When Derek Jeter showed up at spring training seemingly ready to play, Yankee fans anticipated the return to his old form. Ultimately, he ended up re-injuring himself and sat out the first three months of the season.
When the Yankee captain returned to the lineup, he rejoined a team that has unexpectedly hung around near the top of the division. Jeter will once again miss an extended period of time, as he was placed on the 15-day disabled list today with a strained right quadriceps.
That the Yankees have played over .500 for so long without Jeter, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Kevin Youkilis has been amazing. Fortunately for the Bronx Bombers, a number of young players and stars seemingly past their prime—Lyle Overbay, Ichiro Suzuki, Vernon Wells and Travis Hafner—stepped up with timely hitting, while the pitching staff held its own.
This is exactly what is needed when a leader goes down.
In some instances, when one leader goes down, another one unexpectedly not only rises to the occasion, but also catapults to stardom.
Colin Kaepernick emerged as a top NFL quarterback in 2012 after San Francisco 49ers starter Alex Smith suffered a concussion. When given his opportunity, Kaepernick proved more than capable, took over and kept the starting job—bringing the 49ers to their first Super Bowl appearance in nearly two decades.
When New England Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe famously went down with injuries in 2001, an inexperienced Tom Brady filled the void. Brady exceeded expectations during the regular season and led the Patriots to their first Super Bowl title. He supplanted Bledsoe permanently and turned into one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.
When Phil Simms of the New York Giants broke his foot late in the 1990 season, seldom tested Jeff Hostetler replaced him. Not only did the backup perform well, he ultimately led the Giants to a stunning Super Bowl victory over the heavily favored Buffalo Bills. The championship resulted in a noteworthy quarterback controversy the following season.
Sometimes, an old lion gets one last hurrah. While most football fans are familiar with the "perfect season" by the 1972 Dolphins, many have forgotten that the team might not have gone 14-0 were it not for Earl Morrall. The veteran stepped in after Miami's starting quarterback, Bob Griese, broke his leg in the fifth game of the season and proceeded to win the remaining regular-season games.
He relinquished the job when coach Don Shula replaced him after a rocky performance in the AFC Championship Game. Griese started and won Super Bowl VII, but the Dolphins surely would not have achieved perfection had it not been for the exceptional play of their backup passer.
In the modern era, when athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, injuries to top stars seem to occur with greater frequency. When athletes who play key positions such as quarterback in football and shortstop or starting pitcher in baseball, others need to bring their game to new levels if a team wants to contend.
Someday soon, the Yankees will have to permanently brace for life without Derek Jeter in the lineup, just as they had to replace all-time greats such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. They may never again find someone with all of the leadership qualities that Jeter demonstrates, but indeed they will eventually have to rally around a new leader.
It's part of the circle of life in sports.