One night after baseball's league-wide Opening Day, Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees took the field in Houston for the first of 162 games. In 2014, the most interesting 25-man roster in the sport won't be afforded the luxury of navigating through a marathon.
Instead, with the specter of Jeter's retirement hanging over a franchise with enormous expectations, each game—maybe even each inning and at-bat—will take on a bigger feel, accompanied by pressure to perform.
Of course, if any team or franchise can handle that edict, it's the Yankees. On a yearly basis, a playoff-or-bust mantra seems to emanate from the Bronx.
But this year already feels different.
It would even if Jeter didn't announce his retirement with a press conference at the outset of spring training. After slipping to 85-77 in 2013, missing the postseason and limping through a downtrodden season full of injuries and inconsistent play, the Yankees reloaded by doling out $503 million over the winter.
That alone would have created a sense of urgency.
Yet when Jeter spoke, the season became about more than wins and losses. It became a farewell tour wrapped up in what will likely be an AL East war of attrition. With the World Series champion Boston Red Sox, perennially excellent Tampa Bay Rays and powerful Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees are no lock to reprise a role in October.
If they succeed, it will be in spite of distractions. Some of those are inevitably tied to Jeter's stardom and day-by-day interest in his final games, at-bats and special moments.
For some clubhouses, the idea of one player commandeering attention and creating a zoo-like atmosphere during the games would be a major distraction, possibly big enough to deter a winning foundation from forming.
In the Yankees dugout, it's the exact opposite.
Jeter's energy—spurred on by the crowds and finality of this 2014 season—will be the engine that drives the Yankees as they sink or swim in the AL East gauntlet.
One year ago, Jeter's leg injuries limited him to just 17 difficult games, 63 forgetful at-bats and impact so minuscule that WAR (-0.7) credited him with costing the Yankees almost a full win. For one of the ultimate winners in baseball history, the unthinkable became a reality.
During New York's opening tilt in Houston, the American League's most expensive roster fell to the league's worst team. But the game was still in question when Jeter singled to right field in the top of the eighth inning.
Almost instantly, an energy seemed to jolt the Yankees awake after a listless night where journeyman Scott Feldman dominated (6.2 IP, 2 H, 0 ER) a lineup littered with star-caliber hitters.
It's easy to point to Mariano Rivera's farewell tour last year as a comparable situation for the Yankees, but saying goodbye to a star relief pitcher is far different than the final season Jeter has now embarked on.
In Rivera's case, the team, fans and opposition never knew which games he would end up entering and playing a role in. For Jeter, batting in the No. 2 hole affords him the opportunity to bat in the first inning, cause a stir in the crowd and potentially impact the game in each and every inning.
To be fair, Jeter's ability to drive the Yankees engine would be much more impressive if he was the 1999 version (.349/.438/.552, 8.0 WAR) of himself. That player was an MVP-caliber performer, capable of lifting the current Yankees roster to the top of the American League.
15 years later, the Yankees will trade youth and ability for the energy a final season will provide the team on a nightly basis.
Using phrases like "now or never" or "must win" can—and probably should—fall on deaf ears during the early portion of April. Opening Day was a disappointment for the 2014 Yankees, but there's 161 games to play.
With Jeter's impending departure from the middle of New York's infield and an old, expensive roster looking to live up to the immense success of past Yankee teams, the 2014 season could be looked at as a day-to-day grind.
Instead, 600-plus plate appearances from Jeter could galvanize this roster, take the spotlight away from a quiet superstar like Jacoby Ellsbury, a struggling ace like CC Sabathia or expectations for a foreign sensation like Masahiro Tanaka.
Since 1996, Derek Jeter has been the most prolific and important baseball player in New York. Now, as the spotlight shifts to him one last time, he remains in that role.
For a team in the pressure cooker of the New York media market, that energy will drive the Yankees one last time, regardless of how many wins are tallied from now until October.
Statistics are from Baseball-Reference.com, ESPN and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted.
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