankle first gave way.

Is it all downhill from here for the aging Yanks? Be heard in the comments…


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