Derek Jeter’s locker is a hallowed space in the New York Yankees’ clubhouse. It is nearest the hallway that leads to the training room and exit — the prime location within the most lavish locker room in Major League Baseball. There’s even a vacant locker beside his, so as to give The Captain a little extra room. After 3,304 hits and five World Series rings, he’s earned it.
This is where the media gathers after virtually every game, for daily assessments on the state of the franchise. This is where young players look for the example of how to be a Yankee. This is where scuffling teammates come for subtle encouragement from a man who has been a beacon of the game for 18 seasons.
Jeter was not there after Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. The man who has always stood up — for his team, for his sport — now cannot stand at all. He has a fractured left ankle. That is far more damaging to the Yankees than a 6-4, 12-inning loss to the Detroit Tigers ever could be.
Just before 1:30 a.m. Sunday, amid a funereal cloud that felt like a season-ending post mortem, Yankees head athletic trainer Steve Donohue walked over to the place where Jeter — in any other circumstance — would have faced all the cameras and notepads and questions. Donohue reached into the locker, pulled out the hangers on which Jeter’s clothes had been perfectly placed, and hurried away.
On perhaps the saddest night in the brief history of new Yankee Stadium, there would be no postgame remarks from The Captain.
His left ankle was broken. His season was over. Everything else associated with this franchise — even the pursuit of a 28th world championship — turned into a secondary concern, within the walls of a clubhouse that should have had a victory to celebrate. Instead, the Yankees and their fans were smacked with an unwelcome reminder of their own mortality, in ways that transcend the 2012 postseason.
Two hours before, Yankee Stadium was in a fit of ecstasy after the latest installment in Raul Ibañez’s October star turn. For the second time in four days, he belted a game-tying home run in the bottom of the ninth. The 4-0 deficit had become 4-4 delirium. The Yankees were going to win — and probably quickly. That is what happens on nights like this in the Bronx.
Instead, the game wore on for three more innings. The other guys took the lead and won. And when Yankees manager Joe Girardi sat down at the microphone for his postgame news conference, he began with three forlorn words.
“His ankle fractured.”
It was as if everyone who cared about the sport — yes, even the hardened reporters — let out the same miserable groan at once. This was awful news — for Jeter, for the Yankees, for baseball.
Jeter, at 38, had improbably become the Yankees’ best all-around player in these playoffs. He had returned to his competitive peak — a .333 postseason batting average — despite playing with a bone bruise on his left foot for several weeks. But that foot buckled beneath him in the 12th inning Saturday, as he dove in an attempt to field Jhonny Peralta’s bouncer up the middle just after the Tigers took a 5-4 lead.
Jeter came up with the ball but winced as he hit the ground. In a desperate attempt to get the out at first, Jeter flipped the ball toward second baseman Robinson Cano — an act with a poignant parallel. Saturday was the 11th anniversary of the famous “Flip Play” during a playoff game in Oakland, hailed ever since as the foremost example of Jeter’s autumn savvy.
This time, the Yankees didn’t get the big out.
And Jeter didn’t get up.
All those watching the game — on the field, in the dugouts, throughout the thinning stands — understood what that meant.
“It just didn’t look right,” Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “We knew something was wrong. You get banged up on the field all the time. You kind of limp it off. You walk it off and throw some dirt on it. That wasn’t happening there.”
No. It wasn’t.
Donohue and Girardi rushed out to the field, as Jeter writhed in pain. They helped him toward the dugout, as Jeter stubbornly tapped the ground with his one good leg.
“I was going to carry him in,” Girardi recalled. “He said, ‘No, do not carry me.’ That’s the kind of guy he is. He is going to play through injuries and everything. You can see the disappointment in his face.”
Many around the organization immediately grasped the gravity of what had taken place. “When Derek Jeter needs help to get off a field,” general manager Brian Cashman said, “you know it’s bad.” Yankee greats who were at the game — Reggie Jackson, Tino Martinez, even former manager Joe Torre — made their way to the trainer’s room as Yankees team physician Dr. Christopher Ahmad delivered the news to Jeter.
Cashman, who thinks the fracture could be related to the preexisting bone bruise, said Ahmad made clear to Jeter that the injury was something he could not possibly play through.
“The doc had to emphasize that, because of who he’s talking to,” Cashman said.
And what was Jeter’s reaction?
“He didn’t have one.”
So, what now? Well, the Yankees are down in the ALCS, 1-0. Even without Jeter, they are good enough to win the pennant. But the task has become undeniably harder. Jayson Nix will probably replace Jeter at shortstop. Eduardo Nuñez will take Jeter’s spot on the active roster. Neither can replicate the consistent quality of Jeter’s at-bats, at a time when the New York lineup is in dire need of steady production against Detroit’s formidable rotation. The Yankees could have won Saturday’s game in regulation with one or two key hits in the early innings. Instead, they left the bases loaded three times and stranded 13 runners in all.
If Nix indeed replaces Jeter as the Game 2 starter, there will be a chilling parallel to it: Nix was the Yankee whose batting practice fly ball to center field at Kauffman Stadium resulted in Mariano Rivera’s season-ending knee injury earlier this year. Now Jeter and Rivera — friends and teammates since the minor leagues — have been relegated to the dugout at a time of year when they always shined, leaving open the question of how many Octobers they may have left.
(For the record, since you must be curious: No, the embattled Alex Rodriguez won’t replace Jeter at shortstop. Girardi rejected that possibility during his postgame news conference. A-Rod will be lucky to remain in the lineup at all. He went 0-for-3 in Game 1 and was lifted for a pinch hitter. Again.)
There will be plenty of time — maybe an entire winter — to continue with the A-Rod fixation. Now the Yankees’ universe revolves around Jeter, in absentia as much as it ever did while he was at shortstop. Just the other day, reliever Derek Lowe — a 16-year MLB veteran but Yankees newcomer — sounded downright awestruck in speaking about what it was like to play with Jeter.
“Jeter, to me, is the best,” Lowe said. “He really is. His presence is unbelievable. It really is. It’s so impressive to see him act the way he acts, talk the way he talks, walk the way he walks. You follow that.”
Now, suddenly, the Yankees don’t know where to go — in the month Jeter always owned.