TAMPA, Fla. — One of the toughest guys in Yankee Stadium could not bring himself to look.
Derek Jeter knew something gruesome happened to his left ankle that October night. What he did not know, but found out later, was that the painful bone bruise he had been dealing with had progressed to a stress fracture. That caused Jeter’s ankle to give way on a step to his left in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, sending him tumbling to the infield dirt in pain and ending his season.
“When it was originally diagnosed, four or five weeks before it happened, they told me it was a bone bruise,” Jeter said at Steinbrenner Field on Sunday, reporting day for position players. “I’m not going to ask them to look at it again. Just keep playing. Then it turned into a stress fracture and broke in half. I wasn’t aware of that.”
He added: “When it first happened, I knew something was wrong. I felt it snap, so I was kind of afraid to look at it. I didn’t know if it turned a particular direction.”
Jeter then embarked on the most challenging off-season of his career. His surgically repaired ankle healed with the help of a metal plate and screws, Jeter said he had been given full clearance for activities. He started running on a treadmill about a week ago, so Manager Joe Girardi will not push him through Monday’s first full-squad workout.
“Every day hopefully he gets a little bit better and gets to the point when he’s running around on the field,” Girardi said, adding that Jeter’s first action in a spring game would probably be as a designated hitter.
As he has for weeks, Jeter insisted he will be ready for opening day.
“Why wouldn’t it be realistic?” Jeter said. “I broke my ankle in October. It’s been quite some time. I’m right where I’m supposed to be right up until this point. The ankle has healed perfectly. Now it’s a matter of getting everything else in shape. I’m going to have to push myself, but yeah, opening day has been the goal all along.”
Too many Yankees have watched Jeter play when he maybe should not have to doubt him now.
“It’s a tough injury, but I don’t expect him to miss a beat,” first baseman Mark Teixeira said. “If he does, I think we’ll all be surprised.”
He added about Jeter and closer Mariano Rivera, “One thing you learn when you hang around the Yankees: Don’t bet against Derek or Mo.”
Jeter said he expected to play like he did last year, when he batted .316 and posted his first 200-hit season in four years. However, the ankle surgery forced Jeter, who turns 39 on June 24
, to spend the winter getting back in shape instead of building on his usual conditioning program.
“I was stuck on the couch for a good five or six weeks where I couldn’t move around too much,” he said. “I don’t want to make it seem more dramatic than it is, but you have to learn to walk again. I had a little scooter to move around. It was tough. It was not fun.”
Jeter acknowledged he might have avoided the aggravation if he let the bone bruise heal instead of pushing through. “I continued to play on it probably when I shouldn’t have,” he said.
But Jeter has never operated that way.
“If you can play, you play,” he said. “I was told I was able to play, so I played. Unfortunately it broke, but I would do the same thing over again if I had to.”
Girardi appeared baffled when told about Jeter’s stress fracture.
“I was not aware of it,” Girardi said. “I’m not sure what he’s talking about.”
Girardi said he never thought Jeter was at risk of a more serious injury until it happened.
“We wouldn’t have kept playing him if that was the case,” Girardi said. “I knew he was hurting, and I checked with him every day. Sometimes it was a tussle getting him out of the lineup and telling him what I was going to do. I could see it was clear that the bone bruise affected him.”
Jeter insisted the injury was a freakish occurrence, not the beginning of the end of his career.
“It wasn’t something like I didn’t drink enough milk and my bones started breaking down,” he said. “I’m not concerned with reinjuring the ankle. There is a plate in there. There are screws in there. It’s not like it’s going to fall off.”
But there will be more questions about Jeter’s age if he appears to have limited mobility or gets off to a slow start. He knows that.
“I think if you get caught up talking about how old you’re getting, those are negative thoughts,” Jeter said. “I just try to focus on getting ready to play and doing as well as I can.”