As Ventura spoke of Jeter, his face contorted.
"What are you supposed to do with him?" Ventura said. The question was rhetorical, but he would have welcomed a response nonetheless.
Then, quite aware of the pregame event scheduled for Sunday at Yankee Stadium and looking forward to seeing the likes of Yogi, Whitey, Reggie and Goose at Old-Timers' Day, Ventura cast his vote for the greatest Yankees player of them all. He had been weighing the many possibilities, he said, the previous night, thinking about Babe and The Iron Horse, Joe D. and Mick, Thurman and Dickey, Scooter and Lazzeri, Gomez and Gordon, A-Rod, Winfield, Donnie Ballgame, the other Hall of Famers as well as his own contemporaries -- The Captain, Mo, Bernie, Posada and the others. And he came to a one-name conclusion.
The greatest player in the 100-plus-year history of the game's most accomplished franchise, in the eyes of this perceptive and intelligent big league manager, is the now 38-year-old, 3,000-hit shortstop of the current Yankees and the Yankees teams of the preceding 16 summers. Allow a few moments for that thought to soak in your pinstripes marinade, say "Really?" with a touch of incongruousness and form your argument. But allow Ventura to present his thoughts.
He has the floor.
Ventura had been wowed again by Jeter on Friday night, even though his former colleague did minimal damage in the White Sox 4-3 victory. Jeter had a single in five at-bats and was caught stealing once. And yet Ventura felt relieved as he boarded the bus for the team hotel after the game. His right fielder Alex Rios had caught a bullet -- a line drive Jeter had hit to the wall in right field for the final out of the night -- and in Ventura's mind, his team had dodged a bullet as well.
"That was his kind of moment," Ventura said. "Those were the kind of circumstances when you don't want to see him. He's such a clutch player."
In his brief managerial tenure, Ventura has earned a reputation as a never-panic guy; not that he was unnerved by Jeter that night.
"But I've seen him do it. He knows how to beat you," Ventura said. "I'm in the dugout saying, 'I know he's going to take one to right, deep. I know we know he's going to try. I know we're going to pitch him so he can't.' ... We do ... And he does."
Of course, Ventura's overall evaluation of Jeter goes well beyond one swing, 3,186 hits, 1,810 runs, 1,221 RBIs and even beyond the five rings.
"The rings are part of it," Ventura said. "He's won. He's won a lot. People say, 'Well, yeah, he's won a lot, but he's played with very good teams.' But they've been a good team for a long time, and he's one of the big reasons they've been so good. He's still playing every day and performing well. He's the one with 3,000 hits and Gold Gloves and ... he's never won an MVP, has he? ... Shocking. How can that be?"
Indeed, Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and, if you choose to include him, Barry Bonds are the most valuable players of the past 16 years. The two career Yankees have no hardware to show for it, though.
"The Yankees were a good team before he came up," Ventura said. "But they've been a great team for a long time, and they're in first place now with him playing shortstop every day, and he's hitting. It's not coincidental that they've been a successful team the whole time he's been here.
"I was there, playing against the Yankees before he came. They were different before he got there. His presence brings respect to their team now. It has for a while. It's performance and how he goes about what he does. He's done it as well as it can be done -- all parts of the game, not just the playing -- for a long time. People who see him playing right now, they should look at him as the greatest player, the greatest Yankee. His teams win, and he's clutch."
Arguments will arise.
"The home run argument is overrated," Ventura said. "Derek drives in more important runs with base hits. And it's not like he hasn't hit some important home runs. He can help a team win in so many ways. Derek could bat leadoff or No. 3 in any team's lineup."
Ventura has taken into consideration Jeter's 16-plus seasons he's played shortstop in the Bronx.
"He's played against the best in the world," he said. "There's been no color barrier during his time. The best international players are in the game now. He played through the steroid era, and Derek's the one with 3,000 hits. No other Yankee. No one's played more games for the Yankees now, right?
"He's played in the era where everything you do is picked apart. Think of the microscope he's under daily. The media, phones and texting and pictures. And he never does anything wrong. When I was here, I saw what he goes through. Now I see him in a four-game series. And he does so much right. But when he's your teammate and you see him, he's at his best every day.
"You have to have won to be considered. He has. You take it all in. People watch him, and they should recognize they're watching the greatest Yankee."