By Ernie Palladino
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If Derek Jeter isn’t ready, at least he’s getting there.
You know he’s taken the proper steps because, well, he’s Derek Jeter. For the Yankees’ almost-40 shortstop, the need to play baseball is akin to the need to breathe for other people. So going in, one knows Jeter will prepare himself the best he can for whatever this 2014 season will hold.
He’s taken the first steps. Hannah Davis, that luscious supermodel girlfriend of his? Out. Dumped her. According to the gossipy Page Six column, Jeter may have broken up with her several months ago, probably when he learned she’d be one of the featured cuties in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.
That’s the last thing Jeter needed, a world going gah-gah over his lady splashed across the pages of SI in living color and a few stitches of fabric. That’s not really conducive to keeping one’s head in a game, especially when that aged cranium comes off an injury-ravaged season. So, Jeter sent young Hannah packing in fast order.
Then came Monday in Tampa. Jeter took his first real step in throwing off the shackles of 2013 with a real, live workout. He hadn’t had one of those since the Yanks shut him down after just 17 games. This wasn’t much — 39 swings of the bat, 34 grounders at shortstop with some easy lobs to first base. Almost nothing compared to the full-fledged workouts he’ll have to get through in spring training.
But it was everything to Jeter. He felt good, he said afterward. That alone represented a leap forward from this time a year ago. He was just a month out of a plastic boot that protected the left ankle that went “Snap!” during the 2012 ALCS. He couldn’t do a thing then, and Jeter would not return to action again until the 92d game.
A second break during rehab slowed the entire process, and then successive strains to the quadriceps, calf, and finally the ankle again ended his season Sept. 7.
Now, Jeter is once again moving toward the day people stop asking all those “How ya feelin’?” questions. The competitor in him looks forward to the day they start with the inevitable, “So, Derek, what can a 40-year-old shortstop really contribute to a team’s attempt to get back to the playoffs after an off year?”
That’s a baseball question, a good one at that. Even if Jeter comes all the way back to start on Opening Day, the legitimate question involves whether his old legs still have enough in them to be useful. Shortstop is one of those quick-twitch positions. Pivot on a dime. Explode to either side. Get the good jump on the grounder and range behind second. For all of Jeter’s positional instincts which rank among the game’s keenest, he like all great shortstops still needs a modicum of speed to get the job done.
Whether he has it or not is the question. At this point in his baseball life, half of Derek Jeter may not be preferable to all of a lesser player.
That is for a future that envelops many other questions, however. Issues such as how David Robertson will slide into Mariano Rivera’s closer shoes without getting swallowed up in their magnitude will come up countless times. How will new foreign prize Masahiro Tanaka take to pitching in a different country and lineups far better 1-through-9 than he faced in Japan? Does Hiroki Kuroda have another year left in his tank? And will new lineup additions like Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian Roberts inject the pop the offense so sorely missed last season?
Jeter is one of those questions. He’s still a long way from assuming a role, and a longer way from resurrecting his injured body to his former star status. It may not happen. Or it may.
We only know this. The girlfriend is gone. The spikes are tied on tight.
He has taken the first step of a long journey into 2014, and has left the scarred remnants of 2013 behind.
It was a start.
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