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Jeter's the Star, Eckstein's the Spark

May 14, 2003|Ross Newhan

NEW YORK — Men with cameras jostled for position as he arrived at Yankee Stadium. A pregame news conference was SRO.

The first-inning display on the video board in center field featured a montage of his career highlights, and a crowd of 37,750 greeted his first at-bat with a standing ovation.

Derek Jeter, having broken his left collarbone in the season opener, was returning to the New York Yankees' lineup, and it was as if the conquering legions were returning to Rome.

It was as if the Yankees weren't already 26-11, as if they hadn't produced one of the strongest starts of their acclaimed history without their acclaimed shortstop.

"Well," Yankee Manager Joe Torre said, "he makes us whole. He solidifies us. He sets the tone with his toughness, the way he grinds, not accepting losing."

At times, of course, there is no alternative, and on a night that Jeter called his home opener, the only option was acceptance.

The Angels routed the Yankees, 10-3. Jeter went hitless in three at-bats before he singled in the eighth inning.

By then, it was his counterpart at shortstop who had generated the more significant impact.

David Eckstein would emerge with four hits, a walk and two runs.

If Jeter makes the Yankees whole, Eckstein makes the Angels go.

It hadn't been happening with the regularity of last year, but the Angels were reminded of the good things that often follow when it does.

Scott Spiezio, , hitless in his last 25 at-bats and batting .182, hit two home runs, one a grand slam. John Lackey, struggling to regain his 2002 form, pitched four hitless innings and gave up only two runs in six.

It was all reminiscent of October when Eckstein became something of a national darling amid the playoff spotlight, wrapping up a catalytic season in which he batted .293 with a .363 on-base percentage.

If at .261 and .346 going into the trip opener he hadn't been the same asset as the Angels struggled to regain their swaggering style of last year, there were possible excuses that Eckstein refused to accept.

Maybe, with fellow trigger man Darin Erstad sidelined so long, Eckstein has tried to do more kick-starting than he's capable of, hitting more pitches in the air, coming out of his game.

Maybe, having hurt his right hip in spring training, he has been having a tough time keeping the weight on his back leg, so important in hitting.

"I can't say that's true because physically I've felt fine," Eckstein said. "I've just been horrible and very disappointed.

"I keep working on my balance, my hands, staying back, the whole thing, but my at-bats have been far too inconsistent. I have a good one, then four bad ones.

"Hopefully, I can take what I did tonight and build on it. Hopefully, I've turned a corner."

Eckstein opened three innings with hits. He opened the first with a single to remind the Angels that Mike Mussina, coming in 7-0, wasn't invincible. He opened the third with a single and was rewarded by Garret Anderson's two-out home run. He opened the seventh with a double, and the Angels scored twice after the Yankees had closed from 4-0 to 4-2.

Ultimately, it was the sixth four-hit game of his career and underscored his importance.

The Angels were 24-2 in games in which he scored two or more runs last year, and they are now 5-1.

Was he geared up to steal Jeter's spotlight?

Eckstein said he wouldn't be so presumptuous as to think he had stolen anybody's spotlight, particularly a player with four World Series rings.

"The biggest thing about Jeter is that he's a winner, plain and simple," Eckstein said. "I mean, if I've tried to take something from every shortstop, what I've tried to take from him is the poise he had coming up as a rookie, playing in the national spotlight and helping the Yankees win a championship."

That was 1996, and Eckstein saw it on television.

Amid tabloid frenzy, Eckstein got another, much closer look as Eric Almonte, who batted .272 but made nine errors in 28 games, returned to triple A, and Jeter returned to the Bronx after batting .444 in five games at double A and almost two months of "long and difficult" therapy at the training complex in Tampa, Fla.

"Boring," he said. "You can only go to so many movies."

At that, however, it could have been a full summer of cinema. Phil Nevin, for instance, broke his collarbone in spring training, required surgery and is out for the year.

"In retrospect, I was very fortunate," Jeter said. "The injury I had was as good as it could have been. A lot of people anticipated me being out longer than I have. A lot of players have been out longer."

Injured when he slid head-first into third base at Toronto and catcher Ken Huckaby came down on his shoulder, Jeter said he will continue sliding head-first when necessary, diving for grounders when necessary.

"Playing not to get hurt is more dangerous than anything, and certainly not the way Derek has ever played," said Torre, who agreed with Yankee players that Jeter's true measurement is in the area of irreplaceable intangibles.

"He's handled so many big-game situations that the team tends to feed off his confidence and leadership," Torre said.

Of course, the Yankees have not won a World Series in two years, and George Steinbrenner couldn't resist prodding his clubhouse leader during the winter, questioning Jeter's night life and focus. It isn't known whether Steinbrenner will give Jeter a grace period coming back from his injury, but they recently filmed a credit card commercial in which the man known as the prince of the city offers his Boss tips on where to go at night in New York.

"You have to have a little fun with it," Jeter said on a night that Eckstein and the Angels picked up the tab.

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