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Jeter's Back ... Then Injured Again



To sports now and the Bronx, where this past week, despair turned to elation turned back to despair. We're talking, of course, about the much-anticipated return of Derek Jeter to the New York Yankees, and his re-injury in his first game back. Here to talk us through the emotional rollercoaster is NPR's Mike Pesca. Hey, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Yeah, much anticipated. To give you some idea, the return of Eliot Spitzer was greeted with some amount of attention. But Derek Jeter is, you know...


PESCA: ...give me a break. Yeah.


MARTIN: So he'd been out for eight months with a broken ankle. Then Friday, he finally gets back in the lineup. Fans are crazy excited, he has a few at-bats - then he strains his quadricep? This poor guy. Now he's down again, at least for a few more games. So in the lineup or out, how much difference can this one guy make?

PESCA: Yes, that is a good question. And you would think, by the amount of attention, the answer is - you know, enormous. OK, first, let's look at the sport of baseball. Just by its very nature, a baseball player has less impact on the game than a dominant player in another sport. Logically, baseball players get up only, you know, one out of nine hitters, or any one player, in terms of chances; a shortstop, every other inning, might get a ball hit his way.

And baseball's the only sport where you could neutralize - totally neutralize, not just double-team, but guarantee a good player doesn't hurt you, by giving him an intentional walk. And statisticians have kind of counted this. They have a statistic called win-shares. The best baseball player ever - Babe Ruth - the best season ever, they say he accounted for 14 wins. This was during 154-game season.

Last year, LeBron James accounted for 19 wins for his team, and this is during an 82-game season. So baseball, as a sport, a great player can't have a huge impact on his team. And Derek Jeter's not even, any longer, a great player.

MARTIN: Well, then, that was my question. Why is there such a big deal about this guy? I mean, does he have secret, magical powers?

PESCA: (Laughing) Yeah, it seems like he does. OK so first of all, we will acknowledge that whoever the Yankees have been trotting out, at shortstop, is not only bad; statistically, they are either the worst or second worst in the league. Their shortstop position, offensively, has been giving you nothing. So if Derek Jeter is just an average player - which at 39 and if he's healthy, you know, we think that he's going to be just an average player - it still represents a pretty big upgrade, and the Yankees will take it.

But that word magic, everything that is said about Derek Jeter is shot through what an anthropologist would call magical thinking; this idea that, you know, El Capitan, Mr. November. He just exudes a presence. He makes the other players better around him.

MARTIN: Does he?

PESCA: He brings leadership. He absolutely does all those things, but how much it correlates to winning is vastly overblown. And by saying that hey, now Jeter's back, now we're going to have a leader; are the Yankees admitting, you know, up to this point we've been rudderless and passionless? I mean, I think not. So the mystical qualities of Jeter won't be as important as if he's healthy, the fact that I'll be able to hit, you know, .295.

MARTIN: Any tangible benefits to...

PESCA: There are. There are, specifically because of where the Yankees are this year. And even though on paper they have the highest payroll in baseball, adjusted for inflation, it's the lowest payroll they've had for years. And they're not drawing, and the Yankees are dependent on star power. And Jeter brings that, and brings back excitement.

MARTIN: Real quick - got a curveball?

PESCA: I do. It's also about baseball. We've had a very exciting conversation about baseball, in my opinion. But - you know - baseball, to many, is not that exciting; and the Wall Street Journal took a stopwatch to a few games, and they were trying to determine - a baseball game lasts about three hours. You know, you sit down at first pitch and if you last - and if you leave by the time it ends, how long, in terms of actual action - when the ball is either being pitched, or when a runner is advancing or the ball's actually in play; when everyone's running around - how long, would you say, of actual action there is in this three-hour baseball game, Rachel?

MARTIN: Very little. I'm sorry - 15 minutes.

PESCA: Yeah, it's 17 minutes, 58 seconds.

MARTIN: Oh! Pretty good.

PESCA: And I'll read the quote from the Wall Street Journal: By our calculations, a baseball fan will see 17 minutes, 58 seconds of action over the course of the game. This is roughly the equivalent of a TED Talk, which just draws the Guy Raz/Vince Scully parallel even more starkly than it is already.

MARTIN: (Laughing) NPR's Mike Pesca - thanks so much, Mike.

PESCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.