TAMPA -- Every day here, the same scene plays out, over and over again.
Like clockwork, Derek Jeter pulls into the parking lot at the minor-league camp precisely at 9:30 a.m. for his daily workout. And every day, we are told, he finishes up within a few minutes of 11:15, leaving the premises with very few words and maybe a spare autograph or two.
This time, the count was 100 words, give or take, and zero autographs.
The fans and writers will take anything they can get from the great Yankee, as club officials, teammates and fans prepare for what they all hope will be as special a season and sendoff as Jeter's great teammate Mariano Rivera had last year.
“We're going to miss him,” Joe Girardi said of Jeter at the manager's first-day press gathering. “This is a guy who's going to be hard to replace -- in your clubhouse and on the club.”
How much they'll miss him, we may soon find out, as Jeter, nearing 40, is returning after his one injury-filled and disappointing season after 17 great or near-great ones. That time isn't quite here yet, as Jeter characteristically is keeping his distance before officially reporting for duty.
From that distance (that's the only view now, a distant one) Jeter looks fine on the field. But truth be told, no one including Girardi could possibly tell. Even if they brought a telescopic lens.
Reporters and fans are both on the outside looking in at minors camp. The Yankees media and Yankees fans line up on opposite sides of the driveway into the bland minors facility on Himes, waiting for the icon to appear, sometimes briefly, at the end of his day.
From that distance (maybe 250 feet), Jeter would appear to be making his patented throws from shortstop, something he probably could do in his sleep. When he is done with his day, he hustles out of there.
Writers and a few fans try to peer over the outfield fence to catch a glimpse, and one stray fan yells “Derek” and waves while jumping so his hand could be barely seen over the six-foot high fence -- as if Jeter is about to look back at that very instance. He isn't.
Almost all the fans -- about 90 or so on this day -- line up along the sidewalk by the no-frills one-story shelter that houses all Yankees minor leaguers and the occasional actual major leaguer who comes here to rehab or work out. This ritual has become so routine just about all of them know where and when to line up, but if someone gets out of order, the crusty security guard (almost all Yankee security guards are crusty) puts them in their place. That's his job. No one should blame him.
Even if Jeter had the patience of a saint, not a retiring soon-to-be-40 shortstop, it's hard to imagine him signing for all but the first few fans/autograph hounds who wait. On this day, they all leave with only the bats and cards they've hauled over for the pilgrimage.
Jeter's very efficient with his time. One and half hours to work out, exactly, every day. Meanwhile, some of the fans, they've been waiting there since 8, some well before that. Many, if not most, brought lawn chairs for the wait.
But alas, on this day, Jeter runs to his Mercedes, a bad sign for time, then spares a couple minutes for the reporters, who at least get scraps.
It's not a great sign for the interview when Jeter refers to the a newly pre-arranged press gathering for five days from now at the major-league camp a block over on Dale Mabry, a notice we all just received by email. That's when he wants to talk, not now.
“Everything is good,” he says about his decision to retire following the 2014 season. ‘I'll address it when I get over there.”
A couple more attempts elicit similar responses. And finally, Jeter says, “Like I said man, you can ask me twenty different ways. I'll talk to you when I get over there on Wednesday.”
Jeter is unfailingly polite, but he isn't one to reveal himself. He'd be the Greta Garbo of baseball if he could. That's what makes his decision to announce his retirement in advance of the year surprising. He is smart enough to understand his call will bring a year-long sendoff to at least rival that of Mariano Rivera, and very likely surpass it, and it's hard to think he necessarily relishes that.
Only one thing about the startling announcement (even Girardi said he was “taken aback” by it) makes sense. Before long, it'll halt the questioning. With the big query of “how long' already answered, how much more is there to ask?
The other big question is whether he sensed he had lost a step, or two, and might not play much below the lofty level that's made him a Yankees icon to rival the alltime greats. That question will wait 'til Wednesday, but if he has a doubt, of course we won't hear about that, either.
Even Girardi doesn't get the unvarnished story, as the manager noted. Speaking about last year, when Jeter hardly ever felt fine, Girardi said, “Even when he was trying to fight through it, he told me he felt great. But you could see how frustrated he was.”
After a year of hearing how “great” he felt but sensing, and finally knowing he did not, Girardi will wait awhile before any bold proclamations. While Girardi called Jeter batting second “ideal” because he'd like to break up the lefthanders (Brett Gardner is the other option to bat behind new leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, also a lefty) but stopped short of committing to it. Girardi said the reports suggest Jeter is “on track.” But the concern of others, anyway, is obvious.
If Jeter has worries in life, no one knows about them. He brushed the question of concern aside with two one-word responses.
“No concern about your health?”
At other points Jeter said “I'm good,” and “Feeling great,” in answer to similar questions.
Which is to be expected. We know by now Jeter isn't about to pour out the personality.
And why would he change? Everything's worked out perfectly for the great player who's managed to avoid a serious nick to his image -- not easy in New York, where his longtime frenemy A-Rod (who went curiously unmentioned at the press conference) had quite a different experience.
The reporters left without learning a thing, while the empty-handed fans scattered quietly. Jeter is the one pinstriped iconic attraction left now. So they'll all be back tomorrow, looking for better luck, and maybe a brush with greatness.