Derek Jeter's absence only makes Yankees' heart grow fonder

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

NEW YORK – A sticky rain fell in the Bronx on Friday afternoon, enough to cast a gloom over the borough, but not so much to clear the sidewalks on the Grand Concourse. A woman backed up the stairs to her apartment, heaving a stroller that clunked with each step. A little boy, presumably hers as well, idled at the door, under an awning and out of the rain. He wore a New York Yankees cap, dulled by perhaps a few rains like this.

Traffic was heavy, and while waiting for the light to change ahead, a few blocks from the news that the Yankees' 39-year-old shortstop was injured and would not play tonight and for at least another week, it occurs to you that a whole generation here knows nothing about life without Derek Jeter.

Not along The Bronx Walk of Fame. Not under the tents on the corner of E. 161st Street, where fresh fruit and vegetables are sold. Not at the Crown Diner. Not on the concrete steps of Joyce Kilmer Park. Not outside the live poultry markets.

No, if you weren't around for Tony Fernandez, who was the last regular shortstop for the Yankees before Jeter, or Mike Gallego before him, or Spike Owen and Randy Velarde before him, or Andy Stankiewicz before them, you came to Yankee Stadium knowing that Jeter would be there.

He played 15 games in 1995 and until recently hardly took a day off. Like that big, blocky, government building that stood beyond the old Yankee Stadium outfield, Jeter showed up one day, set his foundation and never left.

He brought championships, and disappointment, and three-thousand-and-some hits, and a crooked smile, and that way he always pulled off his helmet by the ear hole, and an inside-out swing that never changed, and a body that never changed, and a serviceable glove, and a spirit that ensured the people of the neighborhood he would be here when they got here.

Brian Cashman walked into the press conference room in Yankee Stadium's basement staring intently at his phone. When he looked up, it was to say Jeter had suffered a grade one quadriceps strain, that he would not play this weekend against the Minnesota Twins and might require a return to the disabled list. Jeter had come off the disabled list Thursday, some nine months after fracturing his ankle, some 12 weeks after learning he'd re-broken the ankle, and 16 days after he'd turned 39. He'd lasted 7½ innings. Four at-bats.

Jeter has an option year on his contract that would ensure he'd play for the Yankees in 2014. A year ago he batted .316, was seventh in the AL MVP balloting, was an All-Star. Then in Game 1 of the ALCS he went to make a play he'd made thousands of times before and this time his ankle shattered. He returned Thursday, 91 games into the Yankees' season, hustled out an infield single, ran hard on another grounder, and a day later the news was bad again. His right quadriceps had given out.

"It's frustrating," Jeter said in a statement. "I don't know what else you want me to say. I worked hard to get to the point of rejoining the team yesterday. It's not how you draw it up, but hopefully I'll be back out there soon and help this team win some games."

So that's that. And the folks from the neighborhood who looked up at the sky and wondered if the Yankees would play Friday night, who thought they'd see Jeter at shortstop if the Yankees did play, got Eduardo Nunez at shortstop, along with another reminder that Jeter will not go on forever. Presumably, he plays another year. Maybe another two or three. It's hard to say. He was a good player in 2012. His body broke by the end, and has broken again, and at least a week's worth of calendar pages will turn by the time he returns.

Cashman did not deny he'd pushed the schedule on Jeter, that injuries to Brett Gardner and Travis Hafner had to be covered for, that instead of getting at-bats in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre he'd be taking them in the Bronx. Would the same injury have occurred in a minor-league game at PNC Field? Would another 24 hours really have mattered?

"I guess it's all open for questions," Cashman granted.

While listening to the people who run the Yankees muse over building a ballclub that is younger and more athletic, the rest of us have grown older and less nimble. So, it turns out, have the Yankees.

Only one of those developments appears to have had a dramatic influence on the AL East standings.

The Yankees are in fourth place in the division, six games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. The wild card is but 2½ games off. The offense needs something after a June in which the Yankees scored the fewest runs in the league and batted .223. See, the only rows in the Bronx anymore are the less murderous kind, and generally confined to the general manager and his best-paid player.

Maybe the answer is Jeter, who watched Friday night from the dugout. Or Alex Rodriguez, who spent Friday answering – or not answering – questions from MLB investigators regarding his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal. Or Curtis Granderson, who has advanced to taking dry swings in a test of his broken hand.

Maybe it had better be Jeter. They hope it can be Jeter.

Asked to consider if the events of that October night, and the long recovery, and the setback Friday, could be tied to Jeter's age, or the nine months between major-league at-bats, or some of both, Cashman did not waver.

"I don't want to say 39 as much as him coming off a broken foot, a twice-broken foot," he said. "It's hard to say. I don't want to say it's Father Time knocking on his door."

No one does. It's been too good for too long with him. And it wouldn't ever be quite the same without him. Not for baseball, and especially not along the Grand Concourse.

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