A Baseball Negotiation, My Foot

Derek Jeter may have won a 2010 Gold Glove that he doesn't really deserve. But neither does he deserve the apparent negotiating strategy of the New York Yankees, for whom he has been the franchise — don't even think about thinking otherwise — since the day the shortstop job became his to lose. In 1996.

The skinny at this writing is that Jeter would like a five-year deal, likely to be his final Major League Baseball contract (anyone who thinks Jeter would like to finish his career in any uniform other than that of the Empire Emeritus is probably due for a controlled substances test), and that he would like about $20 million a season in that deal.

The concurrent skinny at this writing is that Jeter should probably consider himself fortunate if the Yankees offer him three years at $50 million total, perhaps with a few incentives to sweeten it, since the kind of seasons on which his Hall of Fame case will stand (anyone who thinks Jeter isn't a Hall of Famer in waiting, see the previous paragraph's parenthetic) are behind him to stay.

This is a very peculiar way to negotiate with a man about whom the Yankee brass has spoken, yet again, as the team's modern symbol. Unlike one man to whom he has been compared as a Yankee symbol — a man named Ruth — Jeter hasn't punched a ticket out of town by way of making known unrealistic wishes about becoming a Yankee manager and none too soon.

A New York Daily News poll, as I write, ran 28 percent in favor of Jeter getting the five-year/$20 million a year deal he's said to want, but a whopping 62 percent in favor of Jeter counting his blessings and taking the three and $50 million total.

And the Yankees' front office leadership has been playing the negotiations as business and strictly business. "Different negotiations from 10 years ago," went one quote wafting up from the owners' meetings last week; "a baseball player negotiation," went another.

Both have been attributed to managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and president Randy Levine. Both could be seen as prospects for coming back to haunt both. Especially if, as some Yankee fans must fear, the Yankees let Jeter cast his line elsewhere while making no secret of their intention to become the high bidders for Cliff Lee. Assuming Lee resists both the kind of crowds in front of which he isn't in a huge hurry to pitch and the pressures of the Major League Baseball Players Association to accept the Yankee fortune on behalf of raising the salary bar for his particular baseball profession.

This wouldn't exactly be the first time that the Yankees allowed business to supersede sentiment or "tradition," actual or reputed. Once upon a time, Thurman Munson was promised he would be a) the Yankee captain for life, or for at least the length of his career; and, b) the highest paid Yankee who wasn't named Catfish Hunter. Those promises were made when Munson's teammates didn't include Reggie Jackson.

Once upon a time, Jackson himself faced the end of his Yankee contract, the one that left Thurman Munson seething for two seasons at least, and received no offer, barely even a whisper, about a new deal, while George Steinbrenner proceeded to sign Dave Winfield to 10 years and $23 million.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, in fact, general manager Brian Cashman put Bernie Williams in the deep freeze as his contract was about to expire while signing Johnny Damon — whom the Boston Red Sox had already told, for all intent and purpose, "Thanks for the memories, but..." while pursuing successor center fielders actively and without even bothering to veil the search while Damon played through injuries — to four years and $52 million.

However, once upon a time Cashman had plans to draw a line with Jorge Posada — three years and that's all, folks. The crosstown Mets were ready to offer Posada five years when the Yankees didn't figure he'd be worth more than three. Only when the Steinbrenner sons took the reins from their father, the Boss, did Posada get a fourth year tacked on.

And only when the Steinbrenner sons took those reins did Alex Rodriguez — whom Cashman was only too willing to tell, "Thanks for the memories, such as they are," when A-Rod opted out of his contract in 2007 (the infamous opt-out, scripted by his now-former agent, Scott Boras, in the middle of the Boston Red Sox's second postseason romp to the roses in three years) — get himself not a reminder not to let the door hit him where the good Lord you-know-what him, but a $275 million extension. Enough to keep A-Rod in pizza, pretty girls, and penthouses, not necessarily in that order, until he's 42, at least. Enough to keep Derek Jeter from possibly considering himself to be a Yankee for life.

Of all the criticism that could be leveled against the Yankees for the manner in which they have spent on free agents since the advent of baseball's free agency, the absolute most truthful criticism is that they've been willing to spend more on somebody else's freshly-minted free agent than on retaining one of their own. Even if they're spending $82.5 million over five years on a pitcher whose stuff still inspires awe, but whose performance still inspires managers to consider deep-sixing him on a postseason roster.

Nobody expects anyone to take pity on a man who has earned an estimated $205 million to date to play shortstop for the Yankees. But don't think for even one nanosecond that Jeter could be thrilled to see A.J. Burnett earning more than the Yankees seem willing or likely to pay him for the last contract of his career as a shortstop.

Nor can Jeter be thrilled to see the Yankees prepared to break the bank on a Cliff Lee who isn't even a lock to be fitted for his pinstripes just yet. Lee may stand to get a bank-breaking offer from the Yankees, who've made no secret of their intentions to spend big on pitching. But Lee isn't thought to be in that big a hurry to leave Texas, where his home park is a mere 40-55-minute flight from his home (about three hours or so by car) and he's found a personal comfort zone, reportedly for the first time in his career.

The Yankees are preparing to spend big for pitching only because their original plan of a homegrown rotation has blown up in their faces in phase one. Of the big four projected to become the next Yankee rotation a few years ago, only Phil Hughes has measured up, and even he had his troubles in the postseason. (Remember this: no Yankee with postseason trouble is likely to remain a Yankee for very long if he doesn't redeem himself post haste — as in, next season.)

Ian Kennedy and Ross Ohlendorf punched their tickets out of town when they proved to be little better than fifth starters by American League East standards. And the jerk-around under which Joba Chamberlain has worked since his ballyhooed-enough arrival has been so profound that you can forget whether he'll ever become a number one or number two rotation presence. Concentrate, instead, on whether the so-called Joba Rules have left him to become any kind of consistent major league pitcher in any role, period.

The Yankees have three well-respected pitching prospects advancing well enough toward Yankee Stadium. The reviews thus far are almost five-star regarding Dellin Betances's breaking balls, Andrew Brackman's cutter, and Manuel Banelos's changeup. But until they finally graduate to the parent rotation, the Yankees will probably find themselves into three established starters mulcted from elsewhere to a $200 million collective price tag over the next three seasons.

All of that and more does not pass Jeter's eyes uncontemplated. Remember: this is a player who has forged a Cooperstown career (he could retire this minute and qualify as a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer) by transcending his limits and hustling into the right place at the right time in the right games, regular and postseason.

He's been a barely-average defensive shortstop who has the knack for making plays ranging from spectacular to supernova to off the charts when the Yankees need those plays the most. He's been a solid hitter who has managed to be 83.7 wins above a replacement player in his career to date. What he's hit lifetime with men in scoring position and two outs (.305 BA; .399 OBP; .429 SLG) would put into the Hall of Fame men who hit that overall.

And he's played the game the right way from the minute he was handed the full-time shortstop job to stay. Whatever criticism he has garnered over the years has never included leaving his head in the clubhouse. Or his brains in bed.

If the Yankees' ethos boils down to asking what has a player done for them lately, the observer to whom here and now performance erases all can point to Jeter's very subpar 2010, a 2010 in which he could have been accused of showing his age at last. But if somewhere in the Yankee heart beats a muscle labeled "What has a player done for us, period?" then Jeter in 2010 was nothing much less than the Jeter of 1996-2010: the one player above all others who was vital to the Yankees' field and clubhouse cohesion, even when he couldn't hit with a hangar door, even when he couldn't field unless driven to the ball by taxi.

Jeter believes he still has baseball enough left in him. Not everybody experiences such a season as his 2010 and believes it a sign that he no longer has it. But a different Yankee management was prepared to pay Joe DiMaggio the same $100,000 for 1952 that he earned in 1951, until the Clipper himself decided, as his elder brother was once quoted as saying, to quit "because he wasn't Joe DiMaggio anymore."

Mike Schmidt eventually saw and raised DiMaggio one. The greatest all-around player of his time, the greatest third baseman ever to play major league baseball, walked away from the game (and about $2 million) early in a dismal 1989 season — despite being among the National League's RBI leaders at the time — because he realized he wasn't Mike Schmidt anymore.

"I could ask the Phillies to keep me on to add to my statistics," Schmidt said in tears when he said farewell, "but my love for the game won't let me do that."

Perhaps a true Yankee fan wishes at bottom that Jeter might decide in the end that it's wisest for him to quit because he isn't Derek Jeter anymore. Just the way one wishes Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, and Steve Carlton had retired before they weren't Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, or Steve Carlton anymore. It might hurt at first to leave them wanting more, but it just might be the way you want Derek Jeter to leave when he does. And there's no guarantee he'll do that if he gets the deal he wants or takes what the Yankees offer him.

But that's a decision even a true Yankee hater might reason to be one that only Jeter can make. And if he is not prepared to make it just yet, he above anyone else wearing The Stripes — with the possible exception of The Mariano — has earned the right not to make it just now.

Jeter's standing at this writing provokes a thought back to what A. Bartlett Giamatti, then a Yale professor but no less passionate a baseball fan then as when he ended up as a baseball executive himself, was moved to write when the Mets ended their contract impasse with Tom Seaver (who was asking even more for the Mets to invest seriously in team improvements, by free agency and otherwise, than he was asking for his own next contract) by making one of the most infamously lopsided trades in New York history.

On June 16, the day after Seaver was exiled to Cincinnati by way of Montreal, a sheet was hung from a railing at Shea bearing the following legend:


I WAS A

BELIEVER

BUT NOW WE'VE

LOST

SEAVER

I construe that text, and particularly its telling rhyme, to mean not that the author has lost faith in Seaver but that the author has lost faith in the Mets' ability to understand a simple, crucial fact: that among all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.

— A. Bartlett Giamatti, "Tom Seaver's Farewell," Harper's, 1977; republished in A Great and Glorious Game: Baseball Writings of A. Bartlett Giamatti. (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Algonquin Books, 1998.)

Yankee fans who don't vote in New York Daily News polls, and even a considerable enough contingent of Yankee haters for whom disdain for the organization does not translate into disdain for some of the men who play in its silks, may well come to construe Giamatti's ancient text, transposed to reference Derek Jeter, and substituting "allowed to walk" for "sold," as a text the Yankees' management is witless to comprehend.

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