David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
TAMPA, Fla. - After their busiest offseason in years and what amounted to a $478-million renovation, the 2014 Yankees took the field yesterday for the team's first full-squad workout of spring training.
But of the hundreds who showed up to watch the unveiling of their newest stars, few inside the complex could tell you how many balls Carlos Beltran whacked over the fence or whether Jacoby Ellsbury appeared to be just as fast in a Yankees uniform as they went through drills on a back field. We didn't hear too many people yell out for Brian McCann or Masahiro Tanaka, either.
That's because the biggest crowds filled the stadium seats at Steinbrenner Field, where the main event was going down -- basically anything that Derek Jeter did.
Jeter stretching. Jeter scooping ground balls. Jeter taking batting practice. Jeter tracking pitches from Preston Claiborne.
Fresh off Wednesday's retirement Q & A session, people couldn't get enough of the Yankees' captain. Partly because they saw precious little of their hero last season, when Jeter played only 17 games because of various leg injuries, but also knowing that the clock is ticking. This icon now has an expiration date.
It wasn't only the fans, either. The dozens of photographers and reporters assigned to the team stayed glued to Jeter as well. Every shuffle and swing was dutifully recorded. As for the rest of the Yankees, we'll just assume they did their drills, showered and went home.
The non-Jeter portion of the day passed by with barely a notice. During his post-workout media chat, Joe Girardi spent most of his 10 minutes talking about the retiring shortstop. At the end, as everyone got up to leave, Girardi casually mentioned that Alfonso Soriano wasn't in uniform on Day 1 because he had the flu. Otherwise, his illness probably would have escaped detection. Unless Soriano happened to lean on the batting cage next to Jeter, he didn't exist Thursday, like just about everyone else without a No. 2 on his back.
Take Beltran, for instance. Former Met, potential Hall of Famer, newly acquired switch-hitting rightfielder who cost the Yankees $45 million over the next three years. A significant part of this team's championship plan, and a guy we hounded two days earlier at the Yankees' minor-league complex across the street.
With a large ring of reporters again huddled around Jeter, Beltran returned from one of the back fields, changed clothes at his locker and left without much of an interruption. When asked about his newfound anonymity, he said, "You mean being under the radar?"
Yes. Exactly what we meant, pointing over to Jeter.
"That's OK," Beltran said, smiling. "I can deal with that."
He'll get his turn. It's a long season, and Beltran will get plenty of attention. But on the first day, he was perfectly fine skipping the spotlight. So was Ellsbury, a media chew toy during his sometimes bumpy tenure in Boston.
As far as we could tell, the new $153-million centerfielder wasn't really available before the clubhouse was closed for the afternoon -- and it didn't matter much. Like Beltran, Ellsbury surely took one glance at the crowd circling Jeter and figured he had a hall pass.
If he had to sit through Jeter's 40-minute session under a tent on Wednesday, then Ellsbury was owed this one.
Yankees usually don't get to be low profile, and Girardi figures they might as well enjoy it while they can.
"That's probably good for them in a sense," he said. "They are not going to be the focal point."
It's true. This is Jeter's show. While others will share the stage at different points this season, the rest of the Yankees are merely his supporting cast. Some have bigger roles than others, but when he's on the field, all eyes will be locked on The Captain.
"For what he's meant to this team, this city, he deserves the attention," Beltran said. "And he's going to embrace it."
We thought last season would be something special with Mariano Rivera's retirement, and it was. But the Jeter farewell is going to be on a scale that this generation hasn't seen, and it has only begun. The newest Yankees already are enjoying the ride.