David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - Brett Gardner was among the few thousand people who watched Derek Jeter's debut Thursday at Steinbrenner Field. And really, there wasn't much to see. In terms of entertainment value, Jeter provided little by hitting into a double play and grounding out to third. The Pirates also refused to play along by failing to slap one measly ball in Jeter's direction.
So what conclusions can we draw from five mundane innings? Maybe that's a better question for someone like Gardner, who had the unique vantage point of sharing time around the on-deck circle with Jeter as well as standing behind him in leftfield.
"He's all there, for sure," Gardner said after the game. "You could see last year, as hard as he worked to get back, his body just wasn't cooperating. Last year was so hard for him. It's different now. And not just today, but all spring. He looks 100 percent to me."
Gardner was the only one in Thursday's stripped-down lineup who had a working knowledge of playing alongside Jeter for a number of years. He noticed how Jeter labored during the 17 games he willed himself to participate in last season. It was an uncomfortable sight -- the frequent limp, the body language that revealed what Jeter would not say.
Baseball wasn't fun, but the Yankees' captain didn't admit that until he wrote those words on Facebook two weeks ago. Now Jeter is trying to make us forget he ever made the confession in the first place. After so much talk about his pending retirement, Jeter is forcing us to move forward.
He's pushing a new narrative, one that he continued with his drama-free spring training debut. For everything we've already done to build up this farewell season, Jeter's primary goal at the moment is a return to normalcy. Slowly but surely, as long as Jeter remains healthy, the final spring training of his 20-year career will resemble all but one of the previous 19.
"Everything is always a little bit different in the games, so you look forward to doing it," Jeter said. And then, as usual, the kicker: "So you don't have to ask me about it anymore."
We're still a long way from that. Jeter hasn't shown us how he looks hustling for a double. Or sprinting to score from first on an extra-base hit. Even the simple act of diving for a ground ball. "I haven't met too many who practiced that," he said. "It just comes with time and comes with the games. It will happen when it happens."
Now that the Grapefruit League schedule is underway, Jeter is back to being all business. Remember his Facebook pledge of appreciating every moment during the farewell tour? He's already making fun of us for buying into it.
Not that Jeter won't savor these experiences for the last time. He just won't let us sensationalize the process.
Once again, Jeter is reminding everyone that he's going out on his own terms, and his way. He was asked if he basked in the experience of his final Opening Day at Steinbrenner Field. "I'm soaking it in right now," Jeter deadpanned to the thick ring of media. "I'm soaking right now."
Jeter laughed. We all got the joke. The shortstop already has flipped the script. He's doing all he can to drain the drama from the Jeter Watch, and if this keeps up, we'll have no choice but to follow his lead.
The Yankees would be more than fine with that. "I think it's important that we're able to run him out there on a pretty consistent basis," Joe Girardi said, "and that he is Derek."
He was on Thursday. Not the most exciting afternoon of his career, but it was sufficient. Bolting from the batter's box to try to leg out an infield single was an encouraging sign -- something he hadn't done convincingly since the middle of the 2012 season.
"Physically I'm fine," he said.
With Jeter, it's always about what he does rather than what he says. We're still going to need additional proof. But Thursday looked like just another routine spring training game for Jeter. To him, normal is as good as it gets.