David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Sitting down, Derek Jeter didn't look any different during Sunday's news conference. Then again, it was impossible to see the plate and screws inside his surgically repaired left ankle.
"I've been told there's no need to take them out," Jeter said, "so they're going to stay."
Consider the hardware a souvenir from last October's devastating injury, one that landed the Yankees' captain on a couch for weeks and required the use of a motorized scooter to get around his palatial Tampa home.
No wonder Jeter described his offseason as "absolutely terrible." But which part was worse? Being confined to a sofa with his leg elevated? Or having to ponder his own mortality while simply waiting for the fractured bone to heal?
Jeter preferred to focus on the physical limitations. It was easier. Learning to walk again was just another obstacle, like anything else. Give max effort, put the time in and expect the desired results.
It's a formula that's always worked for Jeter, so he has little doubt it will again. In his mind, this problem isn't very complicated. "I broke my ankle," he said. "Now it's healed."
If only things were that simple. Jeter turns 39 in June, but the Yankees, at least publicly, say they expect the same contributions from their captain as last season, when he put together a slash line of .316/.362/.429. That seems possible, Jeter being who he is. But is it realistic?
The situation with Jeter is emblematic of a bigger issue with the Yankees heading into this season, and that's a reliance on past performance without factoring in Father Time. Mariano Rivera is regarded as the game's greatest closer, but he's 43. Andy Pettitte will be 41 in June. Ichiro Suzuki, now the club's everyday rightfielder, is 39.
Professional athletes, like the rest of us mortals, are not immune to the aging process. Aside from the left shoulder dislocation he suffered on Opening Day in 2003, Jeter was fortunate to avoid any major injuries until last October, so accurately predicting how he will rebound from this setback is tricky. His schedule calls for him to start running on the field soon, but there still are plenty of hurdles to clear before Opening Day.
"One thing you learn hanging around the Yankees," said Mark Teixeira, "you don't bet against Derek or Mo."
Obviously, both have earned that respect. But the type of fuel that propels an elite player is not an endlessly renewable resource. The Yankees will see just how much their aging stars have left in the tank this season, and even Jeter, who tends not to dwell on such things, admitted he is aware of a ticking clock.
"I'm getting older," Jeter said. "As much as I'd like to be getting younger, I'm not. But I don't think about age when I'm playing. I really don't. Those are negative thoughts."
With that in mind, Jeter referred to the Yankees as "experienced" rather than old and explained his own perspective in a way that any former Little Leaguer can understand.
"It may sound corny," he said, "but we're playing a kid's game. So when you're playing the game, it actually feels as though you're a kid. That's just always the way I've looked at it."
Jeter probably feels somewhat less youthful these days as he sweats to get back in playing shape. And there's more at stake now as he enters the final season of a three-year, $51-million contract (he holds a $9-million player option for 2014). Given the contentious nature of his negotiations the last time around, these could be a bit bumpy.
But as Jeter goes, so do the Yankees. It's been that way since he earned Rookie of the Year honors in 1996, and it's only fitting that what might be his most vulnerable season is looking the same for the franchise.
Both expect to be fine, but in February, that's based on little more than faith.
The Yankees will open the Grapefruit League season Saturday against the Braves, and Jeter doesn't expect to join them until roughly two weeks later.
That's the best-case scenario. After what he's been through since last October, Jeter chooses not to think of anything else. The Yankees feel the same.