I was halfway through a question about the upcoming playoffs when Derek Jeter politely interrupted.
“We’re not there yet,” he said Thursday afternoon, “so I can’t even speak on the postseason.”
That is what it means to be captain of the New York Yankees: He knows his team is going to the postseason. I know his team is going to the postseason. Everyone knows his team is going to the postseason. But to acknowledge as much, even innocuously, is forbidden in Jeter’s clubhouse.
The Yankees understand what is demanded of them — by their bosses, by their fans, by themselves. Their wins don’t count until October. They seem to have an automatic bid to the postseason, as essential to the event itself as Team USA in the Ryder Cup. That, in a sense, is the most admirable thing about them. The Yankees have turned the capricious — a 162-game season, with myriad pitfalls — into something predictable.
Their players get injured. Their players underperform. It doesn’t matter. The Yankees win, anyway. And for that, they don’t get enough credit.
The ultimate overdogs are underappreciated.
Yes, the Yankees have the sport’s largest payroll and resources unfathomable to small- and mid-market franchises. But money isn’t enough, as the Phillies and Red Sox reminded us this year. The Yankees probably deserve more respect for their ongoing run of postseason appearances — about to become 17 in 18 years — than their record 27 world championships, many of which came during a time when it was easier to reach the World Series.
No team has been as good, for as long, as the current generation of Yankees. Their run of 16 playoff berths in 17 years is the only such stretch in baseball history, according to STATS LLC.
“It’s more than talent,” Jeter said, when I asked why the Yankees play long-sleeve baseball every year. “We make sure everyone has the same mindset here. That’s the bottom line: Everyone has to be on the same page. If you’re not on the same page, then you’re in the wrong place. You have to be on board with what we’re trying to do.”
Read that quotation again. Does anyone in the Red Sox clubhouse have the standing to say something like that?
Of all the ways to measure Jeter’s greatness — five World Series rings, club-record 3,296 hits, .307 postseason batting average — the most telling statistic associated with him is this: During Jeter’s 18 seasons in the big leagues, the Yankees were mathematically eliminated prior to taking the field for five regular season games. Five. In nearly two decades. All of them came at the end of 2008, and Jeter, who was injured, only played in one of them.
Put another way: Jeter has been in contention for 2,578 of the 2,579 games in his big-league career — or 99.961 percent of the time he’s laced up a pair of spikes.
Jeter believes he’s going to win. He’s usually right. And he instills in every new arrival — rookie or veteran — what’s expected of them.
“They have no choice but to understand,” Jeter said. “If you don’t understand, I’ll be the first one to let you know.”
Yankees critics would have you believe that flagship sports franchises enjoy surefire success. That’s false. The New York Knicks haven’t won a playoff series in 12 years. The Toronto Maple Leafs are without a playoff berth since 2004.
Consider the Red Sox, too. For a time, they cast themselves as the amiable Yankees alternative — all of the winning, none of the dress code. Then they stopped making the playoffs — 2009 was their last appearance, 2008 their last postseason victory — and the act grew tired. They’re at the bottom of the division now, with Baltimore and Tampa Bay (for now) replacing them as New York’s primary challengers. Still, the Yankees are ahead of them all.
How do they do it?
“You can look at the talent, obviously, but I think the character is something people don’t realize,” said veteran Raul Ibañez, who reached the postseason with Philadelphia in each of the past three years before signing with the Yankees. “They strategically go and get their pieces and bring them in here. They’re not just bringing in good players. They’re bringing in people they know, or they believe, are going to fit in to what they’re trying to do.
“What this team does better than any team I’ve been on is everyone stays really calm no matter what’s going on. And I mean everyone: Joe (Girardi), Brian Cashman. When things are bad, things are good, everyone’s really composed.”
Such serenity has come in handy this season — and will be needed down the stretch. The Yankees’ lead in the American League East is down to one game, after Brandon Morrow dominated them in Toronto’s 6-0 win Thursday night.
“We know what’s at stake,” Nick Swisher said afterward. “We’ve got somebody right on our tails.”
The night saw Ivan Nova’s second straight clunker, reviving concern about what has been an ordinary starting rotation. Alex Rodriguez, now playing on a sore left foot, is in the midst of a discouraging September (.689 OPS). Mark Teixeira isn’t back yet. And the Yankees are on the verge of their first trip to October without Mariano Rivera in their bullpen since … 1981.
But the Yankees will be OK. Their magic number is six to clinch the division, three for the wild card. They are going to make the playoffs, and then they are obligated to win No. 28.
“Getting there isn’t enough,” said Curtis Granderson, now in his third season with the Yankees. “For some teams, getting there is enough. Here, it’s not. I remember the first playoff loss, against Texas in 2010. It was all about (getting) ready for next year. In Detroit when we ended up losing the (2006) World Series, it was disappointing, but there was a little excitement still.
“We don’t go to spring training and play all these games so we can start our offseason Oct. 4.”
The Yankees, of course, plan to start every offseason with a parade. Jeter and his teammates have earned the right to set that goal, by making us forget how difficult this business of making the playoffs is supposed to be.