Next up in out Pinch Hitters series is Todd Keryc, a 28-year-old out of Columbia University who spent the past six years in television production. He was raise in Connecticut, but his dad raised him to be a Yankees fan (he also became a Patriots fan, go figure). The first game he ever attended as Jim Abbott’s no-hitter.
For his post. Todd looked at the idea of loyalty in sports, and specifically what loyalty has meant for the Yankees connection to Derek Jeter, and Derek Jeter’s connection to the Yankees.
LeBron James took his talents to South Beach in a nationally-televised spectacle and set off a media firestorm regarding his stunning lack of commitment to a place he called home. Every angle and aspect of “The Decision” was dissected for weeks, with most everyone agreeing that LeBron could not have handled it much worse. Meanwhile, LeBron’s favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, was thinking long and hard about their fall date at the negotiating table with their own franchise player.
Derek Jeter was about to conclude a 10-year contract that paid him just south of $200 million, perhaps the only baseball mega-deal that did not go sour for either player or team. During the decade, Jeter became the Yankees captain, helped the team to nine playoff appearances and five World Series titles. Until 2010, he was the model of consistency, never hitting worse than .292, making seven All-Star teams in nine years, even winning four (controversial) Gold Gloves. Instead of extending his deal and eliminating the pending free agency, the Yankees rolled the dice and Jeter bombed out. He finally showed signs of aging, suffering through career lows across the board and losing any possible leverage in the negotiations.
The dialogue quickly grew contentious. The Yankees turned to their favorite November tactic: hardball, a strategy they previously tried in 2007 when Alex Rodriguez opted out of his contract and the team vowed not to resign him. Weeks later, Rodriguez was given another record-breaking deal. Knowing Jeter had no intention of leaving this year, Brian Cashman used that loyalty to his own advantage. He dared Jeter, saying “we’ve encouraged him to test the market and see if there’s something he would prefer other than this.” The selfish player cashed in while the loyal player would have to cave if he wanted to stay.
Eventually, Jeter and the Yankees settled on a shorter deal with some incentives and a player option for a fourth year. All attention turned to Cliff Lee, a player who had been traded three times within a year, all out of the fear of losing him to free agency. The Yankees made the largest offer and certainly had the largest need. With a history of peak playoff performances, Lee would not shy away from the grand stage. Only he did shy away, returning to Philadelphia and forgetting the fact that they were one of the teams to send him elsewhere. Is it possible Lee watched the Jeter saga play out and thought twice about his relocation? If a team could treat a player of Jeter’s stature and loyalty with such disregard, how would they discuss a hired gun?
The divergence on loyalty comes between player and fan. Most players care about earning a good salary, playing in a good city, and succeeding in their chosen profession. They change teams freely in hopes of improving one of those barometers without concern for the faceless mass of humanity known as fans. Conversely, fans are loyal beyond fault. We stay with our teams for a lifetime, through wins and losses, championships and heartbreaks. We agonize over roster moves and lament pitching changes gone awry. We watch many people pass through the organization, hoping to find that special player who can represent our city and bring us a title. We spend decades hoping to find someone like Derek Jeter.
As a society, we are fascinated with big numbers. Alex Rodriguez is capable of hitting 50 home runs and LeBron James is capable of scoring 50 points. They are powerful, graceful athletes, blessed with impeccable timing and skill. They are also victims of their own talent. They are convinced that fans will love them unconditionally as long as they continue to produce on the field or court. There is no incentive for them to remain loyal to a city or franchise. Rodriguez bolted from Seattle for a big contract, forced his way out of Texas for more wins, and then somehow coaxed the Yankees into giving him even more money while continuing to win. James forced Cleveland’s hand in personnel moves for years, openly flirted with other franchises while still under contract, then left for Miami anyway. The Yankees went back on their public stance in order to retain A-Rod. The Cavs would have renamed the city if it meant keeping LeBron. The bad boys were rewarded for disloyalty.
Meanwhile, Jeter continues to plug away, the last hope for a marquee player to spend an entire career with one team. He may be fading on the field and his salary may far outweigh his contributions in the coming years. His range will only decrease further and eventually he will change positions. The franchise will openly wonder what to do with him and how to transition into a new era without the captain. Through it all, Derek Jeter will stay firm on one point. He is a Yankee for life.
For that, we should all be thankful.
Associated Press photo