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"Old' Jeter talks up the Devil Rays future

The reporter stumbled for a polite way to define Derek Jeter's veteran status, but the Yankees' dandy shortstop wouldn't have it any way but straight.

"I'm old now," Jeter said. "That's a good way to say I'm old. I've been around awhile. This will be my ninth year. It's been fun so far."

Jeter, who really isn't old at 29, had the good fortune to show up at the right time, taking over as the Yankees starter in 1996, just as they began a run that produced four World Series titles in a five-year span and kept the nucleus of the team intact.

Now they've gone three years without a championship (an eternity on the Steinbrennerian calendar), and not coincidentally they've undergone significant change this offseason.

But Jeter doesn't buy the popular theory that the Yankees are at the end of their run. Not as long as George Steinbrenner is still in charge anyway.

"Things always change, it's just the state of the game," Jeter said. "We've lost a few guys, we've added some guys. As long as we have our owner we have a chance to win."

While Jeter likes those chances, he had some kind words for the Devil Rays, suggesting they'll soon be competing with elite teams like the Yankees.

"They added a lot of veterans this year, like Tino (Martinez)," Jeter said. "They have a good group of young players and I think they'll be outstanding real soon, especially the outfield they have. I would expect some good things from them. Hopefully not, but . . ."

NO JOSHING: The specifics of Josh Hamilton's personal problems are a mystery in and around his Raleigh, N.C.-area home as well, but there are people pulling for him to make it back.

Hamilton shared his time with mentally disabled classmates while he was a student at Athens Drive High, and principal Kathryn Chontos said he impressed her by doing the same last fall when he showed up unexpectedly at the football homecoming game.

"He was just the way he always was, and it was good to see after all the things that he was still the same Josh," Chontos said. "He can be a great example for young people."

ROAD WARRIORS: The Rays may be the designated home team, but there is no question the Yankees and Hideki Matsui will be the featured attraction during the season-opening series in Japan.

The Rays have agreed to let the Yankees, who have a business relationship with Matsui's old Yomiuri Giants team, wear their iconic home pinstripe uniforms and use the home dugout at the Tokyo Dome, increasing the appeal of Matsui's return. "I never thought I would wear the Yankee stripes to play in Japan," Matsui said.

Top tickets for the games will be 25,000 yen, which is about $235, and sellouts are expected. MLB's Jim Small said: "It will be the most important MLB event ever conducted outside the United States."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Todd Ritchie, signed to a minor-league contract, thinks he is ahead of schedule in rehabilitation from shoulder surgery and could be ready to compete for a spot in the rotation. "Todd says he feels as good now as he did when he pitched so well in Pittsburgh," agent Randy Hendricks wrote in an e-mail. Signing pitcher Scott Erickson could lead to some increased visibility _ his fiancee is Monday Night Football reporter Lisa Guerrero. B.J. Upton, Delmon Young and Joey Gathright attended the MLB Rookie Career Development Program. The Tampa Chamber hosts a Rays lunch on Feb. 3 at the downtown Hyatt with manager Lou Piniella the featured speaker. Cost is $35 a person and includes a ticket to the April 6 home opener. Call (813) 276-9440 for information. The Rays helped the Robinson High team replace equipment and uniforms that were stolen. The team is accepting CDs and/or tapes from prospective national anthem singers until Jan. 31. Send them to: Anthem Singers, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, One Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg, FL 33705. The top 50 will audition live Feb. 9.

EX-RAYS FILE: Are the Tigers intent on becoming the old Rays? Their latest grand idea was to sign Esteban Yan with the idea of turning him into a starter. "He's developed an offspeed pitch and our reports on him are excellent," general manager Dave Dombrowski told Detroit media. The Tigers also have signed Brent Abernathy, Mike DiFelice, Jason Smith and Ariel Prieto. Darren Daulton, who walked away from a coaching job with the Rays in 2001, will be a spring training catching instructor for the Phillies with a chance it could lead to full-time work. If rookie Khalil Greene isn't ready, Rey Ordonez could end up the Padres starting shortstop.

ADD THIS UP: Plant City High's Kenny Rogers can't be too happy with agent Scott Boras or the market. Last year, Rogers turned down a two-year, $10.5-million deal from the Rangers. Instead, he got $2-million for one year with Minnesota, then signed a two-year, $6-million deal to go back to Texas. Simple math: He turned down $10.5-million over two years to make $8-million over three.

MISCELLANY: Not having to pay Kaz Sasaki, who wants to stay home in Japan, could allow the Mariners to pursue Pudge Rodriguez. Pete Rose isn't making any progress with gigs like this: a weekend speaking engagement/book signing for high rollers at a Connecticut casino. Andy Pettitte has pitched in 30 postseason games; the Astros have played in 30. The Phillies have sold a club-record 21,000 season tickets. Pitcher John Burkett, still unsigned, finished 184th among 589 entrants in the ABC Masters bowling tournament. He missed the cut for match play. Montreal's Olympic Stadium is switching to FieldTurf, the same surface used at the Trop, but with a twist: it's on trays and can be removed for other events.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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