David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Looking back, the two moments, now frozen in the mind's eye like a photograph, remind us of what no one ever wanted to believe about Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.
Before last May, that late afternoon in Kansas City, during batting practice of all things at Kauffman Stadium, Rivera seemed invulnerable. His demeanor on the mound never changed, his eyes without expression, squashing hopes with a cruel efficiency that is not likely to be seen again.
This was different.
Watching Rivera curl up on the warning track, grabbing his right knee, his face twisted in anguish, triggered a new, unfamiliar feeling: That Mo could be beaten, if only by the inevitable passing of time, and his own human limitations.
Even the great Rivera, who is trying to delay that ticking clock for one more season, knows it is a losing battle. But he also is smart enough to realize just how far he can go, and the Yankees will need that one last push.
"I have given everything,'' Rivera said during a March 9 news conference to announce his intention to retire after this season. "The tank is almost empty. The little gas that I have left is everything for this year, and after that, I am empty. That's why it's time.''
For Jeter, the moment was not unlike Rivera's in its uncomplicated, almost mundane nature. Fittingly, it took place at Yankee Stadium, during October, on a play as routine to him as pouring a cup of coffee. Three wide, lunging steps to his left to scoop up a ground ball and then -- disaster.
The living, breathing symbol of the Yankees' most recent dynasty, and its flickering candle against an increasingly darker future, was sprawled on the ground, face down, his left ankle hanging limp in the dirt. It didn't come as a complete surprise. Jeter had been playing on that badly injured ankle for weeks, and as he continued to do so, there always was that risk.
Only now, there's no flipping the page, no shrugging off the past. Jeter, who turns 39 in June, is still dealing with that same ankle. The injury that slammed the brakes on his playoff run has appeared again, like a warning light on a dashboard, telling us that maybe there's only so many miles left. And as much as we try to turn our heads, and pretend it's not there, the light stays on, unblinking.
"I'm getting older,'' Jeter said, as close to an admission of his own mortality that the shortstop has ever offered. "As much as I'd like to be getting younger, I'm not. There's always going to be questions. There always has been questions. I don't mind that.
"We're all getting older. But I don't think about age when I'm playing -- I really don't. I think if you get caught up talking about how old you're getting, those sorts of things, those are negative thoughts."
With Jeter, there has been nothing official, no dates set, no news conferences planned. The Yankees' captain has a contract that runs through the end of this season, and then a player's option, his option, as to whether he chooses to extend it.
Jeter will continue playing beyond this year, there's little doubt of that. But for how much longer, and will that Jeter resemble the one from last year and the almost two decades before?
When Jeter does return to the lineup -- he is now aiming for the first month of the season rather than the first day -- those questions will only intensify as his performance comes under even more scrutiny. Has he lost a step? Does his bat look slow? Would Eduardo Nuñez have gotten to that ball?
It happens with every player, if only those who last long enough, whether they are destined for Cooperstown or not. Jeter and Rivera, who have resided in the Bronx since the mid-90s, should already get their change-of-address forms ready. For Rivera, it's a matter of months. For Jeter, perhaps years still. How they deal with the endgame will be as fascinating as any other period of their Hall of Fame careers.
"There's just something about players like Mo and Jeter,'' said Joe Torre, the one manager who knows both better than any other. "There are certain people who can will themselves to do things. There are just certain security blankets that you have on your ballclub that make it easier to get through tough times.''
No safety net exists for them. When Rivera takes the mound this year for his farewell tour, at age 43, he will only be as good as the stability of that right knee and the movement on his signature cut fastball. The reputation and the resume will stay intact, unblemished, regardless of how this final season unfolds.
But it would be better to go out as Rivera, the way everyone remembers him. Even the opposing hitters prefer that -- as long as Rivera is absolutely certain this is it.
"I think there's certain players that when you see them -- no matter what you've done or how many years you've been in the game -- there's a certain awe about them,'' said David Wright, the recently named captain of the Mets. "I think Mariano has that. No matter if you're a Yankee, a Met, a Red Sock, whatever. You just have the utmost respect for guys like that.''
The Yankees will lose much more than 600-something saves when Rivera retires at the end of this season. As for Jeter, the exit of a captain, especially one with five World Series rings, signals the end of an era. It isn't quite over yet, for either player, so there still is something to cling to -- a security blanket, as Torre described.
But this season already has the uncomfortable feeling of that faraway year everyone knew was coming and yet hoped it would take as long as humanly possible to get here. Even for the great ones, like Rivera and Jeter, it always does.