Jayson Nix, the do-it-all infielder for the New York Yankees, is in an unenviable position. He has been charged with filling in for the injured Derek Jeter, a task as impossible as…taking the place of Dumbledore at Hogwarts.
Fans in the Bronx don’t want to see anyone other than Derek Jeter at shortstop. First, because he is good. Because he has won five World Series championships. Because he has delivered clutch hit after clutch hit, never bending under the intense pressure of New York. Because he wants to win as furiously as every fan in the bleachers chanting his name.
But beneath all that, boils a more profound reason. To the diehards in New York, Jeter represents an era of invincibility, of unprecedented success. When recalling the golden years of the late 90’s, there is one face, one opposite-field swing, one jump-throw from the hole that is conjured up first in the minds of these fans. Everything else falls into place after.
So to see someone other than the Captain at shortstop is to be confronted by the cold reality that this era is coming to an end. For fans that have come to know success – and the limelight that comes with it – like a favorite movie, that’s a hard truth to acknowledge. And so fair or unfair, any player in Jeter’s stead is viewed by the New York crowd with somewhat cynical eyes, as if he alone is responsible for the passage of time.
Outside of hitting .576, there is little one can do to alter this outlook. Still, Nix is doing his best. Though he struggled early on, hitting just .219 through the first month of season, he has picked up his game of late. Over the past 14 games, he owns a .328 batting average and has knocked in eight runs. Recently, manager Joe Giardi has moved him up to the 2-hole in the batting order, the same place where Jeter has spent the most of his time as a hitter over 18 MLB seasons.
That’s not all Nix and Jeter now share in common. What has enabled Nix to fill in capably for the team’s captain is the undercurrent that has driven Jeter’s historic career: a fearlessness of failure. Instead of playing conservatively in Jeter’s place, careful not to overstep his role, Nix has lately played with a daring audacity.
He has shed his identity as a station-to-station player, taking risks on the base paths that he shied away from over the first month and half of the season. In the past 20 games, he has stolen eight bases, after swiping just two through the first 37. More impressively, he has yet to be caught stealing on the year. With Gardner leading off and Nix hitting behind him, the Yankees have discovered a speed threat at the top of the order, in that serendipitous hey, look what we found kind of way.
In the field, Nix has been equally confident. Twice during the weekend series against the Angels, he ignored the safe play for a more adventurous one and successfully quelled a pair of rallies. On Saturday, with runners on first and second and none out, Nix fielded a sacrifice bunt and, without hesitating, fired a strike to third to cut down Howie Kendrick. Then on Sunday, under the same situation, he gobbled up a groundball near third, raced to the bag for the force before whipping a throw to second to eliminate both lead runners. The Yankees escaped both innings without giving up a run.
When filling in for a living legend – one whose enduring career makes us believe that times can always be good – it is this kind of bold play that honors the man absent while making his absence bearable.
Jeter is set to return soon after the All Star break. When he does, and leads the Yankees onto the field for the first time this year, the fans will settle back into the comfort of knowing things haven’t changed. But in the meantime, they should appreciate the effort that Nix is putting forth in thankless position.