Order has been restored in the universe. The earth is spinning from west to east, the moon and sun are high in the sky, and Derek Jeter is back with the New York Yankees.
In his return to the big league team, his team, the Yankees beat the Kansas City Royals 8-4 to salvage a series split. Apparently emboldened by the Captain’s presence, the offense collected six two-out RBI, proving once again that Jeter is so clutch he makes those around him clutch as well. And Jeter, in his first major league at-bat since October 12, tapped an infield single down the third-base line and came around to score on a sacrifice fly, because of course he did.
Personally, he finished the day 1-4, with a run scored and an RBI, and two Jeterian conversations on the base paths. He’s not the most excitable player in the game – and unprecedented success will do this to you – but there was a certain extra giddiness in his demeanor that comes with seeing your old friends for the first time in months. He was laughing and smiling on the base paths, chattering away at home plate, and watching everything else unfold from his customary perch on the dugout’s top step. As Eminem reminded the crowd as Jeter strode to the plate in the first, “It feels so good to be back!”
Jeter will tell you now it feels even better to get a win. With his much-anticipated return in the books, his focus and the team’s focus can revert to winning ballgames. He has never been one for pomp and ceremony anyway, unless it takes place in the Canyon of Heroes. That, of course, is the ultimate destination for this team. And though having Jeter back in the fold doesn’t guarantee a ticker-tape parade, it certainly makes the Yankees a better team.
First of all, Joe Giradi finally has his number-two hitter back. After experimenting with eight different players in the two-hole this season, mostly with little success, the skipper now won’t have to think twice about who will hit behind Gardner. In his career, Jeter is a .314 hitter when batting second. Go ahead, Joe, use a Sharpie there.
What’s more, Jeter is a right-handed hitter who makes mincemeat of left-handed pitchers. From the right side, the Yankees have had as many strong hitters against lefties as Jeter has rings. Wait, no – wives. Vernon Wells has been serviceable, but his numbers against southpaws simply don’t compare to Jeter’s, who has hit .338 against lefties in his career. And in the past two years, even as his numbers against righties have dipped, Jeter has clubbed lefties to the tune of a .349 average in 2011 and .364 (!!) in 2012.
It’s something the Yankees sorely need. As a team, they are hitting .235 against left-handed pitchers, second-to-last in the A.L. Last year in this category, on the back of their Captain’s personal vendetta against lefties, they hit .263, good for fifth in the A.L. The two teams ahead of the Yankees in the A.L. East right now – the Red Sox and the Rays – have no shortage of left-handed arms, so a resurgence from the right side of the plate is imperative if the Yankees are to make up any ground in the second-half.
If Jeter’s one at-bat against a lefty today – in which he scolded a groundball to short – is any indication, he’s still tracking the ball against southpaws like a military aviator.
What makes Jeter the special player he is, though, is his impact on a team transcends statistics. Along with a gifted right-handed swing and a steady glove at shortstop, Jeter brings an attitude. An attitude of winning, of hating to lose, of looking at the world for three hours and seeing nothing more important than scoring more runs than the opposition. Jeter will teach – no, show – this Yankees team what obsessive desire looks like.
Such an intangible value is hard to quantify. The only statistic that can substantiate a player’s “winning attitude” is, well, wins. Jeter has plenty of those. But there is this unreachable significance to Jeter’s presence, this subliminal stimulus to his endeavor that was revealed last fall when, after watching their Captain crumble to the dirt with a broken ankle in Game 1 of the ALCS, the Yankees were promptly swept by the Tigers without ever showing a pulse. When you remove the heart of a team, it doesn’t take long for the rest to wither away.
Now that heart is back.
You could sense as much in the stands today, as the crowd buzzed with the Captain’s every move, and in the dugout, where this motley crew of Yankees looked just a bit prouder to be in pinstripes. As if having Jeter – The Derek Jeter – back alongside them finally made the experience real. So this is what it’s really like to play for the New York Yankees.