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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

We'll believe Derek Jeter's return date when we see him at shortstop

Derek Jeter strikes out in the first inning

Derek Jeter strikes out in the first inning of a Game 5 of the ALDS against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. (Oct. 12, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

For those of you interested in seeing Derek Jeter again this season, here's a few things to be worried about in the wake of yesterday's setback for the Yankees' injured captain. And we'll start off by dismissing the updated timeline that has Jeter returning at some point after the All-Star break.

No offense to Brian Cashman, who is only relaying information from Jeter's Charlotte-based ankle surgeon. But the shortstop is going to have to be standing on the infield dirt of Yankee Stadium before any talk of his return will be believed. Whether it's 10 weeks from now or 10 months.

After this first happened, during Game 1 of last October's ALCS, Jeter's post-op prognosis was supposed to have him ready for Opening Day. But as that date drew closer, Jeter showed the strain of his hurried rehab and ultimately had to get a cortisone shot as well as be shut down for a while.

Before long, April 1 became a backdated April 6, followed by April 15, then May 1 and finally . . . nothing. Upon last check, before Wednesday night's game against the Diamondbacks, a frustrated Joe Girardi could only shrug when asked about the next step with Jeter.

Now the Yankees know, and despite the optimism expressed Thursday by Jeter's doctor, excuse us for being overly skeptical after tracking his recovery for the past seven months. Although it seems certain that Jeter won't need surgery -- that eliminates an elongated healing process -- he already has plenty of metal holding his ankle together, and those screws and plates couldn't prevent another "small" crack from developing.

That doesn't sound great, either. How big does a crack have to be to be described as "small"? Any fracture in that area is worrisome, and even when Jeter is cleared to perform baseball activities again, who's to say this won't be a recurring issue?

The ankle was declared structurally intact last month when Jeter began his limited playing time in Grapefruit League games. Yet he never looked completely stable, right up to when he had to be pulled off the field in Tampa this week. "This is a new injury," Cashman said, "not an 'unhealing' of a previous injury. The previous CT scans were all negative and clean."

But if Jeter could cause damage to that degree during moderate workouts -- Cashman didn't pin down precisely when he hurt himself -- what happens when he tries to go back to the daily grind of back-to-back nine-inning games?

That won't be for a while, as Jeter will need a minimum of six weeks for this crack to mend, but playing shortstop in the majors is a high-impact activity. To perform at Jeter's Hall of Fame specifications, even more so.

Cashman said the doctor told him "95 percent" of people come back from this type of injury. But to do what? Mow the lawn? Ping-Pong? Hot Yoga? You assume the GM was talking about baseball. With Jeter, however, we're not talking about a replacement- level player. And what of that other 5 percent? That, if nothing else, reminds us that there are no guarantees here.

Jeter isn't scheduled to speak publicly about this injury until the Yankees return home Thursday, but Cashman described the shortstop as upbeat. "He'll never let anybody see any area of weakness or problem," the GM said.

That toughness is what led to Jeter's downfall as he continued -- with the help of cortisone injections -- to fight through his ankle problems last year during the Yankees' battle for the AL East title and subsequent playoff run. But it's going to take more than a high pain threshold to get back on the field after this setback, and with Jeter turning 39 in June, time isn't on his side.

The Yankees have three other significant players in rehab mode with Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez also trying to get back at some point between mid-May and the end of the season. Jeter's bad break is a reminder that these things don't always go as planned, and in his case, can suggest a more chronic problem moving forward.

Let's not call this setback career-threatening for Jeter just yet. But it's looking more and more like a career-changing one, and no one really knows for sure when that career will be ready to resume again.

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