Even Derek Jeter has moved on, but Yankees’ mission stays same

MIAMI — There are times, still, when it is impossible to believe so much of this happened 20 years ago. So many of the Yankees who returned to The Bronx this weekend said that, amazed at how two decades can vanish in an eyeblink, how 1998 can become 2018 so fast, so effortlessly.

“Where does it go, Coney?” one of the ’98 Yankees, Paul O’Neill, cracked to another of them, David Cone, during the Saturday telecast on YES, as one after another of the people responsible for that team that won 125 of the 175 games it played that year paraded through the booth.

Derek Jeter wasn’t there, of course, and if there’s one thing that rattles you out of any dreamscape at a reunion, it’s hard realities like that one. Unlike the other notable absence — Joe Girardi — there was no mystery attached to Jeter’s: His daughter was celebrating her first birthday that day.

You’d probably miss your 20th high school reunion for the same reason.

Those reunions always feature a few splashes of melancholy, right? Athletes show up a hundred pounds over their playing weights. Cheerleaders frozen in the pages of yearbooks have become soccer moms in real life. You stare in the mirror at the gray flecks (or more) in your own hair (or beard, grown to disguise the second and third chins).

Same deal with baseball players, same deal with the ’98 Yankees (well, except for O’Neill, who looks like he could STILL walk into a batter’s box and hit three ropes, run down a long fly in the gap, pound the wall one more time). But, as always, it is Jeter, who represented so much of what that team was about, who provides the coldest slap of water.

Jeter, a father?

In ’98 he was the ultimate Talk of the Town, the most eligible bachelor who’d already dated and then ditched Mariah Carey on his one-man journey through the Maxim Hot 100. He was 24, right at the beginning of an extraordinary peak, turning in his first MVP-caliber season (.324/.384/.481, 30 steals, 127 runs); he finished third in the vote. His star had already blossomed before; in ’98 it exploded.

It was in 1998 when you first started seeing dueling phenomena all around New York, New Jersey and Connecticut: kids battling over who will wear No. 2, and those same kids all borrowing the same stance — asking for time with the right hand, the high waggle, the inside-out swing.

Most of those kids who watched Jeter during his career are done playing themselves now. Some have a year or two left on the high school varsity. Most only drag the old stance out during softball games or stickball games or Wiffle Ball games. They’ve all gotten older, too.

Jeter is 44 now. He’s a father now. He’s an owner now, for crying out loud, and it was impossible to avoid one nagging detail during the video he shot for Saturday’s celebration, the one where he declared, “It wasn’t just the best baseball team of all time, but the best sports team.”

That detail: The backdrop behind him. A batch of Marlins logos, accompanied with the team slogan: “Just Getting Started.”

He’s moved on.

The Yankees have, too, although they will arrive in Miami with Jeter’s successor, Didi Gregorius, nursing a bruised heel and likely headed to the disabled list, precisely the kind of injury that never befell the ’98 Yankees on their gilded path to forever. Gregorius has been better in the role of heir to the Prince of the City than anyone could have imagined, probably even Gregorius himself. Now he is likely to sit, as Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez likewise sit hoping to heal quickly.

Of course, that will allow Gleyber Torres to shift to shortstop, his natural position, and it will allow Jeter to take a good long look at something that ought to look awfully familiar to him: a kid learning on the fly, dabbling with stardom, with a swing that may not be a complete replica of Jeter’s, but has enough elements to spark the occasional double take.

Twenty years, gone in a couple of breaths, the player now a pop, the kid who once owned the Big Town now owning a piece of a team that will be lucky to have 15 percent representation by its fans in its own building Tuesday and Wednesday night. Paul O’Neill isn’t the only one lamenting aloud the awful mystery of time.

Where does it go?

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