A Lonely Nation Turns Its Eyes to…

So it looks like Derek Jeter’s agent is backing off that ludicrous six-year, $160 million dollar contract demand he floated to the press a couple of days ago. This is unsurprising — only the Yankees have the money to actually sign someone to that kind of deal, and they’re not dumb enough to actually do it, not even for a Yankee icon. If Jeter’s camp is looking to start a bidding war, they need to get other teams involved… but no other team would even think of matching the Yankees’ 3/45 standing offer, which Jeter has evidently decided to construe as an insult.

Whatever you think of him, Jeter’s a fascinating player, if only for the wild disparity of reactions you get when you mention his name. There are whole camps of people who think he’s the best player in the game, who believe that his clutchitude and steady demeanor make the Yankees what they are. There are the more reasonable people who believe he’s a good player and all, but come on. There are the people who hate his guts. If it’s possible for a player to be overrated and underrated at the same time, Jeter’s probably it. He’s an absolute slam-dunk first-ballot Hall-of-Famer — but he’s still not as good as people say he is. The media loves him — but hasn’t seen fit to give him an MVP trophy, when he’s probably deserved at least one or two. That’s Jeter — all contradictions.

Derek Jeter’s always been a player sold to us as the perfect gentleman, the perfect sport, the ideal leader and teammate, a bastion of calm in the chaos that is the New York City sports world. Sportswriters have been worshiping the guy for as long as I can remember. After fifteen years of unquestioning adulation, it’s hardly surprising that Jeter believes he needs to make more money than any other player in the game, even his superior-then-and-now teammate Alex Rodriguez. When the Yankees signed A-Rod to a 10-year, $275 million contract after the 2007 season, you could see these negotiations on the horizon — Jeter’s always believed he’s better than A-Rod, so he was going to ask for the same money as A-Rod on a contract running through the same age as A-Rod’s deal. Never mind that A-Rod was coming off a season in which he was the unquestioned MVP and was five years younger than Jeter will be next season at the time, while Jeter is coming off the worst season of his career, a season in which he looked like toast with the bat and his already-terrible defense petrified.

Now, I’ve never quite bought into The Derek Jeter Show. I might be biased in this, since my formative baseball years consisted of Jeter’s Yankees defeating my Braves in the World Series not once but twice,  but Jeter’s never struck me as the peerless leader everyone says he is. His ego is enormous. I obviously don’t know the man personally, nor do I have access to the Yankee clubhouse — but you never hear ex-Yankees talk about how Jeter helped their game. He never sticks up for teammates in times of crisis — he almost seemed to enjoy watching A-Rod twist in the wind a couple of years back. He never takes personal responsibility during rough spots — he delights in passing the buck. (“It’s not the same team,” Jeter repeated over and over after the Yankees famously blew a 3-0 series lead to the Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS.) Worst of all is the obnoxious double standard, where if Jeter does something iffy it’s smart, hustling, heads-up play, but if anyone else does it, it’s breaking the unwritten rules of baseball. What kind of reaction do you think A-Rod would have gotten if he’d been the one to admit to a phantom hit-by-pitch? He’d have been crucified for it. Jeter was applauded.

Now, that’s not to say Jeter’s without his advantages. First, and most importantly, he’s always been a very good player, and a very consistent player. He rarely has off-years that would case people to start calling for his head. He’s a master at taking the season one game at a time and never letting the pressure-cooker environment of New York get to him. When the Yankees slump, as all teams do, Jeter isn’t panicking. Finally, Jeter is the absolute grandmaster of feeding cliches to the media. Almost every player has said something really dumb to a reporter or been spotted doing something stupid at some point in his career, a kind of thing that makes you go “Really? He said that?” Jeter is the most boring individual on the planet, so he’s always been able to evade those kinds of scandals. Jeter shows the public what they want to see, and nothing else.

But he’s just so lionized. Sportswriters say that he only cares about winning and will do anything to help the team… but how can you tell? He’s spent his whole career with the Yankees, a team that’s always competitive, always the prohibitive favorites. It’s not like he’s ever been tempted to go somewhere else, like every other team’s homegrown stars are. Moreover, the Yankees have never asked anything of him except that he show up. He’s never been asked to switch positions or move down in the lineup or take a pay cut. It’s easy to “only care about winning” when you’re making twenty million dollars a year and being told you’re a saint for so doing.

In fact, as far as I can tell, this contract is the first time in his entire career that Derek Jeter has been asked to make a personal sacrifice to help the team. (There’s no way that a 40-year-old Derek Jeter is helping a Major League Baseball team in any role besides “coach”.) And he immediately spit the bit, called it “baffling,” tried to sell it as a personal insult. This has to tarnish his image a little, doesn’t it? We’ve known for years that Jeter’s a guy who buys into his own hype, but it’s hard to sell a guy as the perfect team leader when he’s turning up his nose at a contract that’s twice as rich as one that any other team in the league would offer, right? (A contract that he has no need of, and sees mostly as a status symbol anyway, incidentally.) How much does he think his gravitas and “calm eyes” are really worth?

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