NEW YORK – Derek Jeter broke his left ankle early Sunday morning in the 12th inning of a playoff game that was supposed to be his, because all playoff games are supposed to be his. Jeter's career, full of brilliance, needs no such hyperbole. It finds itself awash in it anyway. He is not tough. He is the toughest. He is not clutch. He is the clutchest. He is not the captain. He is The Captain.
Our tendency to look at Jeter in absolutes has manifested itself in another fashion: agelessness and invincibility joining his oeuvre. Jeter may be 38. So what? He looks a decade younger. He may not move like he once did at shortstop. That's fine. He pounded out 216 hits this season. Whatever Derek Jeter may be matters not as much as what we want him to be. He is the most idealized baseball player, certainly, and maybe the most of any professional athlete in his generation.
To see him scream, then – to see him mouth agape, looking back at a left ankle on fire, fractured badly enough it will require at least three months recovery time and keep him sidelined for however much more postseason the New York Yankees can muster following their 6-4 insult-to-injury loss to the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the ALCS – was to see Jeter at his rawest. His ankle popped. It stripped away the sheen of who we want Jeter to be and revealed who he really is.
An old ballplayer with almost two decades of wear and tear on his body, fallible like anyone else, certainly not ageless, certainly not invincible.
[Slideshow: Derek Jeter breaks ankle in Yankees' loss to Tigers]
It's the same thing we saw earlier this year with Mariano Rivera, the bionic closer whose ACL blew during a freak session shagging fly balls in batting practice, and the same with Andy Pettitte, who missed nearly three months with, like Jeter, a fractured left ankle. The remaining three of the Core Four each fell prey in the same season to the scourge that gets everyone.
Aging is as much an inevitability in sports as it is in life, and while age alone did not break Derek Jeter's ankle, it did made him more susceptible, more fragile. It is a testament to the greatness of Jeter, of Rivera, of Pettitte that their ages did not demand a recalibration of expectations. They had defied it this many years. What was another season?
Part of it was necessity, of course. The Yankees spit at age. Five players on their playoff roster were among the game's 30 oldest this season, and all played in Game 1. So spoiled were the Yankees by players doing uncommon things at retirement age, they simply came to expect it. Jeter bought into the idea of his own invincibility. Even with a broken ankle, he uttered these words to his manager and old teammate, Joe Girardi.
"Do not carry me."
Do not carry me, as if that would shatter the mythos of Derek Jeter, the toughest sumbitch there is. He had ranged left on a ground ball from Jhonny Peralta. When he fielded it, his ankle gave. Jeter went down in a heap, flipped the ball to Robinson Cano and didn't get up. The Yankees understood.
All season, Jeter's ankle had given him trouble. It got so bad in the division series against Baltimore that Girardi DH'd him one game. Jeter quit hobbling, lest he project any weakness, and kept pushing. He knows no other way. He has done this for 17 years. It is his duty, part of the legend, the mother in the vinegar bottle of hyperbole.
"Never tells me what is bothering him," Girardi said. "Ever."
Jeter slung one arm over the shoulder of Girardi and the other on trainer Steve Donohue and was helped off the field. Raul Ibanez, who three innings earlier had hit another epic ninth-inning home run to send the game into extra innings, waited in the dugout to assist Jeter so Girardi could get back to managing. Pettitte stood at the bottom of the steps leading to the back, a concerned look across his face.
Yankee Stadium fell silent. It had thundered a Derek Jeter chant as he was helped off, then held its collective breath that this wasn't as bad as it looked, that the ageless and invincible proved every bit as human as them. After building up that story, and seeing it rewarded with year after great year, this wasn't just a disappointment. It was, like when Rivera's knee blew earlier this season, a gut punch.
Only once before had they seen something like it, when on opening day 2003 Jeter separated his shoulder. Nobody wanted to believe this was a repeat of that, not anyone in the stands, not Girardi, not general manager Brian Cashman. Joe Torre and Tino Martinez and Reggie Jackson gathered with Jeter, too, when Dr. Chris Ahmad gave him the results of the X-rays. Fractured ankle. Out at minimum for three months. And, no, Ahmad said as a point of emphasis: There is no way you can come back this season.
No amount of tape could repair this. No groundswell of positive thinking. No grit. No guts. Jeter said nothing. What was there to say?
For so long, this was the one slice of hyperbole that actually had merit. Jeter is no maestro of clutch. He is not baseball's answer to Lincoln or Churchill. But he was ageless, was invincible. When it seemed as though his career was careening toward the end, he salvaged it with a season just as good as in his prime years. He played 159 games this season, tied for the most in his career. If he wasn't Benjamin Button, he was at least Dorian Gray.
"He's the same guy," Prince Fielder said. "He's never changed."
In Fielder's mind, and in many of ours, frankly, Derek Jeter always will be 22 years old. That's what Fielder remembers from 1996, Jeter's rookie season. The Yankees acquired his dad, Cecil, from Detroit on July 31. Fielder, then 12, was in the clubhouse almost every day, and without fail, Jeter said hi to him and treated him like a little brother.
"I'm telling you, he's the same," said Fielder, now the Tigers' first baseman. "It's rare. A lot of stars are [expletive]. A guy that has five championships is still a good person. That's why he's the coolest. Because he's done it right and he's done it forever."
Eventually, forever ends. And while Girardi and Cashman made points of saying it wasn't a career-ending injury, it's certainly career-altering. Maybe Jeter returns to shortstop. Maybe they shoehorn him in at third base. He'll be back, yes. He'll be different, though.
No longer can we delude ourselves into believing this particular strain of hyperbole. Of all the characteristics sports fans assign to their heroes – strength and heart and want-to and other such intangibles – agelessness and invincibility are reserved only for the best. And Derek Jeter embodied both until at 12:47 a.m., in a playoff game he was going to win because that's what he does, his ankle betrayed him, betrayed his legend, betrayed what we all wanted to believe but knew was too good to be true, even for The Captain.
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