Jeter and the Yankees: Who Completes Whom?

jeter.pngDerek Jeter is a free agent the way your car is in Delaware while driving down I-95. It is a necessary but temporary state of affairs and will not last long. No sane person thinks Jeter will be anything but a Yankee when all is said and done. Everyone accepts that the Yankees will overpay to keep in the Bronx, and I have no problem with that. Hell, it ain’t my money. Give him a billion dollars a year for all I care.

However, the technical possibility that Jeter could play for another team, like any mention of Jeter period, is enough to set off sports scribes, like a gritty whistle only they can hear. Just witness the harrumphing when some folks dared suggest his Gold Glove award might not be justifiable. Professional moron Craig Carton got his panties in a knot and protested angrily that Jeter had made only 6 errors in 2010, blissfully unaware of just how useless the error stat is to assess a player’s fielding ability.

Most of the ink spilled has been along the lines of what Peter Gammons tweeted last week: “The Yankees need Jeter’s brand. Jeter needs the Yankee brand”. He repeated this nearly verbatim when appearing on Mike Francesa’s show last week. I heard Jared Max, the sports update guy on WCBS News Radio (the Yankees’ flagship station), talk about how the Yankees would benefit from, among other things, having Jeter get his 3000th hit in pinstripes.

Would they? Is this really a partnership of equals? I would say not, and I think the early returns would indicate this as well.

Jeter definitely needs the Yankees, but the Yankees do not need him–and this has nothing to do with his worth as a player. It has to do with legacy. Jeter has one to protect, and the Yankees don’t. Or rather, their legacy can not be dented by anything Jeter related. Sign him for a 100 years or trade him to the Yakult Swallows–either way, the Yankees will remain the Yankees.

When I hear people insist otherwise–that the Yankees need Jeter as much as he needs them–it reminds me of a line from The Simpsons, when Krusty tried to pawn off his long-lost daughter’s violin: “It isn’t worth much money, but the sentimental value is through the roof!”

Derek Jeter’s identity as a baseball player–and perhaps as a human–is tied inextricably to being a Yankee. Of all the players of the New Yankee Dynasty, he is one of the very few who never played for another team, and the one whose image is indisputably synonymous with the Yankees. He therefore is the one whose image would be the damaged the most by a departure from the team (no matter how unlikely that remains).

There are only two other current Yankees who have been on the team for as long (or nearly as long) without playing for anyone else: Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. The thought of either of them playing for anyone other than the Yankees is almost as unfathomable as Jeter doing so. However, I can’t imagine that fans would think any differently of Rivera or Posada if this happened. I do think that if Jeter somehow wound up elsewhere, it would leave a bad taste in peoples’ mouths.

Don’t believe me? If you’ve listened to WFAN or ESPN 1050 in the last few days, you’ve heard a few callers grouse about Jeter, blaming the protracted negotiations on him, saying he should just cut the nonsense and sign on the dotted line. (I believe some people think this is somehow keeping the Yankees from pursuing Cliff Lee, as if they can’t multitask.) If this is the result of basically a week and a half of contract standoffs, imagine what people would think of Jeter if he signed elsewhere.

The Yankees have already made it abundantly clear that they believe they hold all the chips. Team president Randy Levine has said Jeter is “allowed to test the market” and characterized whatever contract they offer as “a baseball decision”. In other words, don’t expect Jeter to be paid based on what he did 10 years ago.

A dick move? Undoubtedly. But at the end of the day, the Yankees are a business, and what kind of business just gives its money away? Why pay Jeter a dime more than they have to? Especially if they think playing hardball will cost them nothing at all

And if you look at a few similar situations just in the last 10+ years, it’s obvious that the Yankees have absolutely no qualms about letting beloved personnel walk. Andy Pettitte was as huge of a part of the Yankees championships of the 1990s/2000s as Derek Jeter. But in 1999, when the lefty hit a bit of a rough patch, they nearly traded him to the Phillies in exchange for Adam Eaton (talk about an insult). The Yankees also seemed to take it for granted he’d return to them when he hit free agency after the 2003 season, but when Pettitte signed with Houston, the team basically shrugged its shoulders and moved on.

Look at Joe Torre. When his contract expired at the end of the 2007 season, the Yankees offered him an incentive-laden deal and said (without ever saying it) ‘take it or leave it’. Granted, they offered him more guaranteed money than you or I will see in a lifetime, but you or I haven’t won four World Series and made the playoffs every year. Torre left for Weirdowood, Joe Girardi took his place, and last I checked, nobody was pining for Mr. Bigelow Tea to make his triumphant return.

But perhaps the biggest example of all is Bernie Williams. If anyone was as much an embodiment of the Yankees in the last 15 years as Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams was it. His last contract ended after the 2006 season. Everyone knew it was going to be a delicate situation. Williams could no longer patrol center field like he used to, but surely the Yankees couldn’t let him walk. The idea of him signing with another team was every bit as unthinkable as the thought of Jeter not playing in the Bronx.

So what did the Yankees do? They offered him a spring training invite. No guaranteed roster spot, just a chance to make the team. It may have suited his skills at that point in his career, but it was also a bit of a slap in the face to someone who had done so much for them. Williams never played another inning in the major leagues. And somehow, the Yankees soldiered on.

Would the Yankees like to see Derek Jeter get his 3000th hit in pinstripes? I’m sure. If he didn’t, would it affect their bottom line in anyway? Not at all. If Jeter takes his talents to some other team, I’m sure there will be great weeping and gnashing of teeth. Some fans might say they’ll never watch the Yankees ever again, and some might even carry out the threat. But not enough to make a difference to the enormous financial juggernaut that is the Yankees.

Because the old Jerry Seinfeld joke is true: fans root for laundry. A certain amount of people will always watch a team play, no matter who comprises that team, because that’s what fans do. You have to do something truly heinous to drive fans away, and if recent history is any indication, even rejecting as iconic a player as Derek Jeter is not sufficiently heinous.

I think all fanbases are roughly equal in Laundry Rooting proclivities, but this might be a little more true for the Yankees than any other team, since each season brings more hired hands through the clubhouse’s revolving door. Their fans are already clamoring to get Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, with little regard for the fact that both players did serious damage to the Yankees, and not in the distant past, but very recently. All will be forgiven when they sign on the dotted line.

Thinking Derek Jeter can’t possibly not be a Yankee is really just a reflection of our fear of the inevitable march of time. He’s 37 years old now. If you’re around my age, he’s been playing for the Yankees since the tail end of high school, or when you first went off to college. One way or another, the day will come when he’s not playing shortstop for the Yankees anymore. Regardless of who you root for, that is a terrifying thing to consider. It doesn’t mean Derek Jeter is old. It means you are old.

So I think what I’m saying is that the Yankees have the upper hand in negotiations because we all fear the grim specter of death’s icy grasp. Not even Scott Boras can negotiate against that.