TAMPA – He's coming up on 34 years old, the shoulders still taut, the fade still working, the eyes still burning jade.
Thirteen years into this, Derek Jeter looks up from his chair in his familiar spring-time place. Time and rigor have let his face be. Ignore the few inches of range toward second base he's supposed to have lost, but probably never really had, and the game has let him be too.
"I don't feel old, man," he says.
He laughs. He knows he's claimed otherwise many times, often with a wry smile, usually when the season was well along and he was insisting on a few more innings from his legs. In 12 full seasons, including postseasons, he's played an average of 162 games, all at a position that hardly rests, and never once quit on a two-hopper to second base.
"I know I joke about it," he says. "But I feel as good now as I did in my first year."
Of course, everybody coasts into March. The beauty of Jeter, what makes him Jeter, is who he is in September. Who he is in October. Who he is in Year 13. Same guy as today, same as yesterday.
The city sways, baseball sags, the Yankees give away most of a decade, and New York would buy tickets to watch Derek Jeter walk – slightly pigeon-toed, head down, bat tucked under his arm – from the on-deck circle to the plate.
That's because he shows up for every at-bat. That's because he hasn't just survived being a Yankee (and in the media age), he's perfected it. The folks in the bleachers, they could always trust his body, trust his work, trust his intentions. The folks in the clubhouse, they could always trust his leadership. The folks in the front office, they could always trust his decisions.
The city turns, baseball darkens, the Yankees swat at the daily swirling crises, and New York would cling to Derek Jeter, willing the bat head ferociously to the inner half of the ball.
"He's never changed," Andy Pettitte says. "It's easy for me to keep him in line, because we go back so far."
Pettitte, who, these days, could use a light moment, laughs.
"For the fame and fortune that's come his way, he's done a great job of being the same person," he says. "He's a good man."
If Jeter is weary of the effort after these years, it is not reflected in his demeanor, nor in his game. He toiled all winter on expanding his range at shortstop and had barely wiped the sweat from his forehead when a handful of techies at Penn announced he was the worst defensive shortstop in baseball.
Maybe it's true, but I doubt it. I do know that if there was a roller to the left of the mound, I'd want Jeter coming in from shortstop. If there was a flare dying fast in left field, I'd want Jeter going out from shortstop. And if there was a four-hopper straight at the shortstop to end a game I had to win, I'd want Jeter and his alleged cement-shoed range standing right there.
Granted, I'd also want a left fielder and a center fielder with pretty good arms, because they're going to see some balls.
The Penn study had a decent run in New York but no play in the organization.
Gene Michael, who blasted the report at the time, hasn't yet fully flushed his disdain for it.
"It's not a fair test, because you can't put another shortstop in those same spots, under those same conditions," Michael says. "I know what they're trying to do. They made a name for themselves doing it. I'll say this: A ball is hit to shortstop. Who do you want to catch it? Who's going to catch the ball at him and then make the throw?"
But, these things happen, and then don't spend much time in Jeter's psyche. He puts in his work, then takes his position, maintains his poise, does his Yankees thing. He claims it's fairly simple.
"It would be harder if it wasn't sincere," he says, "if it was all contrived. How I am is how I am. It's how I've always been. I've tried to stay the same person. I like playing baseball a lot. But, I'll be a person for a lot longer than I will be a baseball player."
In so many ways, he is the young man he was in 1995, when he first walked in, and 1996, when he began to grow into the Yankees logo. And now he's a solid four seasons, maybe less, from 3,000 hits. He's also 7½ years since his last championship, and that weighs on all of them. It should too, particularly now that there are four, maybe five, teams in the American League with at least as much end-to-end talent – the Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels and, perhaps, the Seattle Mariners. And the Yankees' big acquisition of the offseason apparently will be LaTroy Hawkins.
They did not trade for Johan Santana. They did not effectively pursue an outfielder. They are waiting now on Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy. They are wishing good things for Mike Mussina. They are hoping for healthy, productive seasons from Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi. They pray their outfield defense will be good enough.
And then they lean a little on Jeter.
"I feel good about it," he says. "We didn't win a championship, and I'm not forgetting that, but we did some good things. It's not like they're keeping a team together that fell flat on its faces. I think we'd like to have another shot. I think that's a good thing."
Every spring the 2000 World Series title gets a bit more distant. It's probably not dawned on Jeter that he's seven years into that 10-year, $189 million contract, and the Yankees haven't won in that time. But, he knows the date, knows the significance.
"I think the older you get, the faster time goes," he says. "And that's flown by."
- Derek Jeter