Derek Jeter’s farewell tour is officially underway. Jeter, who announced his impending retirement on Facebook earlier this month and missed 145 games last season due to a series of injuries related to the broken ankle he suffered in the 2012 postseason, played his first game since Sept.7 on Thursday.
The Yankees took an 8-2 spring training L to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the day was all about the “Return of the Mac.”
"It was good to get back in a game, “Jeter said after completing five innings of baseball without a hitch and finessing two at bats in which he fought off tough pitches, worked the count and tested his wheels.
What else do you expect Jeter to say? He’s been spitting the same close-to-the-vest, light-hearted spiel since he arrived in The Bronx Zoo as a wide-eyed talent from Kalamazoo, Michigan. He's never going to divulge too much information.
I remember interviewing him as a young reporter in North Carolina during the late 90s. Jeter was briefly rehabbing an injury and played a game against the Durham Bulls AAA minor league squad as a tune up before returning to the Big Club. Before the game, he came out to the first base line and met with a group of local reporters. He was the same cat. He treated everyone with respect, looked you in the eye and kept the interaction all business. Jeter hadn't changed when I covered him in Atlanta a few years later at the 2000 MLB All-Star Game. He won the MVP but he attributed the win to his fellow All-Stars. He always preferred to let his incomparable presence on the field do the talking. And that’s how he played it on Thursday.
"Last year, running seemed to bother him as much as anything," Yankees skipper Joe Girardi said. "To me, that was where it was most noticeable last year, when he was running the bases, so to me, that's where (effects of the injury) is going to show up."
Jeter handled that test, twice hustling to first on groundballs. About 7,800 fans in attendance gave Jeter a resounding ovation when he stepped to the plate with his pinstripes popping and Aloe Blacc’s “The Man” blaring from the stadium speakers.
The five-time Gold Glover didn’t get any chances in the field so the verdict is still out on the effectiveness of his range, mobility and arm strength. Even with a slip in any of those areas, Jeter’s mental capacity is incomparable and as a 39-year-old player of with his myriad playoff accomplishments, Captain Clutch’s presence on the field will pay dividends.
With speculation about his health becoming a thing of the past, Jeter’s just hyped to be back in the mix. “I feel like I haven't played in a game in a couple of years,” said Jeter, the MLB’s all-time leader in hits by a shortstop. “Today was the first time I've swung off live pitching, so it's good to get the first game out of the way and get into a routine of playing in games.”
Now, the five-time World Series champion can immerse himself in pursuing his final WS c’hip with $458 million worth of spanking new complementary parts, pissing off the Red Sox and basking in the glory of a 162-game retirement gala befitting of a baseball king. If you thought Mariano Rivera’s festive MLB retirement bordered on cult worship, wait until you see what opposing teams have in store for Jeter.
“I’m always optimistic especially this time of year,” Jeter said on MLB Network before the game. “I like what we’ve done. We have a lot of additions… A lot of guys have come and a lot have left. It’s always sad to see guys you played with leave, but I’m excited about the new group of guys.”
Jeter has constantly been trying to downplay questions about his age and health, but they’re realistic concerns. Jeter had just 11 at-bats in five games during spring training last year, stayed behind for rehabilitation at New York’s minor league complex and mangled the ankle again. He returned to the Yankees on July 11 but wound up on the disabled list three more times before calling it a season.
MLB Network analyst and former major leaguer Eduardo Perez says Jeter is not the physical wreck he was last season and spring training should be a much smoother experience.
“Last year he was in the training room everyday and this year he’s not. That’s the biggest difference,” Perez said. “He can go out there now and focus on getting ready for the upcoming game instead of icing his body and the (headache) of applying hot and cold contrasts...all he has to worry about now is being the captain; being No. 2 and showing up to play.”
Girardi is expected to limit Jeter to balling every other day in the spring and when the season arrives they will play it by ear.
Jeter won’t travel for Friday’s game in Lakeland, Fla. against Detroit, but will be in the lineup when New York hosts Philadelphia Saturday, a game in which the Yankees $155 million Japanese import, hurler Masahiro Tanaka, is scheduled to make his MLB debut.
“Derek’s an old veteran guy in this league so he understands how to mentally be ready,” Perez continued. “What he has to do now is communicate how he feels everyday with Girardi… an ex-teammate and current manager. They have great communication so that won’t be a problem.”
Most fans were holding their collective breaths when Jeter tested his surgically repaired ankle jetting to first. He still doesn’t have that uninhibited burst yet, but he is pushing 40 and even a go-hard like Jeter knows it’s wise to ease into a primetime flow.
Getting past game one without a hitch allows Yankees Nation to exhale, but still leaves them with their fingers crossed in hopes that this last season for Jeter is not only a championship one, but signifies a new Yankees era that picks up where the last one left off – on top of the baseball world.