Jeter still vintage as seasons change

NEW YORK -- Derek Jeter is older and thicker; his hairline is retreating from those pale green eyes of his; and the only ballpark he ever wanted to grace is being destroyed across the street.

The undefeated forces of time and gravity alter everything -- everything except the impact Jeter has on important games staged in the spring and the fall.

Fourteen years ago, Joe Girardi was in Cleveland for a different kind of opening day when he watched a rookie shortstop with the build of a praying mantis take Dennis Martinez over the wall.

Tuesday in the Bronx, Girardi wasn't a first-year Yankees catcher but a third-year Yankees manager observing the same pomp-and-circumstance scene with a look of wonderment in his eye.

"He's an amazing athlete," Girardi would say.

This amazing 35-year-old athlete was approaching the plate in the third inning, Yanks up 1-0 on Ervin Santana and the Angels, when he heard the sound of Sinatra's My Way and caught the image of George Steinbrenner on the center-field video board.

Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, the Fab Four Yankees who defined this 7-5 victory -- they're all the same ageless wonders they've always been.

But Boss Steinbrenner? No, he's not the same lion whose roar echoed across the city for more than three decades. Steinbrenner was up in his suite, wearing a Yankees jacket and hiding his eyes behind his familiar dark shades.

The owner has been in a state of decline, and on a day when the 2010 Yankees received their 2009 championship rings, team officials wanted to give Steinbrenner his due.

"I tried to pause a little bit before I went up there," Jeter said, "just so everyone would recognize him."

The fans stood and cheered and thanked Steinbrenner in a way that never would've been possible 20 years back. And then the most predictable development unfolded in a most unpredictable sport.

Jeter sent Santana's 2-0 pitch into the bullpen in right-center.

This home opener could've been about The Boss, about Hideki Matsui, about the remarkable pregame scene the Yankees created when they embraced an opposing player near the mound, swarming Matsui as if he had just won the World Series MVP award all over again.

This home opener could've been about the emotional tribute for Gene Monahan, the longtime trainer who is battling neck and throat cancer, or about the oldie-but-goodie foursome that still looks young enough and strong enough to win Title No. 28.

But Jeter rose above the din, making the loudest statement with his quiet and dignified approach. His day started in Steinbrenner's suite, where the captain was the one current Yankee chosen to present The Boss with the owner's seventh championship ring.

Jeter, the Kalamazoo kid who spent a semester at Michigan, asked his employer to remove his Ohio State ring. Steinbrenner looked at his shortstop, pointed at him and said, "Michigan."

The Boss refused the request, removed his 2000 World Series ring instead, and tried on the new jewelry before Jeter headed downstairs to begin work on the next order.

He was the last Yankee introduced during the ceremony, of course, pumping his fist to the crowd as he received the loudest home team cheer. And even when Matsui upstaged him, drawing a more profound ovation, Jeter evened the score.

He had planted a fake championship ring in Matsui's box, a ring used in a giveaway to spring training fans.

"It wasn't plastic," Jeter would insist through a smile. "It was a nice ring."

After his home run in the third, and after Erick Aybar gave his team a sudden jolt of fourth-inning momentum by making a brilliant bases-loaded stop and nailing Robinson Cano at the plate, Jeter swiped the momentum right back like he always does.

No, this wasn't the World Series homer off Bobby Jones' very first Game 4 pitch, right after the Mets had won Game 3. But by bouncing a hard grounder off Santana and toward third base, extending the lead to 3-0, Jeter restored order to the event.

When it was all over, when Rivera had rendered moot the Bobby Abreu grand slam served up by David Robertson, Jeter stood at his locker and struck a business-as-usual pose.

"Opening day is always special," he said, "but on the other hand, you're happy this day's over with and you can focus on what we have to do this year."

Even though he turns 36 in June, Jeter still believes he can match Yogi Berra's record of 10 championship rings. The task looked more manageable back in the day, when Jeter won four titles in his first five seasons and figured he would spend his entire career under a ticker-tape rain.

But the roster, the manager and even the ballpark changed. As Jeter drove into the new place Tuesday morning, he couldn't believe those pale green eyes.

"It was weird," he said. "That was awkward because I hadn't been here since it's been down. It's probably the most awkward thing that's happened.

"You hear it's coming down," he said of the old stadium, "but even all of last season, you see it there. Now it's gone, and it's just a weird sight."

Nothing else was weird or awkward about the day. In his 15th home opener as the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees, Derek Jeter played as if he had jumped into a hot tub time machine.

He left the new Yankee Stadium carrying nothing but a small box. Surprise, surprise, it carried his one for the thumb.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.