The Red Sox take on the Yankees tonight in Fort Myers, and while some probably like to ratchet up the hype for the first 2009 meeting of any kind between the famous rivals, most of us know better without having to peek at the calendar.
If you're among those who don't, one glance at the Yankees' lineup card tonight should help open your eyes to the truth. For instance, Rodriguez is batting fifth. Nope, not Alex . . . John. In case you don't have a scorecard, he's the one without the lame hip, the fall-guy cousin, and the well-worn copy of Madonna's "Like A Virgin" album.
It's only spring, people. It's the Fort Myers Red Sox versus the Tampa Yankees. Scranton vs. Pawtucket. It's J-Rod, not A-Rod. This time, it doesn't count.
While most every member of the Yankees varsity is out of the lineup tonight -- did we mention that someone named Juan Miranda is batting third? -- there is one absence more notable than the others.
(No, not you Alex. Please go away for 6-9 weeks, minimum. America needs a break here.)
We're talking about Derek Jeter, of course. The Yankees' living monument and star shortstop -- and those things are not mutually exclusive -- is off doing his Captain America thing for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. It'll be weird tonight seeing Yankees without him. Sure, we could get used to it, but still, Ramiro Pena, shortstop, Yankees doesn't quite have the same effect, you know?
Now, I suppose that qualifies as the nicest thing I've ever said about Jeter in this space. As you might have noticed through the years, I've built a long -- and I'd like to believe distinguished -- record as a Jeter basher. It's kinda my thing.
Called him the boy-band shortstop (in retrospect, given the very healthy companions both Jeter and Justin Timberlake have escorted through the years, I suppose that was a compliment).
Claimed he played to the cameras, or at the very least had a sixth sense for giving them what they wanted. Fist pump! Blown bubble while sprinting out of the batter's box! Top step of the dugout, Gatorade towel strategically placed! Whatever you need, Fox. Just turn that red light on.
Noted he was the luckiest man on the face of the earth for arriving with the Yankees at the perfect time and place, a ready-for-his-closeup face of the dynasty who was unburdened by -- and incapable of -- having to carry such a brilliantly constructed team.
Said he looked like "E.T." crossed with a candy apple.
Okay, I just made that one up. Old habits and all. But here's the thing -- it was never really about Jeter. It was about the McCarvers of the world, who exaggerated Jeter's every feat while neglecting to notice that his signature play, a graceful jump-throw from the hole, was necessary only because he didn't have the range to make the routine play. It was about the blathered nonsense about his intangibles and calm eyes. It was about the camera's habit of fishing for his reaction immediately after another Yankee did something meaningful, sometimes at the expense of the moment. It's because during the peak of their rivalry, Nomaaahh was bettahhh!
And if we're being entirely honest here, it was about him always winning. Always. At least when it mattered against the Red Sox. He's not exactly a relic at age 35, but he is the symbol of that time when the Yankees did things the way you wished the Red Sox would -- you know, last century. The fact that the Yankees have not won a championship since he's been surrounded him with nine-figure-salaried mercenaries who turn into Felix Fermin in the spotlight -- well, in a way, that's made it easier to respect him.
My attitude about Jeter hasn't necessarily changed -- more like softened. It's harder to loathe a rival when you hold the upper hand. The exact moment I knew the Red Sox were at last going to overcome all of their demons in New York was when he made the first out of the eighth inning in Game 7. I should note the Sox led, 9-3, at the time. It wasn't over until Jeter's last swing.
There's also been some backlash in recent years about Jeter -- the habitual fawners have been slapped with some cold, hard facts. Sabermetricians and most defensive metrics suggest his three Gold Glove trophies have more range than he does. He's also been criticized for his hesitance to defend Alex Rodriguez when Yankees fans booed him, especially since he went out of his way to lend public support to teammates such as Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte in the past. The conventional wisdom is that he is not flawless. It didn't used to be that way.
As it turned out, loathing A-Rod before it was trendy is a point in his favor -- and he's accumulated a few of them. He was hilarious during a hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" a few years back in that same self-effacing, the-joke's-on-me manner that makes Peyton Manning so likable every day but Sunday. And a couple of stories I've read through the years -- especially this one by Bob Klapisch -- suggest he's actually a relatively grounded and likable guy, particularly given his level of fame and accomplishment.
Besides, anyone named after Derek Sanderson can't be all bad.
Oh, I'm sure I'll curse him again and soon, probably when he fists a two-run single to right field to give the Yankees the lead in the eighth inning of some April game, then punctuates it with a fist-pump. Or when some hair-sprayed buffoon with a microphone raves about his calm eyes as another six-hop grounder up the middle finds its way into center field.
Tonight, Jeter won't be there for us to boo and jeer. An obscurity named Ramiro Pena is standing in his place. But of course that's only one of those temporary spring training quirks.
Jeter will be back in pinstripes at his old familiar spot soon enough. I can't think of many better signs that the games will finally matter again.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.