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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Who, if anybody, will take Derek Jeter's place as face of Yankees?

The Yankees' Derek Jeter waves to the crowd

The Yankees' Derek Jeter waves to the crowd as he is taken out of the game after getting a hit in the third inning to close out his career as a Yankee at Fenway Park against the Boston Red Sox on Sept. 28, 2014. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The first look will be startling for some, when the Yankees burst onto the field for Opening Day in the Bronx and the sellout crowd sees Didi Gregorius positioned where Derek Jeter once stood for 20 seasons.

We've talked about the transition plenty since Jeter's final weekend at Fenway, well past the trade for Gregorius and throughout the sunny monotony of spring training, where the idea of retiring the captaincy with No. 2 was brought up by Brian Cashman.

Letting go of the past is difficult, and more so for the Yankees, a team unlike any other when it comes to the convergence of history, ceremony and new beginnings on Opening Day. Shifting into post-Jeter mode means finally cutting the cord with the Core Four and swiping clean the dusty residue from those dynastic years.

Basically, it's time to move on. And for these Yankees, a $215-million team without an identity or recent playoff appearance, those first few steps can feel as wobbly as a toddler's. But they also don't have to end up falling on their backside.

The last time the Yankees left a beloved captain behind on their home opener was April 10, 1996. Don Mattingly's final season was 1995, which ended with a wild-card loss to Seattle, and former Mariner Tino Martinez was booed by a Bronx crowd not quite ready to embrace the future.

Then again, when the first pitch is thrown by Joe DiMaggio, does the future even have a puncher's chance? On that day, it didn't. But those Yankees, under first-year manager Joe Torre -- the wildly unpopular replacement for Buck Showalter -- laid the cornerstone for the dynasty that followed.

Now, two decades later, it is Torre who will play the DiMaggio role by tossing the ceremonial first pitch. Back in 1996, he wasn't even introduced on Opening Day, as the Yankees skipped the traditional roster intros. They explained that the decision was made because of the bad weather, but many suspected it had more to do with the feared Showalter backlash from the fans.

Another target that day, however, was Joe Girardi, whose only crime was taking over for Bronx favorite Mike Stanley. But those were different times. The Yankees hadn't been to a World Series since 1981 and had last won a ring in 1978, a year when Billy Martin, Dick Howser (one game) and Bob Lemon took turns managing the team.

As turbulent as things appeared then, the uncertainty now surrounding these Yankees feels more like a thick fog -- without a Jeter to cling to. Despite Jeter's fading skills between the lines, the captain still was a five-time champion, and the Yankees no longer have that safety net.

Other than Girardi, the only leftovers from that 2009 World Series team are CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and Brett Gardner. As polarizing as A-Rod is, he's really just another high-paid question mark, riding out his time in the Bronx along with CC and Tex. There was no one for Jeter to pass the baton to. "It's reality," Girardi said. "Life had to go on without Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Yogi, Mantle. It had to go on without Mo and Jorgie."

Sure it goes on. But the reality we're looking at for Opening Day seems awkward rather than assuring. What's the feel-good vibe in the Bronx other than the ceremonial end of a long, cold, relentless winter? The Yankees haven't made the playoffs in two years and any optimism for this season already is clouded by Masahiro Tanaka's ticking elbow, which will have everyone crossing their fingers at Monday's opener against the Blue Jays.

In Jeter's absence, who will become the pinstripe flag-bearer for this group? It's far too soon for Gregorius, and even homegrown favorites such as Gardner and Dellin Betances don't have the Q rating to fill a fraction of Jeter's void. Jacoby Ellsbury? Carlos Beltran? Michael Pineda? Nope.

Could there be a more appropriate symbol than A-Rod for the frustration that's plagued the Bronx lately? And if Opening Day truly is about fresh starts, will a restless crowd be willing to grant Rodriguez one?

We doubt it. Not yet. A-Rod was a model citizen during spring training and, incredibly, one of the Yankees' better offensive players. On Monday, we expect the same mixed reaction Rodriguez got in Florida, perhaps a bit heavier on the boos.

Jeter was the last sure thing about the Yankees. Now that he's gone, we're all just waiting to see what comes next.

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