“This is the only organization I’ve ever wanted to play for, and that still is true today,” Jeter said Wednesday, before the Yankees’ first full workout of spring training. “I was a Yankee fan growing up, and this is where I want to be. I’ve never envisioned myself playing anywhere else, and hopefully I don’t have to.”
Jeter would have a lot to lose if he left the Yankees after this season, when his 10-year, $189 million contract expires. He understood the team’s history long before he was part of it. Most of the Yankees’ icons never wore another major league uniform. Gehrig. DiMaggio. Mantle. Mattingly.
Jeter’s name fits beside them, with his teammates Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. Putting Jeter at Wrigley Field or Angel Stadium would be as incongruous as relocating the Statue of Liberty to Boston Harbor. It could never happen, right?
“It’d be tough,” said Curtis Granderson, the Yankees’ new center fielder. “But it’d kind of be like Ken Griffey Jr. Everybody in here who’s a baseball fan knows Ken Griffey Jr. as a Seattle Mariner. Then he goes to Cincinnati and Chicago and back to Seattle. Jeter’s definitely in that category. If Ken Griffey can move teams, you never know.”
Jeter has thus far avoided the perception that he cares about money, a rarity for a professional athlete. Bernie Williams nearly accepted an offer from the Red Sox in 1998. Andy Pettitte’s career took a three-year detour to Houston. Seattle fans loathe Alex Rodriguez for skipping town in 2000, and Baltimore fans boo Mark Teixeira for ignoring his hometown Orioles in free agency.
By signing a 10-year contract with a team that could always afford him, Jeter has floated above the fray. All fans know about Jeter’s money is that the Yankees pay him a lot every year. It has never been an issue, and Jeter insisted it would not become one now.
“This is the last time I’m going to talk about it,” he said. “I think it’s unfair to talk about myself when we’re trying to win. That’s the approach I’ve always had, and that’s not going to change.”
Jeter’s agent, Casey Close, asked General Manager Brian Cashman this winter about the Yankees’ plans for a new contract. Cashman told Close that the Yankees would wait until the off-season to address it, the same policy that applies to Rivera and Manager Joe Girardi, whose contracts are also expiring.
Jeter called it a “new policy” on Wednesday, and Cashman said it was not new at all. But that was as close as either side came to any hint of disagreement. Jeter acknowledged that his contract was still going and said the Yankees had every right to wait.
“I don’t apologize for it,” Cashman said. “I think the policy works, and ownership, without a doubt, agrees with that. There will be a time and place for discussions with people who mean a great deal to us. I think we’ve demonstrated that in many ways. We look forward to having a very private discussion at a more appropriate time. Not a year in advance, that’s all.”
Cashman said he had done no preparation for the Jeter negotiations. Jeter said the potential value of a deal had never crossed his mind, and he was vague about the length. He said he would play as long as he is having fun and helping the team win.
“And I’m having a blast right now,” Jeter said. “You work extremely hard in the off-season to make adjustments, and I think I’ve done that.”
Jeter, who turns 36 in June, has concentrated lately on strengthening his legs and increasing his mobility. The results were encouraging last season, when he covered more ground in the field and lifted his on-base plus slugging percentage 100 points.
Another strong season would put off questions about his viability as a shortstop, at least for another year. Jeter said it was impossible to know what he would be doing years from now, but offered no hints that he was ready to move from a young man’s position.
“My job this year is to play shortstop,” Jeter said, “and I want to play shortstop as long as I can.”
The Yankees’ question is how to balance Jeter’s inevitable erosion with his value to their brand. Cashman acknowledged that Jeter was “priceless for our fans,” and it stands to reason that if the Yankees let him leave, their image would suffer significant short-term damage. Even so, they would still be the Yankees, with loads of talent and the cash to replenish it.
Jeter without the Yankees, though, is somewhat harder to fathom. He would be just another mercenary star — Pete Rose with the Phillies, Rod Carew with the Angels, Paul Molitor with the Blue Jays. He could still win championships and chase milestones, but something important would be lost.
Jeter said he would not think about his legacy until his career is over. But there is value in preserving that legacy and all it represents.