Posted: Wednesday November 1, 2006 9:54AM; Updated: Wednesday November 1, 2006 11:16AM
Alex Rodriguez (left) has yet to gain acceptance from The Captain.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Phil Taylor will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
Now that baseball's postseason is over, the individual awards will soon be handed out, including the American League MVP. Boston's David Ortiz and a trio of Twins, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Johan Santana, are all viable candidates for the hardware, and there will be no complaints from this corner if any of them win. The only injustice would be if the award goes to the player who may just be the favorite: Derek Jeter.
There's no question that Jeter had a fabulous year, finishing second in the AL batting race and helping the Yanks to the best regular-season record in the league. But Jeter, the Yankees captain, was also derelict in his duty this season. The supposed team leader led everyone in pinstripes except the teammate who needed him most -- third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
Jeter is the Yankees' Teflon shortstop, the golden boy to whom no criticism ever sticks. He is a clutch player, to be sure, and he is one of the few Yankees who earned his paycheck on the field in the Yankees' ALDS flop against the Detroit Tigers. But in the most crucial area, the A-Rod area, he was a crashing failure. Rodriguez was a psychological mess by the time the postseason rolled around, desperate to be accepted as a "real" Yankee, trying so hard to produce big hits that he produced nothing at all. Manager Joe Torre buried him in the eighth spot in the batting order in the final game, a crushing indignity to a player who had, after all, hit 35 homers and drove in 121 runs during the regular season.
So now the Yankees have an emotionally fragile star on their hands and no idea what to do with him. Trade him, rehabilitate him, what? It's sad to see a great player fall so far so fast, but the saddest thing of all is that Jeter might have been able to keep the situation from getting this bad.
A-Rod is a man of tremendous insecurities, even though he struggles to appear as though he has none. He craves acceptance, and on the Yankees, there is only one man who can bestow that him, and that man is the sainted Jeter. All the Teflon shortstop had to do, at any point in the season, was to let it be known that he was on A-Rod's side. The rest of the Yankees, and then the public, would no doubt have followed suit. A few words of support to the media would probably have done the trick. Jeter's never been much of a talker, so perhaps that was too much to ask, but words weren't even necessary. It would only have taken a token gesture from Jeter -- a hand on A-Rod's shoulder, some horseplay in front of the television cameras -- to send the message that A-Rod had Jeter's stamp of approval.
But the Yankee captain couldn't bring himself to do that. By his silence, by his body language, he sent the unspoken message that he had no interest in helping A-Rod out of his funk. Go ahead and boo him, go ahead and rip him in the press, Jeter seemed to be saying. I don't like him any more than you do. By all accounts Jeter has never forgotten some mildly disparaging remarks A-Rod made about him years ago in a magazine article. But apparently he has managed to forget that Rodriguez switched from shortstop to third base when he became a Yankee rather than ruffle Jeter's feathers, and that he has deferred to him at every turn ever since he came to New York.
Whatever sin A-Rod committed against Jeter, he has more than paid penance for it. Jeter is no one's MVP until he finds a way not just to accept A-Rod, but also to help him. That's what leaders do.
The fault for the Yankees' loss doesn't lie solely with Jeter, of course, just as it shouldn't fall exclusively on any single Yankee. Torre, for instance, made a critical mistake in not paying more attention to the chemistry issue, not leaning on his pet, Jeter, to help lift A-Rod, and surely Rodriguez is ultimately to blame for his own shortcomings. But since the Yankees are retaining Torre and have indicated that they are not going to trade Rodriguez, everyone will have another chance to get it right next season.
Yankees fans have a right to expect more from everyone in pinstripes next autumn, including Jeter, who may find that the stigma of October flameouts eventually sticks to everything, even Teflon.