Commentary

Captain Jeter won't jump ship

Shortstop enters walk year, but don't expect run in Bronx to end anytime soon

Updated: April 3, 2010, 3:01 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Derek Jeter will be a Yankee next year. Of that there is no doubt. The issues that remain -- how much longer and for how much money -- are just details that will be worked out.

There is nothing remarkable about the Yankees' wanting to retain Jeter, who will turn 36 on June 26, or about Jeter's wanting to remain with the organization in which he not only grew up as a ballplayer but also became one of the greatest ever to work for baseball's pre-eminent franchise.

When ranking the all-time great Yankees, there are Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford. And Derek Jeter. In that order. You might someday make the case that he belongs above Ford, who as a pitcher only played every five days -- or, if Jeter adds another three World Series rings, above or at least alongside Berra.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter has made an all but certain Hall of Fame career in the Bronx look easy.

But you can't go any lower. In the entire momentous history of the franchise, only six players can be definitively said to have had better careers than the kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., by way of Pequannock, N.J., who was seemingly born to be a Yankee.

Already he has more hits than anyone who ever wore the uniform. By the time he is finished, 3,500 hits -- or more than all but five men to ever play the game -- is well within reach.

And yet, what is truly remarkable about Derek Jeter is not his career body of work, the clutch statistics, the formidable postseason résumé or the seemingly single-minded pursuit of baseball excellence that hasn't lapsed for a moment of his 15-year major league career.

It is that every one of those moments and accomplishments took place in the uniform of the same organization.

And so will every one yet to come. You can take that to the bank.

How often does that happen anymore?

How often does a player of this magnitude begin and end his career with the same organization, especially one with as volatile a history as the New York Yankees?

The answers are, not very often and probably never again.

In the age of free agency, of course, player transience is the rule, not the exception. Alex Rodriguez is on his third team and you would be a fool to predict this will be his last. Johnny Damon is on his fifth. Mr. Vagabond Shoes himself, Rickey Henderson, made 13 stops with nine different teams over the course of 25 seasons.

And even before the players were liberated from the reserve clause, it was not unknown for even the greatest of them to finish up in a foreign location. Ruth ended up hitting fungoes for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and Willie Mays stumbled around in the Shea Stadium outfield for the Mets.

But on this, both Jeter and the Yankees are in agreement: The Bronx is where he started and the Bronx is where he will finish.

In spring training, Brian Cashman was asked to put a numerical value on the chances of Jeter not finishing up as a Yankee. Without hesitation, he said: "Zero."

Jeter was equally definitive when asked if he could ever envision playing for another team. "No," he said.

Neither side will discuss the coming negotiations, because it is both against the Yankees' policy and contrary to Jeter's nature.

But you know there will be no Scott Boras-like grandstanding by Jeter's agent, Casey Close, no diva-ish threats to go elsewhere by Jeter, no saber-rattling by Cashman or either of the Steinbrenner boys -- not even Hank -- in this one.

And if Jeter were a different kind of player, you would be tempted to expect that he will put together a monster 2010, simply because it's the walk year of a 10-year, $189 million contract.

But for Jeter, there are no walk years, only run-hard years. He has never seemed motivated by things as mundane as money or the length of a contract. When he signed the deal, it ran a distant second to A-Rod's 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, a slight that has never seemed to offend Jeter.

Nor is he likely to hold out for seven more years, which would keep him a Yankee for as long as the term of Rodriguez's renegotiated deal, which runs through 2017, or demand $210 million, which would keep him and A-Rod in the same tax bracket.

Jeter will play hard this year because it is the only way he knows, a quality he shares with DiMaggio, who when asked late in his career why he still played as hard as he did when he was a rookie, was famously quoted as saying, "There might be someone in the ballpark seeing me play for the first time."

Fifteen years after his debut, Jeter still plays as if he is playing for the first time. Despite the 2,700 hits, the 13 division titles, seven World Series appearances and five championship rings, he says, "I feel as good now as I did in 1995. I'm competitive by nature, so for me just competing is fun. When it stops being fun, that's when I'll think it's time to stop. By right now, it's still as much fun as when I was a rookie."

Last year, he improved greatly on a subpar 2008 (.300, 11 HRs, 68 RBI and .363 OBP) by posting increases in just about every category. His .334 batting average was third in the league; likewise his .406 on-base percentage. His 18 home runs were the most he'd hit since 2005.

Most tellingly, he committed only eight errors all year, the lowest total of his career, perhaps the only indication that he had been stung by a 2008 "statistical study" that judged him the worst-fielding shortstop in baseball.

Jeter never publicly acknowledged the slight. He just quietly went about the business of increasing his range, especially on balls hit to his right, by a rigorous leg-training regimen. "I think it's paid off for me," he said.

"I think the thing that amazes me most about Jeter is that he seems to keep getting better and better every year," Rodriguez said. "His work ethic is off the charts. And his ability to stay focused is something I wish I could learn. I've never seen a bigger stage player, a bigger big-game player, and you know how he does it? By keeping the game very, very simple. The bigger the game, the simpler he makes it."

Jeter is notoriously loath to discuss such topics as individual goals or his legacy. Despite knowing this, I began to pose a hypothetical to him in the clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa in late March. "Suppose you play five more years ..." it began.

"Suppose I play 10 more years?" Jeter interrupted. Then he laughed, but if you know Derek Jeter, you realize he was only half-joking.

Ten more years may be beyond his reach, but however much longer his career turns out to be, there's no doubt about where it will end.

Right where it started.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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