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TAMPA, Fla. – At 7:03 p.m., the man who is likely the last to wear a single digit for the New York Yankees turned to his teammates and yelled, "Come on! Let's go!"
Derek Jeter then charged up the dugout steps and led his team onto the field for the first time since breaking his left ankle in the playoffs last October.
In his first game back in the field, he kept talking pretty much throughout the four innings he played. He yelled to starting pitcher Andy Pettitte to cover first. He faked anger when Kevin Youkilis cut off a grounder and fired to first. ("I had that!" he would say later.) He barked something to reliever Cody Eppley after almost every pitch.
"Nice pitch," Jeter would say.
Pettitte smiled after the game. "He was mouthing the whole time out there," he said.
Jeter was anxious. It's tough to blame him, considering he's been unable to work out on his injured leg all winter. He ran in his usual straight-up stride, yet he looked just a little tight. "You get nervous waiting for the first ground ball, the first at-bat," he said.
Jeter was nervous for a while, readying for a ground ball that didn't come until a chopper found him in the fourth. He fielded it cleanly, turned and scooped to second. There were a couple of shots near him, but none close enough to lay out for – not in March and not in his first game back. His four innings were boring and a little anticlimactic; he went 0-for-2 in the Yankees 6-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies.
Yet his own nerves contributed to his pitchers' confidence as Jeter channeled his energy into chatter. That's what Jeter does.
"Every time you hear him," Eppley said, "it adds a little. Just tells you if the ball is put in play, they got it."
There's some discomfort around the healed bone, Jeter said. The doctors told him there would be. But it's not like an ACL; he's not worried about a re-break. Well, not that worried; he knocked on the wood of his clubhouse locker as he talked about the recovered ankle. "As long as the bone is healed," he said, "you can work through the soreness."
The coming days will bring more tests: stealing a base, rounding third, darting to second on a hit-and-run. He has to "get used to doing things without thinking about it," he said. But those aren't major obstacles. Jeter should be ready for Opening Day against the Red Sox. He should be out there where he belongs and where no one will ever belong quite like him again.
And look at the calendar: It's 2013, the final year of one of the most laughed-at contracts in recent baseball memory. Yankee haters and quite a few experts giggled at the supposed bind Jeter put his team in by asking for a three-year, big-money deal in 2010 that was a reflection of his phenomenal past rather than his fading future. Back then, a team source reportedly said Jeter needed to drink a "reality potion."
Well, here's the reality: Jeter led the Major Leagues in hits last season. He batted .316. The Yankees made the playoffs. And if 2013 is anything close to 2012, even after this injury, Jeter might ask for more than the $8 million for 2014 that many thought would be a hilarious sunk cost for a legend whose wheels were coming off. Yes, there's a chance Jeter will struggle this season and become more of an anchor than a sail. His range is poor and it sure won't improve at age 38. (He'll be 39 in June.) His Ultimate Zone Rating stinks, whatever that is. Yet we've heard that before, haven't we?
Jeter's time at short is short. He'll probably play fewer and fewer games there as he ekes toward his 40th birthday next year. Yet the reduced ability to get to grounders – so often a point of complaint for baseball pundits – is made up at least in part by the little things: the yapping, the confidence-building, the awareness that he's there. Jeter had nerves Wednesday, but he unequivocally settles nerves by taking his normal spot.
There is something calming, both to him and those around him, about his almost iconic shortstop routine: tug cap, tap the left toe, step forward with the left, step forward with the right, crouch into ready stance, grab his mitt. It's not artistic, and his postgame quotes are hardly memorable, yet that's kind of the point. The Yankees may not be as good as they used to be. Yet like baseball itself, Jeter's always the same.
"We have such a routine," Pettitte said, before pausing just a beat. "We got the routine down."
That's no small thing as the old, beat-up Yankees try to drag the younger, unproven Yankees toward one more championship season. No matter how loud the din of September, Jeter will likely be out there talking, bringing back the calm of March.
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