APRIL 26, 2004
Jeter On Trial Now Like Never Before
By Steve Lombardi, NetShrine.com

On April 25, 2004, in a 2-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees Captain Derek Jeter went hitless in four at bats (striking out three times).  The loss was the Yankees fourth in a row and their ninth loss in their last fourteen games.  For Jeter, the hitless day added to a streak where he has now gone 25 straight at bats without a hit (a career high).  For the season (to date) Jeter is hitting .175 and has 15 strikeouts in 80 at bats.

Clearly, these are difficult times for the New York Yankees and their on the field leader.  In fact, it is not a reach to say that the first 19 games of the 2004 season just may be the most troubled stretch ever experienced by both Jeter and the Yankees, simultaneously.

It is very easy to be the cheerleader, pumping your fist in the air, when everything is turning up roses.  However, as once stated by Martin Luther King, Jr., “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

The upcoming schedule for the Yankees will be perhaps Jeter’s biggest challenge ever.  In a pre-game radio interview on April 24, 2004, the Yankees Gary Sheffield expressed that, presently, the Yankees have two roads ahead of them.  The first road is where they breakout of their current doldrums and play better baseball.  The second road is where things just stay the way they are now.  

The Bronx Bombers need someone to take control of the team bus and ensure that it takes that first road.  And, without question, the appointed leader of the team, Derek Jeter, is the one charged with the responsibility to drive the bus.

Many times during the Red Sox-Yankees series this past weekend, YES announcer Paul O’Neill made an observation about these current Yankees.  O’Neill’s point was that in the past, when teams came into Yankee Stadium to play New York, you could tell by the look on their faces that they just wanted to get out of town with at least one win.  Conversely, now, O’Neill notes that teams come into Yankee Stadium with an attitude that they are going to win, everyday.  Teams no longer fear the Yankees as they did as recently as four years ago.

The scrawling on this scorecard is in agreement with O’Neill.  The New York Yankees are without swagger.  They have not had that look and feel of confidence in the last few years.

The 2003 Marlins had swagger.  Actually, you can look at every World Championship team, going back to 1971 and notice that each team had an air of invincibility about them.  The three-peat Oakland A’s of the early ‘70’s had it.  The Cincinnati Reds “Big Red Machine” had it.  The Yankees of the late 1970’s had it.  The 1984 Tigers and 1986 Mets had it.  Ditto the Yankees of the late 1990’s.

For the fans in the Yankee Nation, somehow, Jeter needs to get the Yankees to start playing with swagger in 2004.  In 1996, when the New York Yankees recent run of championships began, their second baseman, Mariano Duncan came up with the team philosophy – it was “Today we play, today we win – dat’s it.”  Derek Jeter needs to get the current Yankees to think in this direction.  The team attitude must become “We will win today.”  The players on the Yankee roster realize that they have an “all-star” roster and that they “should” win in 2004.  But, having an attitude of “should” win is not working in New York today.

Jeter earned his captaincy by being a core member of the Yankee championship teams of 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000.  He knows what it takes for a team to win.  As team leader, he now needs to convey that to the majority of the current Yankee roster who has never won a World Series.  By rough count, there are probably 19 or so members of the Yankees current 25-man roster who have not been a part of a World Series championship team.

The Yankees need to realize that no one is going to give them a world championship because they have the best players or the highest payroll.  If they want it, they will have to take it.  

If you want a piece of fruit, you can either climb up the tree and get it or you can sit at the foot of the tree and hope that a piece falls in your lap.  Obviously, the best way to ensure that you get what you want is to go and get it.  You need to have the drive to start up that tree.  That drive is an attitude.  It is a confidence that you know what you want and you are going to get it.  It is not being timid.  

This is what the Yankees need to do to turn around their season before it is too late.  They need to stop being timid.  They need to make things happen.  And, most importantly, they need to get the message out to the other teams in the league that they are a steamroller on a mission and nothing can get in their way.

If you want to be a juggernaut, then you need to act like a juggernaut.  

Presently, there is a team in the American League playing with the attitude of a champion.  That team is the Boston Red Sox.  Both the Boston hitters and pitchers are playing with a confidence that they cannot lose.  And, in reality, they are not losing very often.  Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling are playing without fear.  The hitters, when at bat, give off an aura that they will always get the big hit.  The pitchers have an extremely cocky attitude.  

While there may be few players on the Red Sox who have won a championship, they know what it takes to carry themselves with confidence and play like a team that wants it.  For the most part, it is a tight clubhouse and they play as a team.

If the Yankees are to succeed in 2004, Derek Jeter must get them to play more like the current Red Sox team.  (This should not be too tough for Jeter to process.  The Sox are operating as a team like Jeter’s 1998-2000 Yankees carried themselves.)

This is not something that the Yankees coaching staff can bring about.  If they could do it, then it would already be in place.  This attitude needs to resonate somewhere from within the players.  Alex Rodriguez cannot do it – nor can Gary Sheffield.  They are too new to the team.  Hideki Matsui has the language gap.  He cannot do it.  Bernie Williams lacks the skills and personality to pull it off.  What about Jason Giambi?  Perhaps he could do it?  (And, it would start by being a team first player and dropping a bunt down third once in a while to stop teams from using the shift against him.  At times, Jason’s own ego is in his way of doing what is right for the team.)  However, as long as Jeter has the “C” on his chest, Giambi most likely would not attempt to lead the Yankees clubhouse.  Ditto Jorge Posada.  He has the skills to be a leader.  But, Jorge will not usurp Jeter as long as his best friend is the captain.  (And, as far as the pitchers, it is doubtful that one of them could do it.  How many pitchers have been able to effectively serve as team leaders?)

It has to be Jeter.  In all likelihood, he knows this and knows what needs to be done.  Jeter needs to lead by example.  This is not about making speeches.  No one on the “Swingin’ A’s” championship teams ever made a speech.  Pete Rose never made a speech.  Kirk Gibson never made a speech.  Lenny Dykstra never made a speech.  Jeter needs to lead by example on the field – by carrying himself with more of a “we cannot be defeated arrogance.”  As the captain of the team and one of the table setters in the Yankee line-up, he needs to ignite the team.  Batting .175 and striking out often is not getting it done.  Jeter also needs to get the Yankee clubhouse and bench looser so that the Yankee players feel more like King Kong than a herd of scared deer in the headlights of the rest of the American League.

Whether Derek gets it done or not will be his legacy.  Some may think it is unfair to place this all on the shoulders of Derek Jeter.  However, if you are the leader, this is your purview.

If this is something that Jeter does not want, then he should step aside and let a teammate assume the role of team leader.  Posada has grown to the point where he is not afraid to allow his fire been seen.  As catcher, he has the perfect on field position to lead the team.  A-Rod has always wanted to run a team, ala’ his idol Cal Ripken Jr.  Sheffield has never been shy about strutting and playing a “Reggie” like role.  Still, again, out of respect for Jeter’s title, none of these players will step forward now.

It is time for Derek to lead.  If not, he should get out of the way and follow.

Steve Lombardi is the Creator & Curator of NetShrine.com.  Scrawling On The Scorecard appears regularly during the baseball season and sporadically during the off-season.  Steve can be contacted at sots@netshrine.com

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