Captain's comeback grand, but Jeter needs help
Yankees still need other pieces around veteran shortstop to step up
NEW YORK -- Haven't we witnessed this scenario before? Haven't we seen the Captain return to duty, create a stir merely by his presence and then help overcome the inertia of the day by providing the first score with every eye in the place focused on him? It's what a captain ought to do.
It's what Willis Reed did at the Garden 43 years ago and what Derek Jeter did Thursday afternoon at the Stadium.
We can tip our caps to him, no matter what our big league allegiance is, and draw that simple parallel to wonderful Willis, who persevered despite ultra-gimpiness to ignite the greatest, most compelling victory in the history of the Knickerbockers. What Jeter did Thursday afternoon cannot compare with Willis hitting his first two shots against the Lakers in the deciding game of the championship round with Wilt lurking in the paint. The bachelor Captain didn't even play the field in the Yankees' 8-4 victory against the Royals.
But the Yankees, even the challenged Yankees of 2013, are big stuff, bigger than the Knicks of any season. And Jeter, Mo and that Giants quarterback are the primary athletes in this market, have been for a while now. Jeter's return at this Yankee Stadium wasn't even comparable to Yogi's orchestrated return in that Yankee Stadium in 1999, to Tom Seaver's comeback at Shea in '83 or, lest we forget, the Old-Timers' Day return of Billy Martin in '78.
We knew this Captain was close and so anxious. Little doubt existed that he'd make it back once he played some Triple-A innings over the weekend, unless, as he said repeatedly Saturday night in Moosic, Pa., "I break it again."
Seaver was exiled, Yogi was dismissed -- and worse, insulted -- Billy was also dismissed and Willis was crippled with no time to heal. Jeter was merely injured, albeit twice, and he had time to recuperate, rehab and return.
But he's Jeter. And the folks at the ballpark Thursday, those in uniform and those not, wanted to make his return something akin to MacArthur's: gallant. The Yankees and their constituency want to believe that the presence of No. 2 will make them No. 1, that Jeter, now 15 days beyond his 39th birthday, can do with some regularity what he has done with remarkable regularity for most of the last 17 summers.
No one would intelligently bet against him, nor should anyone wager he can have that kind of impact again. You see, it's not only about Jeter and how he performs. This Yankees season still is about who and what are missing, and how the understudies perform. Chances are Jeter still can deliver a hit of consequence. If he can't, well, then we can end the tale here.
But assuming his bat, his arm, his legs and/or his mettle are what they have been, what's to say the remaining cast of Yankees is sufficiently skilled to create opportunities for Jeter to emerge again as the man of the moment? He still may have an in with the ghosts of River Avenue. But his teammates may have exhausted their supply of moment-making material.
It's been a while, maybe even 10 years, since Jeter first offered the sobering assessment that the Yankees of whatever year it was -- 2003? '04? -- were not the Yankees who had steamrolled to four World Series championships in five seasons. Their '09 rings were evidence of a return to excellence. But the current Yankees, with Jeter, are not comparable even to the team that allowed Joe Girardi to change his uniform number from 27 to 28.
The Captain merely beat out a roller, scored a run and drove in a run with a ground ball in his comeback Thursday. He was the focal point of the Yankees' 50th victory in 92 games, but he hardly was the primary force in their seventh victory in their most recent 10 games. Others made comparable contributions.
The Yankees will need that sort of ensemble production if Jeter's 2013 season is to extend into October. The others have to create circumstances that afford him opportunities to excel. Someone had to pass the ball to Willis.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.