David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Derek Jeter told the world Wednesday on Facebook that 2014 would be the final season of his illustrious baseball career. But we're still wondering what this last year is going to look like. So are the Yankees.
Jeter's statement gave us the reasons for his retirement, and suggested his physical limitations coming off ankle surgery, along with the fast approaching 4-0, were big factors in the decision.
That's understandable. But Jeter's not hanging up his spikes for another seven months or so, and there's an entire spring training still before him, as well as 162 games after that. While everyone wants the fairy tale ending a player like Jeter deserves, it's difficult to determine at this point what we'll get, and the Yankees' captain can't tell us -- even if he wanted to.
The day after his Facebook announcement, Jeter showed up for a light workout at the team's minor-league complex, took batting practice in the outdoor cage and briefly stopped to sign autographs from the driver's-side window of his gray Mercedes.
Any questions about his retirement would have to wait until next week, Jeter said, then rolled up his window and zipped away. The bigger mystery, however, is how these final days in pinstripes will play out. Jeter insists his ankle is fine, and he's been doing what he usually does at this time of the year.
But thousands of ground balls and as many swings can't duplicate what's waiting for Jeter when the exhibition games begin, starting with Florida State on Feb. 25. Even though it's easier to protect Jeter during the Grapefruit League schedule, that's when he suffered a second fracture to his surgically repaired ankle last year, a setback that pushed his return from Opening Day to July 11.
This time around, Jeter has been able to work on strengthening his ankle and conditioning his legs, which he couldn't do sufficiently during last winter's healing process. Will it be enough to prevent the rash of injuries that limited him to 17 games -- only 13 at shortstop -- last season?
Again, it's impossible to predict, and the Yankees can do little more than cross their fingers and hope for the best. They signed a superb defensive shortstop in Brendan Ryan as a backup, but how many starts is reasonable to expect from Jeter?
"I think our infield is a question mark," Brian Cashman said this week. "We've got two guys coming back from injury."
And another suspended, but who's counting? Just two years ago, Jeter batted .313 in 159 games -- 25 at DH -- during the regular season despite taking painkilling shots for a bone bruise in his ankle down the stretch. In the ALCS, that ankle ultimately snapped, and Jeter hasn't been the same since.
Last season, Jeter landed on the disabled list four times, and it wasn't just the ankle. The first time back, he didn't even make it through one game before suffering a quadriceps strain. Once Jeter returned from that, he played four more games before being sidelined again because of a calf strain. The Yankees finally shut him down for good on Sept. 12, and Cashman said then it was to prevent Jeter from doing anything that would hurt his chances for a 2014 comeback.
Judging by his Facebook post, Jeter sounds like a player who has a better feel for his limitations now -- or at the very least is acknowledging them. He probably won't protest as much when Joe Girardi chooses to use him at DH or give him a day off. Last season, it seemed like everyone would hold their breath when Jeter bolted from the batter's box or reached for a ground ball.
The concern will be there again this year, starting from the first day of full-squad workouts at Steinbrenner Field next week, when we all get a clear view of what Jeter is able to do, unimpeded by the fences of the minor-league complex. That will help to shape the expectations for Jeter in this upcoming season, and give us a better idea of what his farewell tour might look like.
The Yankees are anxious to know. So are the fans gobbling up tickets at skyrocketing prices for a final glimpse of their Cooperstown-bound hero. But those are answers Jeter can't provide from the window of an idling Mercedes. Or even from the podium of the interview tent.
We'll have to wait a little longer for that.