What was Kelly Johnson doing in 1996 while Derek Jeter was winning Rookie of the Year and the World Series?
“For the baseball season of ’96, I was an eighth-grader,” Johnson said. Then he paused to make sure that was correct. “My brother was a senior so I was in eighth grade. Wow. That’s crazy. And what am I? I’m 32. … I’m not even that young. That’s crazy.”
To play next to Jeter this afternoon?
“Surreal,” Johnson said. “… I feel it just being in the clubhouse in general. It kind of feels like I’m back to being a rookie, being a young guy in the Braves clubhouse. There were some living legend type players in that clubhouse, too. You’re not prepared for it. Even having played with some guys like that, you’re still not prepared for it. I was in high school watching these guys step out on the field for the first time. I was their biggest fan. I’m watching everything they do. Derek absolutely included. To be playing next to him and being on the same team is pretty amazing.”
Even on a hitless day when he never made a play in the field, there was significance to having Jeter back on the field, playing shortstop and running without difficulty.
“When you’re getting a weak fly ball or something, you can hear him back there saying, ‘Atta boy, Dave,’” starter David Phelps said. “He’s our leader out there, and it’s definitely nice to have him back on the field, that’s for sure.”
“It didn’t seem that weird for some reason,” new second baseman Brian Roberts said. “I had a chance to play a couple of games with him in the WBC a few years ago, and I guess just knowing him for all these years, it’s not as strange as some people might think.”
It’s odd that a player can be touted as both unique and familiar, yet it all feels a part of the same narrative. Jeter was back. He was playing in a game that didn’t matter, and he really wasn’t doing much to have an impact, but he was playing. And he looked healthy.
At some point the symbolism won’t be enough. The Yankees are banking on Jeter being a productive hitter and a legitimate fielder — “If I ever felt as though I wasn’t important, then I would have left a long time ago,” he said — but for one day, simply having Jeter on the field meant something.
“He can have some fun,” Johnson said. “To be (almost) 40 years old and playing his 20th year in the big leagues, just the smile and how much fun he has coming to the yard every day, it was extremely admirable. That’s part of it. It’s a long year. He keeps it light and has fun. You can tell that this is where he’s wanted to be his whole life.”
· In his first spring start, Phelps allowed a solo home run, but he also struck out four and walked none in two innings. All four strikeouts were looking. “I was trying to get the first guy to swing, and he wouldn’t take the bat off his shoulder,” Phelps said. “I’ll take it. The biggest thing I want to do this year is throw strikes, and if they’re going to let me get them, I’m going to keep putting them in there.”
· Phelps was happy with his fastball command, and he was able to mix his slider. The home run came on a curveball that Phelps was surprised to see hit that hard. “I threw two arm-side sliders, one inside to a righty, one backdoor to a lefty for a strikeout,” he said. “And then two glove-side fastballs. Kind of crossing patterns. … I didn’t get behind too many guys, and the fastball command was there. For Day 1, I’ll take it.”
· Of course, Phelps has remained pretty far off the radar this spring. He hasn’t generated nearly the attention of Masahiro Tanaka or Michael Pineda, and he was in a mood to joke about it. “It’s been insane just all this extra media that’s been here to see me,” he said. “It’s been nuts.” That’s literally the most he could get out before he started laughing.
· Of the Yankees major position player additions, Brian Roberts was the last to make his spring debut. He played second and went hitless today. “I think putting a different uniform on, that’s probably been one of the strangest parts,” Roberts said. “Chris Dickerson (now playing for the Orioles) said, ‘Dude, you just look weird.’ I think in some ways I just feel strange. But I think if I was putting on a San Diego Padres uniform it would be even more weird. Just seeing this team so many times and playing in the East, going to Yankee Stadium so many times, I actually think there’s a little more comfort level just because the guys and the familiarity with everything.”
· Roberts said basically the same thing Jeter’s been saying about injury concerns: He feels healthy and didn’t come into today’s game worried about anything. Doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t get hurt again, but at this point, there’s nothing that has him concerned.
· Random infield note: Johnson said he and Jeter both dislike wearing sunglasses in the field, and today that nearly became an issue on a shallow fly ball. “We were kind of going back and forth on a ball going up in the air, who was going to take that,” Johnson said. “I’m going to have to say he better take every one he can get.”
· For Joe Girardi, there was significant comfort in watching Jeter try to run out a couple of ground balls. “Running seemed to bother him as much as anything (when he was hurt),” Girardi said. “To me, there were no issues today. … That was really good to see because we haven’t seen that in a while. You’ve got to go back to 2012, so that’s a great sign for us and a great sign for him.”
· One of Jeter’s outs was a bang-bang play at first base, and Girardi said he instantly thought about his routine for deciding whether to review it. This wasn’t a spring game with replay, so he couldn’t actually do anything about it, but Girardi said replay and how to use it is already in his mind. He’s working on getting himself used to having that option during the regular season.
· Injury updates: Francisco Rondon is going to be shut down for a “couple of weeks” because of his shoulder issue that popped up yesterday. … Jose Ramirez was sent for two MRIs, one on his back and one on his oblique to figure out what was causing his tightness yesterday. No word yet on test results. … Giradri said he did not yet have an update on Tyler Austin’s wrist, but Austin did have the wrist unwrapped last I saw him in the clubhouse. Might be totally meaningless, but it’s the first time in several days that I’d seen him without it wrapped up.
· Game notes: Kelly Johnson had an RBI double, one of the few bright spots for the Yankees offense. It was the Yankees only extra-base hit. John Ryan Murphy drove in their other run in an 8-2 loss. … Brett Gardner had two plate appearances and reached base each time on a walk and an infield single. … Two scoreless innings for Chris Leroux and an inning-and-a-third scoreless for Yoshinori Tateyama. … Most of the Pirates damage came against Robert Coello who was charged with five earned runs on five hits and a walk in just a third of an inning.
· We’ll give the final word to Jeter. “I’ve always been an important part of the team,” he said. “I’ve never gone into a season thinking I wasn’t important. I understand that my job is important. If I ever felt as though I wasn’t important, then I would have left a long time ago. I understand that my job on the field is important. Offensively, defensively, it’s important for me to be out there every day. That’s the approach that I’ve always had, and it doesn’t change. My mindset has always remained the same since I came up in ’96.”
Associated Press photos