TAMPA, Fla. - Imagine for a moment, if you will, the Yankees without Derek Jeter and Jeter without the Yankees.

Imagine him in the uniform of the Los Angeles Angels, or the Chicago White Sox, or even - gasp! - the Boston Red Sox. (Hey, Babe Ruth finished out his career hitting fungoes for the Brooklyn Dodgers.)

Imagine a world in which Alex Rodriguez still goes to work at Yankee pinstripes but Derek Jeter does not.

Imagine it, envision it, sweat it - and forget it.

That nightmare is not going to happen. No question, as Joe Torre liked to say, Jeter is going to finish this fabulous ride right where it started.

Asked recently to place a numerical value on the chances of Jeter not ending his career as a Yankee, general manager Brian Cashman simply said, "Zero.''

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Asked the same day whether he could ever envision himself in the livery of another team, Jeter was equally terse: "No.''

And he is not coming back on a one-year deal, or a two-year deal, or even a three-year deal. Jeter's going to be here for a while, which is why Cuban emigre Adeinis Hecheverria, a shortstop phenom the Yankees had an interest in, signed a $10-million deal with the Blue Jays three weeks ago.

"[Hecheverria's] agent asked me, 'What are you going to do with Jeter?' '' Cashman said. "And I told him, 'I'm gonna extend him.' The agent said he doesn't want to come here because he knows he's never gonna play.''

So the "where'' of it is not the issue. The Jeter story will end here, as it must. The questions of when it will end and, more importantly, how it will end, remain very much in play.

HOW WILL THEY KNOW?

Clearly, the quintessential fall performer is entering the autumn of his playing years. Cashman's problem is, how many years does he give a shortstop barreling into his late 30s? And Jeter's problem is, how will he know the right time to walk away from a game he has loved and a game that has loved him back?

Will the competitive fires and irrepressible optimism that made him Derek Jeter push him, in the final act, to emulate the final days of Ruth or Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, hanging on too long in the belief that things will turn around, simply because they always have?

Will this extraordinary player and man leave the stage as gracefully as he appeared upon it as a lanky rookie in 1995?

For a man who has accomplished just about everything a ballplayer can - and who still might accomplish much more - this might turn out to be the most difficult feat of all.

"He'll know when it's time,'' Reggie Jackson said. "Jeter won't embarrass himself. He ain't done anything wrong yet. You think he's gonna start now?''

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But Cashman, the man who must face the unenviable task of deciding the terms of what is likely to be Jeter's last contract, isn't as sure.

"Until you're in that position, I don't think anybody can say,'' Cashman said. "Guys like Jeter are so wired to be competitors, it's hard for them to flip that switch off. They always feel they can even beat Father Time. Asking someone like that to properly evaluate themselves, that's a conflict of interest in itself. It's virtually impossible.''

Cashman knows that for every Paul O'Neill, who surely left some hits on the table when he walked away after the 2001 season, there is a Bernie Williams, who still has not officially announced his retirement.

As the Yankees and Jeter head into the 16th year of their association - 19th if you add in the three-plus seasons he did in the minors after his first-round selection (sixth overall) in the 1992 draft - it becomes more and more apparent that as incredible as it may seem, the endgame to the Jeter saga is afoot.

Jeter, who will turn 36 in June, is entering the final year of a 10-year, $189-million contract that at the time was the second-richest contract in the history of baseball, behind only You-Know-Who.

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And in seven short months, the day that seemed as if it would never come suddenly will be upon us. Technically, Derek Jeter will be a free agent.

Having already established that there will be no testing of the market, no A-Rod-like histrionics and no Scott Boras-orchestrated, John- ny Damon-esque sham of a negotiation, the only things left to be settled is how much to give him, and for how long?

Neither Jeter nor Cashman will discuss the upcoming negotiations - Cashman by team policy and Jeter by nature - but clearly, it is a situation that calls for the most delicate of handling and the soundest of judgment.

As a Yankees official who requested anonymity said, "The best contract for Jeter is to let him choose his length. You don't worry about the money. Maybe you give him $30 million a season, so he finishes up as the highest-paid Yankee (Rodriguez is paid an average of $27.5 million). And you trust him that he'll choose the right length, and walk away if he's not getting the job done anymore.''

UNCHARTED WATERS

Asked if he will recognize the signs that his career is at an end, that what once was a mere slump now is a permanent slide, Jeter was as forthright as he is about everything.

"That's a tough one,'' he said. "I can't sit here and tell you how I would know something like that when I haven't experienced it. And to be honest with you, I don't want to have to sit here and figure it out. I don't even want to be thinking about how long can you play for, when is it time to go home? I felt as good last season as I did my first year, better even. So I don't see any reason why I should be putting limitations on myself just yet.''

But Jeter agreed with Jackson on one key point: "If I didn't feel I could do something, I just wouldn't do it. Wouldn't matter about the money.''

Clearly, Jeter can still do it. After being "voted'' baseball's most overrated player in a 2008 Sports Illustrated poll of his fellow players that smacked of envy, and after suffering the indignity of being deemed baseball's worst-fielding shortstop by some "scientific study'' that purported to reduce baseball to some arcane numbers game, Jeter rebounded with a transcendent 2009, hitting .334 and leading the Yankees to the fifth world championship of his career. Quietly, he worked to improve his range and lateral movement at shortstop. Nobody put the words "Derek Jeter'' and "overrated'' in the same sentence in 2009.

Perhaps even more significantly, he eclipsed Lou Gehrig as the all-time Yankees hit leader and has 2,747 entering this season. Even if he were to post what for him would be five "sub-par'' seasons of 150 hits each, he would be knocking on the door to 3,500 hits, a plateau achieved by only five players in baseball history - Pete Rose, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial and Tris Speaker.

And when the list of all-time great Yankees is compiled, it will be impossible to rank Jeter lower than seventh, behind only Ruth, Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford.

Certainly, it has been a wonderful baseball life, far more rewarding and accomplished than anyone could have foreseen, Jeter included.

He has done the seemingly impossible. He has played a major-league career and lived a major-league bachelor life in the most celebrity-crazed and privacy-challenged city in the history of the world - and done it effortlessly, negotiating the minefield of New York City the way Fred Astaire used to glide around a dance floor.

NEVER A MISTAKE

Jeter compares his life to "The Truman Show,'' the Jim Carrey movie about a man who has lived his whole life before a TV camera, and yet the unblinking eye has yet to catch him in a misstep. For 15 years now, it has been nothing but class and grace and ease.

But there remains one act to be played, and the fact that we may not see it for another five years or perhaps longer does not diminish its drama or lessen its importance.

"Everyone always tries to figure it out, but nobody really knows, know what I mean?'' Jeter said. "It's like with Mo [Rivera]. People have written him off so many times and he's pitching like he did 10 years ago. So why put limitations on it? I mean, who is anyone to tell anyone else, hey, stop doing what you love to do?''

Will he go out the way Ruth did, hitting fungoes in a Dodgers uniform? Or like Mays, stumbling around the Shea Stadium outfield, a shell of his graceful younger self? Or like Mantle, sticking around a year too long and seeing his career batting average dip below .300? Or like Reggie, hitting .220 with a measly 15 homers as a 41-year-old in the silly white shoes of the Oakland A's?

Or will he match the greatest baseball exit of all time, when Ted Williams smacked a home run in the final at-bat of his career, rounded the bases at Fenway and disappeared from the game without so much as tipping his cap?

Jeter, of course, will tip his cap. And it will be a Yankee cap.

That much we already know. What we must wait to find out is, will Derek Jeter's exit be as graceful as his entrance?

THREE THINGS YOU MAY NOT KNOW ABOUT JETER

He could have been an Astro

Houston scout Hal Newhouser urged the Astros to take Jeter with the first pick of the 1992 amateur draft. But Jeter had received a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, and thinking he would insist on a salary bonus of $1 million or more (or attend Michigan), the Astros passed on Jeter and selected Cal State Fullerton outfielder Phil Nevin. Newhouser quit and left baseball for good.

Giving back with ‘Turn 2’

In 1996, Jeter established the Turn 2 Foundation, a charitable organization that helps young people avoid drug and alcohol addiction. The foundation’s goal is to motivate young people to ‘‘turn to’’ healthy lifestyles and ‘‘turn away’’ from drugs and alcohol. Turn 2 awards grants to youth programs in New York City, Michigan and the Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., area.

Born to be a Yankee

Jeter’s eighth-grade yearbook featured predictions about what students would be doing in their adult lives. The forecast for Jeter? That he someday would play for the Yankees. When he was growing up, a blue Yankees windbreaker and a gold Yankees medallion were among his prized possessions.