11/1/2013 3:26 P.M. ET
Jeter will have to take 2014 one day at a time
Yankees captain's one-year deal about more than simply rebound from injury
By Richard Justice / MLB.com
Wouldn't it be great to see Derek Jeter back out there playing at a high level again? If it's just one more season, fine. If it's more than that, even better. If any player should be able to write his own ending, it's this one.
If Jeter believes he can still do it, that's at least a step in the right direction. Are there doubts? Of course there are. He's 39 years old and coming off the kind of injury that can end a career. Jeter played just 17 games last season. He looked shaky in all of them.
One of the mistakes a lot of us made last offseason was assuming Jeter was still superman -- that regardless of how gruesome that left ankle injury was, he'd still show up at Spring Training as good as ever.
That's what Jeter had always done. He'd played through all sorts of aches and pains through the years. He didn't just refuse to let them take him off the field. He refused to discuss or acknowledge them.
It was as if Jeter could will his body to heal faster. To him, injuries were pretty much the same kind of challenge as a Justin Verlander fastball. Jeter believed that hard work, preparation and his God-given gifts would take care of everything else.
Jeter's durability through the years contributed to the feeling that he was indestructible. If any other 38-year-old player had suffered a similar injury, there would be questions about whether he could return, much less play at a high level.
Last season, Jeter looked vulnerable for the first time. He never really recovered. He didn't look comfortable at either shortstop or home plate. It was painful watching Jeter attempt to play and almost a relief when his season ended after just 17 games.
No one will outwork Jeter. No one will pour more of himself into being ready for 2014. But there's no way to know if the ankle will ever really heal.
And that's going to be the question when the Yankees gather in Tampa, Fla., in February. They announced Friday that Jeter had agreed to a one-year, $12 million contract, but this isn't about money.
It's also should not be read as an indication that the Yanks are confident about what Jeter can still do. They'll find that out a day at a time over the next few months. Even Jeter does not know. He simply can't. Until he's back out on the field for long stretches next April, let's hope for the best.
Every fan and teammate probably has their own Jeter moment. Maybe it's him gliding into the hole, stabbing a grounder and making one of those jump throws across the diamond.
Or it could be Jeter pulling his hands in and slapping a 95-mph fastball to the opposite field, down the right-field line. Remember how he would glide into second base? He never even seemed to be running hard, because he was so smooth, so effortless in everything he did.
Regardless of whether you pull for the Red Sox or Cubs or Dodgers, there might still be a piece of you rooting for Jeter. To love this great game is to love Jeter and what he stands for.
It wouldn't be much of a stretch to make the argument that Jeter and his buddy, Mariano Rivera, are the greatest players in history. If you stacked it all up -- production, winning, leadership and good citizenship -- it would be hard to find any two players who've done more.
No player -- none, zero, zip -- has represented the most famous sports franchise on earth better than this one.
This is a huge transitional season for the Yankees in the wake of Rivera and Andy Pettitte riding off into the sunset. Their hope for 2014 is that Robinson Cano re-signs, Mark Teixeira recovers and that holes can be filled through free agency and the farm system.
To write off the Yanks in 2014 would be a serious mistake. But they have more question marks than any time in a long time.
That's another reason Jeter is important. To walk into that clubhouse and see him there is to be reminded that these are still the New York Yankees. He could add a significant presence to the lineup and the clubhouse.
Jeter carries himself with such an air of confidence, and the Yankees, especially if there's a significantly overhauled roster, can feed off that. The Red Sox made wholesale changes last offseason, but everything they accomplished began with the steadying presence (and production) of Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz.
Jeter means exactly the same thing to the Yanks, and with Rivera and Pettitte having retired, it's important to have a guy who connects the generations.
This isn't to say Jeter can fix all that needs to be fixed. He can't. He won't even to pretend to have those powers. But getting Jeter back in the lineup would be a big deal, both for the Yankees and for all of us who feel privileged to have watched him play.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.