Whenever the 2010 baseball season ends for the New York Yankees, they will find themselves facing the strangest and most fascinating negotiation in baseball history. The Yankees have to figure out how to make things work with Derek Jeter.
The upcoming Yankees-Jeter negotiations are about as engrossing as the playoffs themselves will be. Perhaps more. The plot is like one of those cheap but irresistible paperback love stories you pick up at airport bookstores.
They need each other. They can't live without each other. And yet getting together again is dangerous.
You start with the obvious: Derek Jeter has been the face of the franchise almost since his Rookie of the Year season in 1996. His greatness as a player is beyond debate; if he retired tomorrow, he'd be elected into Cooperstown in five years; whenever that does occur, he will probably get a higher percentage of the vote than any shortstop ever.* His 2,908 hits and 1,675 runs at week's end are the most ever for someone who has played 80% of his games at shortstop.
*Cal Ripken got 98.5% of the vote; Jeter should go even higher. There is also his presence in America's biggest city. When you combine his memorable postseason moments with his charisma, well, he is undoubtedly the most popular athlete in New York, breathing the rarefied air of Namath and Mantle and Frazier and DiMaggio and Ruth. He is viewed as the player who, more than anyone except perhaps closer Mariano Rivera, brought the Bombers back from the abyss. It's hard to imagine the Yankees without him. Unfathomable, really.
Then again, it's hard to imagine Jeter without the Yankees. He loves Yankees history so much, buys into its mythology so unblinkingly, that he still has the voice of the late and legendary Bob Sheppard introduce him before at bats. Jeter is both aware of legacy and protective of it; he certainly will not finish his career for, say, the Colorado Rockies or the Baltimore Orioles.
So what's the problem? Well, Jeter's 10-year, $189 million contract expires this year. And he is having by far the worst season of his career. This doesn't feel like an ordinary, "Oh, he will bounce back" kind of season either. It feels as if we're watching Jeter get old before our very eyes. On June 1, he was hitting .307 and appeared on his way to another typically wonderful season. Since then, though, the hits have stopped dropping, the snap in his swing has dulled, grounders hit to his left or right have been slipping by. His defense? Three baseball scouts contacted said the same thing: Jeter is just not moving well. Last week he even made news for going through an elaborate piece of performance art as he pretended to get hit by a pitch that actually struck the handle of the bat. His explanation—"My job is to get on base"—rang of desperation.
And he will turn 37 next June.
Shortstop is a young man's position. No team has ever won a World Series with an every-day, 500-plate-appearance shortstop who was 37 or older. And only one team—the 1956 Brooklyn Dodgers with Pee Wee Reese (38 that July)—even reached the postseason. Of course the mighty Yankees might be impervious to such historical precedents; they are winning just fine with this year's version of Jeter. But even the Yankees have their limits.
The most fascinating part of this fascinating saga might be this: Jeter is the one without many options. Yes, the Yankees need to bring back Jeter. They don't have a viable shortstop alternative. Yes, he's the most popular Yankee since DiMaggio. Yes, Jeter figures next year to be the first Yankee to get his 3,000th hit, and it's incomprehensible that they would allow him to get it for any other team.
But more to the point, Jeter—like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman—has nowhere else to go. Sure, he could try to negotiate with other teams, but there likely aren't riches waiting for him outside of the Bronx. One baseball insider says that on the open market a generic 36-turning-37 middle infielder with Jeter's offensive skill set might demand something like a three-year, $18 million deal. Jeter has been making at least $20 million in each of the last four years. Jeter is a proud player, and he undoubtedly believes that he has another renaissance left in him. But the only team likely to bet big on a Jeter renaissance is ... the Yankees. They know it. And he knows it.
How much longer will Jeter play shortstop? How much longer will he be at the top of the lineup? How much longer will he be a 150-game-a-year player? The Yankees may have harsh answers. And in the end, Derek Jeter may find himself having to take whatever the Yankees offer. In the end, time always wins.
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Jeter—like Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman—has NOWHERE ELSE to go.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW