Gathering steam by the day and promising to be the Hot Stove Season’s most heart-rending melodrama is the Derek Jeter sob story, which is all about a sweet but luckless baseball waif abandoned to the mercies of a heartless, corporate ogre. It’s the tender tale of a great American made for true Americans who are, after all, suckers for such sentimental mush. It should bring Oprah to tears, right on the set.
Of course, it’s also a story full of holes, equivocations, and mis-direction while also being prominently characterized by its dearth of logic, paucity of facts, and ridiculous flights of fancy. But who in our lean and whimsical Disneyland culture would let any of that dreary stuff get in the way of a good story.
On the chance you’ve been lately vacationing on Mars an update may be useful.
Mr. Jeter, the cool and elegant Yankees’ shortstop over the last generation, has come to the end of his sumptuous 10-year, $189 million contract which, it’s necessary to note, was both unprecedented and historic when it was regally conferred upon him by Daddy Warbucks himself, the late George M. Steinbrenner, to the astonishment of everyone else in the game.
But Jeter is soon to be 37 and coming off a .271 season of reduced power and efficacy while his defense continues to decline, no matter what those who hand out the Gold Gloves say and their reasons -- believe me -- are suspect.
None of this is a surprise for an athlete approaching his forties nor does any of it detract from his exemplary record both on and off the field, tarnish the gilded image he’s so smartly sustained, or lessen his historic stature in the mighty lore and legendry of the New York Yankees. To all of this one adds a polite “Amen,” although the apparent obligation to do so tends to make one squirm. There is no attempt here to take Mr. Jeter’s precious name in vain, but the fact that his bargaining position simply ain’t what it was a decade ago remains indisputable.
Nonetheless the Yankees -- acutely aware of both the public relations issues implicit and their own unfortunate image as heartless corporate ogres -- are known to be willing to start re-negotiations by offering at least three-years at $15 million per with the likelihood of bargaining room that could swell the deal up to four years at $20 million per.
Every general manager, computer-driven talent evaluator, old-fashioned bird-dog, and self-appointed media savant under the sun has been quizzed on this transcendental matter and there’s near universal agreement that the Yankees are thereby apparently willing to give him least 50 percent more than he’s now worth and twice what any other team, in its right mind, would even consider.
So where’s the rub? How can this be regarded as callous or ungrateful, let alone “heartless”? How can it possibly be argued the team is thereby demonstrating an appalling lack of respect? But that’s what happening.
Media outrage is climbing. It’s a familiar phenomenon. The fervor with which relatively impoverished sports reporters joyfully leap to the advocacy of multi-millionaire jocks has long astounded me. Years ago, when the ink-stained wretches of the morning newspaper were making about 75 bucks a week, they would campaign mindlessly for Jolting Joe or Teddy Ballgame to crash the magic $100 grand level.
Nowadays, of course, the stakes are infinitely higher and the logic even worse. If a baseball team declines to overpay its shortstop by several million a year it may make them brothers under the skin but it can hardly make one of them a cad and the other a hero.
Just watch! If Jeter plays the coy victim’s card with the great unwashed public -- and his clever, media-savvy agent has already begun to do so -- it will be easy to portray the Brothers Steinbrenner as the sort of merciless, money-grubbing, skinflints who once cavorted insidiously on the pages of Charles Dickens. Hal Steinbrenner starring as Uriah Heep! I can see it now.
And if Jeter actually walks, which is not entirely unthinkable, the Yankees will be gleefully made the laughingstock of the western sporting world. Nor will the scenario be confined to New York, where many actually know better. It can be expected to play even more merrily everywhere else in the Republic where Yankee-bashing remains the game within the game.
This is not just a New York story nor is it only about Jeter. In this age of greatly altered relationships between teams and stars it’s something all teams -- certainly the successful ones -- must inevitably face. The age of Yaz and Kaline, let alone that of Williams, DiMaggio, Feller, and Musial are as gone with the wind as Tara.
Even more to the point, these decisions are crucial to the long-term welfare of teams. Chaining yourself to a sentimental journey with a loveable heirloom for money he’s no longer worth is trouble for any team. Saddle yourself with a half dozen of them, as the Yankees are doing, and any team would face ruin even if it were owned by the Royal House of Saud. It’s the loathsome deal that Hank Steinbrenner idiotically conferred on A-Rod when he was bidding against himself that now most aggravates the Jeter dilemma. It’s doubtless what most sticks in Derek’s craw.
You wonder what the Red Sox would have done had they faced the same dilemma with their own resident bull-in-a-china-shop icon, David Ortiz. Luckily they had an option to play with and could get off the hook for another year for a mere $12 million. In that year, Ortiz has a strong chance to further verify he’s well advanced on the road to oblivion. If by some miracle Ortiz instead hits .340 with 50 homers while knocking off 40 pounds of weight and three years of age, the Red Sox will grit their teeth and belly up to the dilemma now engulfing the Yankees. Otherwise, they’ll shed crocodile tears while happily waving the too-Big Poppi a fond and affectionate “farewell.”
But here’s the question: When they do, will they, too, be branded ingrates and cads? Why, of course not. That is the difference between the Red Sox and Yankees, or at least the standard by which they are judged.
No executive in all of sports is more coldly dispassionate, and indeed downright ruthless, about slicing away deadwood than Bill Belichick, who rules the Patriots with an iron fist. The moment a veteran Patriot is adjudged to be not quite worth what he is being paid the guy is toast in Foxborough and we celebrate Belichick for his awesome efficiency. While it’s doubtful he would come out and say so, we can presume from his actions that Mr. Belichick truly believes that sentiment is for losers.
Great players are the last to sense when the party is over, or even when the beginning of the end has begun. It is the painful duty of the Brian Cushmans and Theo Epsteins of the Baseball world to reconcile them with reality.
If the gentleman in question feels slighted, even though (as in the case of Jeter) he has been regally treated and raised to a level of immortality while being paid upwards to a quarter of a billion bucks with the opportunity to further parlay his baseball associations into even more such riches over the rest of his lifetime, then what can you say? Maybe, “Sorry, old Sport.” But that’s about it.
Mr. Jeter is hardly the first baseball player to face this fascinating moment of truth. Highly regarded for his uncommon wisdom, at least by the standards of athletes, he would be making a surprisingly uncharacteristic mistake if he were to bet the Yankees wouldn’t dare trifle with a “living legend” like himself. Three quarters of a century have passed, but the Yankees haven’t changed that much since they bid a fond “farewell”’ to Babe Ruth.