TAMPA, Fla. -- On the unofficial Chipper Jones Day at George M. Steinbrenner Field, a sellout crowd rich in St. Louis fans watched designated hitter Derek Jeter ground out twice to second for three outs, total.
Decay can feel so melancholy.
In fairness, Jeter's groundouts to second are so much better than the groundouts to second of other shortstops, especially those in smaller markets (which include all other markets). But instead of Challenger the Eagle, the Yankee Monday of March 11 in 2013 might have deployed a buzzard, as a rickety spring training found another rickety watershed while reserving the right for future rickety watersheds.
This is the groggy camp where the mending of a 38-year-old left ankle passes for excitement -- a 38-year-old left ankle that, if athletes had any sense, would be long gone by now, residing in Paris, strolling the sidewalks, numbed by wine, basking in the superior French health care.
Then, in a noble bid to quell the ennui, general manager Brian Cashman went on a pre-game daydream with a small group of enviable reporters in the dugout, wishing out loud for the un-retirement of Chipper Jones, the retired Atlanta third baseman. He wanted Jones for third base, first base, designated hitter and presumably any hunting expeditions in the Catskills. (Aching quote: "He'd be perfect.") Humanizing himself even beyond the leg cast born of his plummet from the sky, Cashman revealed he could not find the phone number for the agent for Jones, so asked reporters for help with that.
It became a moment both meaningless (pie-in-sky hopeless) and meaningful (emblematic of the Yankee moment).
Remember, the Yankees are entitled to all great players, and Jones' 19-year career remains darkened with the gloomy insignificance that it never coursed through the Bronx. (How does he cope?) Still, he already has accepted homage in February from the Georgia state legislature, and he might fear utterly that if he came back anywhere, he could have to undergo another feting from another state legislature, a scenario surely unbearable. So he tweeted Monday that while "flattered" he remains retired, even while trolling around playing inept golf and pining inevitably for deer season and thwarting Cashman from annexing any more 40-year-olds.
Forty-year-olds are so hard to herd.
"Call Mike Schmidt, too," Jeter joked at his locker in a momentous moment of dynastic decline.
"No!" retorted a seasoned and legendary reporter. "Lose that thought."
"Wish I had more for you," Jeter said jovially, "but I can't …"
Schmidt is 63, George Brett is 59 and Brooks Robinson is 75 even if surely still capable of peerlessly guarding the line. Jones remains retired "unless we've got a golf team," Jeter said, in which case the Yankee Golf Team would ply the Senior Tour. Yankee employees Curtis Granderson (outfield) and Mark Teixeira (first base) are injured, as is the longtime third baseman with the possibly fraudulent career. Meanwhile, free agent third baseman Scott Rolen remains 37 and in possession of phone service, while first baseman Derrek Lee had a six-team career that concluded unforgivably Bronx-less, so those names come up in the desperation hall of fame alongside Jones.
When reporters asked Jeter whom he'd like to recruit, Jeter said with baseball wisdom, "We have guys here. Play with who's here." Achieving humor at 38, he wouldn't fall for the whom-do-you-want question, grinning big and saying, "Come on, now. It's not my first year."
From his lousy winter with the ankle, Jeter has returned for another spring with the clamor, avoiding the life beyond. So on Saturday, he batted twice, singling once. On Monday, he batted twice. On Wednesday night, he figures to play shortstop if all goes well. He pegged Monday as "same as the other day," but said he didn't know his schedule: "I don't. I really don't. We did not even discuss it. Just like today I didn't know I had two at-bats. After the second one he said, 'You're done.'"
While it's upsetting that anybody gets to tell Jeter what to do, he does expect that being at shortstop "will be the exact same as if I had played the first game" of spring. Said manager Joe Girardi, "If he comes out OK, we're going to throw him in there. If he doesn't, I'll DH him another day. Whatever he tells me he wants to do." Clearly, there's an authority crisis in addition to all else.
To many, it will feel reassuring to see Jeter back out there to the left of the second-base bag, just for the normalcy in a world so lacking. To hear the lineup announcement before games is to feel a tad sorry for the non-Jeters, some of whom get applause that sounds like the 14th green at a sub-WGC tournament. The swell for Jeter dominates, on Monday both from Yankees fans and Cardinals fans who, of course, love baseball more than any of us. In terms of appreciation, it's classic twilight that almost occludes the fact Jeter did lead the American League with 216 hits last year before falling hurt in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.
Throw in a futile wish for Chipper Jones, and you might sense that those Americans who long have wished for Yankee neediness might get the Yankee neediness they so long have craved. You might think the unofficial Chipper Jones Day at George M. Steinbrenner Field represented another signpost of the fading of the long-long-long Yankee significance, with its concern for a 38-year-old left ankle and its spurning from a 40-year-old geezer. You might think you'd never forget it, even if you might try hard.