David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Rain is in the forecast Thursday for Derek Jeter's Grapefruit League debut at Steinbrenner Field, and despite all of the attention focused on the captain's left ankle, Brian Cashman insists he'll be studying the clouds rather than his shortstop.
"I'm more curious about the weather report than what he's going to look like because the weather can screw things up," the Yankees general manager said Wednesday. "Derek is not going to screw things up."
Cashman also felt that way last year around this time, as did Joe Girardi. The notion of the infallibility of the Yankees captain hadn't been tested until that point. And what reason did we have to question Jeter? We were told his surgically repaired ankle was 100 percent healed. When had Jeter ever let us down?
That's what Cashman told himself. A shattered ankle held together by plates and screws? Jeter would find a way to make it work. But that comeback attempt -- unconvincing as it was from his first running steps -- caused another fracture and destroyed a season.
"What happened last year was unfortunate and unexpected," Cashman said. "I've been conditioned not to worry about Derek Jeter. And I still haven't deviated from that. Maybe that's a mistake or the wrong thing. But I grew up with that. So it's hard to start worrying about him."
As for the rest of us? Not so much. For 17 years, Jeter was as durable as anyone in baseball -- and more dependable. But we can't dismiss what he went through last season. Or that he turns 40 in June, an age when shortstops are retired or no longer shortstops.
Those are valid reasons to wonder what's left of Jeter's Hall of Fame skill set as he prepares to embark on his farewell tour. When he takes the field Thursday, however, he can begin to chip away at that skepticism. Once he shows himself capable at game speed, without any hint of favoring a body part, the questions will gradually dissolve.
It can't come soon enough for Jeter. On the eve of his first meaningful game in a long while, he had no interest Wednesday in getting all philosophical with his reporter chums.
"You guys keep asking me about it all the time, so it's kind of hard not to think about it," Jeter said. "But yeah, I'm looking forward to being out there."
That's the Jeter we're used to. The good-natured verbal sparring sessions. Punching holes in any attempt to draw out something deeper or insightful. It's all part of Jeter's routine, and so far, this spring training has been more like normal for him again.
Last year, Jeter was on training wheels, and when they came off, he collapsed. Just running the bases was too much for him to endure. Every morning and afternoon was spent in the trainer's room.
Jeter says that's no longer the case. Now he prepares to work out or play much as he did in previous seasons. He hasn't been this healthy in more than 19 months, since Jeter first suffered from the bone bruise that eventually became the ankle fracture.
If Jeter could remember that far back, he wasn't saying.
"It really doesn't matter," he said. "I feel good now."
The introspective Jeter who visited us briefly last season -- and returned in the Facebook posting about his retirement -- evidently has left the building. While that's not great for the media, it's probably a plus for the Yankees, knowing that Jeter's focus is once again back on the field. Starting Thursday, Girardi will be trying to figure out where Jeter stands.
"The good thing for all of us," Girardi said, "is that everything he's done has been positive."
Now it's the next thing for Jeter, and rarely has an exhibition been more meaningful for the Yankees.