TAMPA, Fla. -- The kid had just blown an easy play in center field and he came back to the dugout with his head down. And the first hand that landed on his shoulder, the consoling hand, belonged to Derek Jeter.
“We all do it, man," Jeter told Jose Toussen,a 23-year-old outfielder playing AAA ball for the first time with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, a Yankees affiliate. “Just shake it off."
On this day, Jeter was a RailRider, too -- sent over by the Yankees from their spring training headquarters at George Steinbrenner Field to their minor-league complex across the street to get some at-bats as a DH during his recovery from a broken ankle and offseason surgery.
Jeter had already hit three times, in fact had led off each inning in the privilege afforded major leaguers who are doing a rehab assignment in the minor leagues, and now it was his turn to hit again.
“Why don’t you go up there and hit first this inning?," Jeter asked the kid.
“Maybe you’ll hit better with a guy on base," cracked a sideline kibitzer named Reggie Jackson.
“At least I won’t feel so bad if I make an out," Jeter replied. He had grounded out in each of his three at-bats so far.
“I think I’ll try to hit the ball on the ground this time," he said to Jackson, smiling wryly.
Meanwhile, the kid took Jeter up on the offer, and on the first pitch he saw, cracked a home run over the left-field fence.
“You see? You see?" Jeter shouted. “I know what I’m doing."
Then Derek Jeter stepped into the batter’s box for the fourth time -- and grounded out to third.
Thus ended the Yankee captain’s day as a Scranton RailRider on Saturday. He will remain a member of that squad, or in fact, any minor-league squad the Yankees are sending out between now and whenever it is determined Jeter is ready to return to playing shortstop every day for the big club.
The possibility is Jeter will play again on Sunday, this time in the field, but there’s a threat of rain in the area and even a drop of moisture on the infield will probably cause him to be scratched. The Yankees are taking no chances with their 38-year-old shortstop, and even though he continues to resist the thought, the odds are Jeter will begin this Opening Day on the disabled list for the first time in 12 years.
“I still think I’m going to be ready," he said. “We’ll take it day by day and see what happens."
Jeter reported no pain after his four at-bats, because as per his decree earlier in the day, he is done issuing daily updates on his condition.
“I will not address how anything feels anymore," he had said in the morning at The Boss, where he had taken batting practice, and when everyone around him laughed, he did not laugh back.
Jeter’s tired of answering the same questions about his ankle, and in truth, he is right when he says there is no point in asking him. The ankle hurts and is stiff, and it is going to hurt and be stiff on and off throughout his recovery -- the duration of which only his body knows.
The rule of thumb is, if he’s playing, it’s not hurting enough to stop him. If he’s not, then it is. You don’t need to ask him about it; just look at the lineup card.
“It’s just every day is different," he had said on Friday. “Some days are better than others, and that’s what I was told was going to happen. I wish it was completely gone, I wish I never felt it and I wish I could just wake up and it’s gone, but that’s not the case. And that’s not going to be the case. But as long as structurally everything is fine, I’m okay with it.”
The ankle felt good enough on Saturday to allow him to have those four at-bats, and he is hoping it will feel good enough on Sunday to allow him to play shortstop again.
But hanging over his head is the knowledge that the Yankees are planning to start him off on the DL, and hanging over the Yankees’ heads is the knowledge that all season long, they may be carrying a shortstop who can no longer bear the load of playing every day.
“That’s something we’ll have to evaluate," Joe Girardi had said before leaving with the major-league club, which was playing the Tigers in Lakeland.
“There are a lot of issues to deal with," Girardi said. “Can he play back-to-back games? How does he come out of it? If he plays today, does he need a complete day off tomorrow? How is he moving? Can he do what he needs to do out there? I think we have to protect ourselves a little bit, too. You don’t want to get into a tough spot with your roster."
Jeter, of course, is still insisting he will play Opening Day, and is clearly not happy about having to spend the rest of his spring playing in minor league games, even if there is less than a week of training camp left.
But he certainly seemed to enjoy himself in the first game, joking with bystanders, posing for photos between at-bats -- “I’m not gonna say cheese," he admonished one amateur photog -- and having just one serious request of the members of the Yankees beat crew that ignored his advice to follow the rest of the team to Lakeland.
“Just don’t tell me who won the Michigan game," he said. “I taped it to watch later. Really. That’s all I ask of you guys."
And he seemed pleased with his day’s work, during which he retreated to a batting cage between at-bats to take even more swings off a tee.
“It was really just to see pitches, you know?" he said. “The results aren’t the most important thing. It’s just to see pitches, and that’s what I did and we’ll move from there. Sometimes it clicks early, sometimes it takes longer. I don’t think there’s necessarily a certain recipe for it. But at least seeing the ball good."
He clearly was not running at full speed to first base, although at first he joked that he was. Then he admitted, “I was being a little cautious because the field was wet. I almost wiped out a couple of times out of the box. But yeah, that’s something I have to build up to."
But he seemed proudest of his decision to let young Jose Toussen bat in front of him, and the results it produced. “I knew he was gonna hit a home run. I could see it in his eyes," Jeter said. “I’m a pretty good manager, too."
But it was clear that what Derek Jeter really wants to be right now, more than ever, is a player again. A major league player.