David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
At first we were surprised to see Derek Jeter's name in Wednesday's lineup. It was a scorching 90-degree afternoon, and the Yankees are grinding through a stretch of 17 consecutive games.
There would be no shame in Jeter sitting out the series finale against the Rays, not for a 40-year-old shortstop hoping to squeeze what he can from this farewell tour. But after watching the Yankees stumble to another loss, their season-high fifth straight to fall below .500 (41-42), it made more sense.
These games, from April through September, might be all Jeter gets before calling it a career. No point in saving anything in the tank for October.
Because these Yankees, despite what the standings say, don't deserve to be within double-digits of a playoff berth, wild card or otherwise. They can thank the AL East's ineptitude for letting them stick around, but that's not an excuse for playing lousy baseball.
Jeter's solution? A short memory. Like really short. The Yankees' captain had no interest in dissecting what got them to this point. Or why. Or how to fix the problem. The kind of stuff we like to poke around for.
Nope. Jeter was a blank slate. Tabula rasa. "I have no problem whatsoever forgetting about what happened," Jeter said. "None at all."
Smiling, he added, "It's a gift."
Maybe Jeter was suffering from heat-induced amnesia, because he also couldn't remember how far back the Yankees are in the division (41/2 games behind the Blue Jays) or where they were headed first on this road trip (Minnesota).
Five rings, along with a Hall of Fame resume, affords Jeter the what-me-worry attitude. After two decades, what's left? A storybook ending would be nice, of course, but Jeter can't mend this broken team on his own. That was supposed to be done during the winter, when the Yankees brought in $500 million worth of players to prevent what's been going on.
Instead, they've gone backward, and we're not seeing many positive signs. Just flat, listless, losing baseball. Brett Gardner's leadoff homer Wednesday gave the Yankees their first lead in four games and they promptly tossed it away -- three times, in fact, during the 6-3 loss to the Rays.
That's enough to rattle any manager, and Joe Girardi seemed to be trying a little too hard to put forth a united front. Then again, what choice does he have? Mike Trout isn't walking through that door. And Robinson Cano already walked out of it.
"I still believe in this team," Girardi said. "Obviously I know people are going to say, OK, tell me why. Because there's talent in that room. We just need to play better. And we've got to find a way to get it done."
Jeter, for his part, has stayed healthy. But we can debate the merits of him batting second or playing shortstop on a daily basis. Would the Yankees be better served with Jeter hitting lower in the order and going with the Gardner/Jacoby Ellsbury tandem at the top? Probably. For a team trying to stimulate its offense, a shake-up like that certainly wouldn't hurt.
As we all know, moving Jeter is a touchy subject, and Girardi has no interest in whacking that hornet's nest until he believes there's no other choice. But let's face it.
Yankees couldn't be much worse at scoring runs right now.
And without some roster shuffling, can Girardi just sit back and keep watching the same group malfunction at the plate? He can if he believes Jeter, who insisted that this downturn is nothing more serious than the usual ebb-and-flow to a long 162-game season.
"Maybe we'll get more ups coming in the second half," Jeter said. "We can't sit around and dwell on what's happened. You can't change it."
No, the Yankees got themselves into this hole, mucking around in the middle of the AL East, a division that still seems very much up for grabs. But how long will it stay that way? Lately, the Bronx has become a place where opposing teams visit to get healthy -- while the Yankees continue to look worse.
We're stunned by it. The futility, the overall Yankees malaise.
The captain say he isn't.
"Talent doesn't win games," Jeter said.
Then the Yankees better find something that does. Or Jeter won't be the only one waving goodbye on Sept. 28.