TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Derek Jeter ran up the dugout steps and into the outfield to warm up Thursday. This was the first of his many lasts this year: the opening practice of his final spring training with the New York Yankees.
Jeter was greeted by a short standing ovation from the several hundred fans who came to Steinbrenner Field on a sunny morning to watch the Yankees’ initial full-squad workout of the year.
After throwing with Eduardo Nunez and stretching with the rest of the position players, the 39-year-old captain went to shortstop to take groundballs. Whenever he got near the stands, kids yelled ”Mr. Jeter! Mr. Jeter!” hoping for an autograph. Some held hand-drawn signs with his name, others grasped placards with his picture.
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”I think the point of this season is every time I’m doing something is the last time that I’m going to be doing it,” Jeter said after the three-hour workout. ”Just not looking forward to it being over, especially spring training.”
Fans in the crowd of 1,338 squealed when Jeter flipped a ball to the stands at the end of warmups. After he took 20 swings over three rounds of batting practice, Jeter tossed one of his batting gloves to Carter Steve of Rochester, N.Y., who was seated in the first row behind the Yankees dugout. The 11-year-old tried it on, and the glove was far bigger than his right hand.
Jeter noticed the signs.
”I don’t know if I’ll look at them more or read them more. I don’t know if I’ll listen more – try to, but I’ve still got a job to do,” he said.
He thought back to the next-to-last game at old Yankee Stadium in 2008.
”I remember going up to bat,” he said, ”looking around, trying to appreciate it, and (Jim) Miller hit me on wrist. So I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore, that I was going to focus on what I needed to do. But I’m sure I’ll take it in at some point. I can’t tell you when.”
Jeter also received an ovation on the first day last year when he took the field for the first time since breaking his left ankle in the AL championship opener, but he didn’t participate in agility exercises or running. On Thursday he was a full participant.
”It’s not an issue in my mind. I don’t think about it,” he said. ”There’s no comparison whatsoever because I’ve had four months to basically only strengthen my leg.”
Of course, Jeter said he was OK last February. He wound up staying behind when the team headed north, broke the ankle again and didn’t rejoin the Yankees until July. Leg ailments landed him on the disabled list three more times and he played a total of 17 big league games.
”I’m always going to tell you I’m fine,” he said, adding rapidly: ”This year I mean it.”
Jeter dropped about six pounds during the offseason and reported at roughly 193. He changed his diet and did lots of running and work on a stationary bicycle.
”I wanted to be a little lighter, take some pressure off my legs and move around a little bit better,” he said.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi perceived a difference from last year.
”I would say last year at times just going through what you might consider everyday activity, a jog, running the bases, you would notice it,” he said. ”Today I noticed nothing. To me it looked like he never got hurt.”
With eyes on Jeter, the crowd was about 10 times the size of the few dozen who attended the previous five days of workouts, which included pitchers, catchers and first baseman Mark Teixeira, limited to 15 games last season because of a hand injury.
”I actually said that to someone today. I said, `It’s a pretty good buzz here at the stadium today,”’ Girardi recounted.
The Yankees were almost all on hand for the first time after the makeover that followed just their second failure to make the playoffs in 19 years (Alfonso Soriano was absent because of flu). Jeter, who announced Feb. 12 that this will be his final season, overshadowed New York’s high-priced additions: Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran.
”That’s probably good for them in a sense that they are not going to be the focal point,” Girardi said.
Jeter conducted his usual fielding practice contest at shortstop with the younger players. The winner is based on the fewest bobbles; but a bobble is in the eye of the beholder.
”It’s really pretty hard the way he keeps score to lose those contests ever,” Girardi said. ”And some of the young guys will learn that fairly quickly that have never been around him taking groundballs, that you’re at an extreme disadvantage because of the way he counts.”
Jeter grinned: ”I get in their heads.”
He is known for his controlled manner, for never revealing more than he wants to. He appeared to be playful and loose on Day 1. Perhaps it’s a hint of the season to come. Or maybe not.
”I’m just trying to enjoy each and every day,” he told reporters. ”I’ve always tried to be as open and honest with you guys, but maybe I’ll try to be a little bit more open and honest with you.”
And then he quickly added: ”Don’t hold that to me. I shouldn’t have said it.”
NOTES: Jeter was ranked No. 6 in jersey sales on MLB.com in January but has been No. 1 since he retirement announced, MLB spokesman Matt Bourne said. Sales increased 433 percent from Feb. 11 to Feb. 12. … Hideki Matsui was in uniform for his first day as a special instructor. … The Yankees plan to work out Cuban SS Aledmys Diaz and RHP Odrisamer Despaigne.