David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
As moments go, Derek Jeter wasn't sure how to categorize what happened on the first pitch Matt Moore threw him yesterday. Fresh off the disabled list, Jeter hit it over the right-centerfield wall, trotted around the bases, slapped hands with his teammates and disappeared into the dugout.
"Well,'' he said, "it gave us a run."
But that's Jeter, as understated as always. He'll swing the bat, then let us attach the significance. Which is exactly what everyone did when Jeter responded to the fans and hopped to the front step for a curtain call. Yankee Stadium, eerily quiet during his prolonged absence, saw him and erupted with a booming adoration unheard at any other time during this moribund season.
Said Joe Girardi, "He's a movie, is what he is."
"You think about his 3,000th hit, how he did that. Think about what he did today. We hadn't hit a home run since the All-Star break. Hadn't hit a righthanded homer in months. And for him to come out and do that in his first at-bat, he's a movie.''
It made his first attempt at a comeback, the abbreviated DH stint back on July 11, feel like a dress rehearsal. On that day, Jeter never hit the ball out of the infield before being forced to leave in the eighth inning with what later was diagnosed as a grade 1 quadriceps strain.
Jeter still got his standing ovation that afternoon, still dribbled an infield single and still managed to score the game's first run in an 8-4 victory over the Royals. But this time just felt different.
This wasn't someone rushed from Scranton on three hours' sleep. This person not only looked like Jeter, he played like the guy we remembered. More energy, more life. More Jeter.
"I would agree with you wholeheartedly," Girardi said. "I thought he was running better. Maybe it was just the extra two weeks of being able to catch up a little bit."
Jeter dressed at his locker Sunday morning and, as he usually does, acted surprised when a few dozen reporters swarmed around his chair. After swatting away the expected volley of health inquiries, he eventually got around to the plain truth.
For all the talk about the meaning of his return and the impact of his presence, he understands his role. Or tries to lay it out in the simplest terms.
"It's not like I'm some savior that's coming in and all of a sudden we're going to just start winning every day," Jeter said. "Everybody has to contribute."
With the exception of Phil Hughes, everybody did in Sunday's 6-5 win over the Rays, right down to the then-and-now Yankee, Alfonso Soriano, smacking a walk-off single. But it again was Jeter who supplied the memorable snapshots.
And it didn't end with the cinematic home run. In the third, Jeter hit a soft liner off second baseman Kelly Johnson's glove for a single and cruised home on Soriano's homer for a 5-4 lead. Predictably, the Rays intentionally walked Jeter in the ninth after a wild pitch moved Brett Gardner into scoring position.
It seemed as if Jeter's fingerprints were everywhere. Did we detect a smidge more hustle from Robinson Cano, who went first to third on a shallow single in the first and made a great diving play in the sixth? Maybe.
Measuring Jeter's influence, however, is an inexact science. All the Yankees know is that they are much better with him, and the mission now is to keep him here rather than Tampa.
Girardi has had "the talk" with Jeter about dialing it back in some scenarios to protect his 39-year-old legs, and Jeter grudgingly said he will try. "I feel awkward doing it," he said. "I don't like doing it. I hope nobody watches me do it and they try to do it. I'm still running hard, but in certain situations, you have to play under control. I haven't been good at that in my career, but I guess I have no choice."
Even this throttled-back Jeter can conjure up more memories with what longtime teammate Andy Pettitte referred to as "waving his magic wand." Getting these Yankees into the playoffs would be his greatest trick yet, but moments like Sunday tend to make us believe.