David Lennon has been a staff writer for Newsday since 1991, when he started covering New York City
Earlier this week, Brian Cashman referred to Derek Jeter as "Superman'' for his otherworldly toughness. In the hours leading up to Thursday's return, Joe Girardi described the Yankees' captain as a "winner'' and "champion,'' both indisputable facts based on his five World Series rings.
But here are a few less convenient truths that came to mind in watching Jeter's 2013 debut at Yankee Stadium, which was cut short by tightness in his right quadriceps, the result of running out one of his four grounders.
Jeter is 39 years old. He's coming off not one but two ankle fractures that cost him the first 91 games of this season. On Thursday he was spared the grind of playing shortstop -- and still stiffened up from DH duties that didn't involve much more than making it all the way around the bases once.
We're not saying Jeter can't be a productive member of the Yankees again. Not at all. Rushed back from Triple-A Scranton a day earlier than planned, after two-plus hours of sleep, Jeter did what Jeter does before his unplanned departure.
In the first inning, he had an infield single, raced from first to third on a single and scored on Vernon Wells' sacrifice fly. In the fifth, Jeter was robbed of a hit by diving second baseman Johnny Giavotella. That's also when the quad started giving him trouble, a not-so-subtle reminder that Jeter is only human after all. He added an RBI groundout in the sixth.
Jeter dismissed the quad tightness as unrelated to his surgically repaired ankle, which he said is fine. But leg injuries aren't helped by age, and they often can multiply when compensating for one thing causes another to spring up.
Jeter said he was "running all over the place'' during his rehab, so that isn't a concern for him. There is always the potential for his stride to be slightly off, however. And it's interesting to note that this was Jeter's right quad -- the leg that likely was picking up the slack for his recovering left ankle.
"That's hard to see,'' Girardi said. "I don't know if I really saw an imbalance. He's been a guy that's always run extremely hard through the bag, lunging for the bag a little bit. It's kind of what I saw today.''
Girardi and Cashman said before the game that they didn't really know what to expect from Jeter performance-wise. Health wasn't supposed to be an issue. The GM was satisfied by reports that said Jeter had been moving "surprisingly well,'' and Girardi anticipated starting him at shortstop Friday night. Neither sounded too worried about Jeter re-injuring the ankle despite his alarming setback in April.
"He's not having any discomfort,'' Cashman said before the game. "The belief is this is all behind us.''
Maybe that's true about the ankle now that it has all of those pins and screws holding it together. But Jeter has missed a lot of time, and with the amount of mileage piled up over 19 seasons, even he acknowledged feeling more like a guy on the brink of 40 these days.
Not on the field, of course.
"Maybe in the mornings," Jeter said, smiling.
Trying to get Jeter to discuss his own mortality is a futile exercise. To him, holding off Father Time is no different from staring down Justin Verlander. But at this stage, during this season, he and the Yankees will have to temper their expectations.
It's more than just the decision to have Jeter continue his rehab at the major-league level. Figuring out a way to manage a max-effort player in Jeter after what he's endured during the last nine months is going to be a challenge.
Thursday was mostly a good day for Jeter and the Yanks. He got his standing ovation and roll call, then helped them beat the Royals, 8-4, and split the four-game series. That remains Jeter's mission statement, unchanged since he won Rookie of the Year way back in 1996.
But Jeter is different. A lot older, a little more banged up. Having to leave the game early must have tortured him. And if he has to sit out the weekend because of the quad injury, which seems likely, he'll hate that, too.
"I don't ever think anything is a big deal,'' Jeter said of the injury, "so I'm hoping for the best.''
It's worked in the past. Let's see how it does for him now.