Commentary

Boy George puts Derek Jeter on notice

Hank calls out captain, Yanks for 'building mansions' instead of championship seasons

Updated: February 22, 2011, 7:28 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- This year, it seems like it's The Captain's turn to get The Treatment.

George Steinbrenner had Dave Winfield to kick around. Now, Boy George has Derek Jeter.

It kind of goes with the territory, I suppose, and since Jeter was the Yankees' No. 1 free-agent acquisition of the offseason, it is only natural that this year, he would be singled out to wear not a 2 but a target on his back.

That's the Yankees Way, and always has been over the 38 years of the Steinbrenner Era. Locate the object of your desire, throw lots of money at it, and then spend the rest of the season -- or in extreme cases, the length of the contract -- sniping at it for shortcomings, real and imagined, until it either performs up to your expectations or slinks off in shame and humiliation.

It is a rite of passage that many Yankees big-ticket free agents have been subjected to, but one from which you would think Derek Jeter would be immune.

Not so.

It turns out that when GM Brian Cashman rolled out the heavy artillery during the contract negotiations -- "We encourage him to test the market," remember? -- he was just firing practice shots with blank cartridges.

The Yankees wound up giving Jeter what he wanted, and then some.

[+] EnlargeSteinbrenner
AP Photo/Louis LanzanoLike his dad before him, Hank Steinbrenner is taking aim at his biggest on-field moneymakers.

Now that the deal is done, it appears to be open season on The Captain.

When Hank Steinbrenner on Monday afternoon remarked that the 2010 Yankees "lacked the hunger" that had (in his mind) propelled them to the world championship in 2009, and said the team had "celebrated too much," he could have been speaking in general terms about the pitfalls of success.

But when he dropped in a reference to "building mansions," there was nothing general about the reference. Because not 2 miles from the Yankees' spring training complex is a site upon which is now being constructed what will be the largest private residence in Tampa, a 30,000-square-foot, yes, mansion, the size of a Wal-Mart that will serve as the future home of Mr. Derek Sanderson Jeter.

Next thing you know, some modern-day Howie Spira will be skulking around the halls here peddling dirt on the Turn2Foundation, Jeter's charitable endeavor.

There's little doubt that this season, the pressure on Jeter will be intense.

There will be pressure to prove his 2010 season was an aberration, not the beginning of an irreversible decline.

There will be pressure to prove that, in spite of winning his fifth Gold Glove last year, he still has enough range to justify keeping him at shortstop at an age when most of them have been converted to outfielders or designated hitters.

There will be pressure to prove that, with his slowing bat and legs, he is not a drag at the top of their batting order taking up a spot that really should be occupied by Brett Gardner.

Most of all, there will be pressure to justify his paycheck, $17 million this year plus incentives, keeping him the highest-paid middle infielder in the game.

[+] EnlargeSteinbrenner/Winfield
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertGeorge Steinbrenner famously battled Dave Winfield -- and ended up getting himself kicked out of baseball over it.

When Hank Steinbrenner moans about luxury taxes and revenue sharing and drops in the "S" word -- for socialism -- he is complaining about contracts like the one he gave to Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and Rafael Soriano, over the strenuous objections of his general manager.

There is a whiff of hypocrisy about it, to be sure -- he and his brother, Prince Hal, could have risked the displeasure of the public by taking a tough line with both Jeter and A-Rod, and certainly could have acquired a setup man for a lot less than the $35 million they are paying Soriano -- but the reality is, it is their money and they can spend it on whomever they want.

And then torment the players they choose to spend it on.

Traditionally, that has always been the player who gets the biggest contract.

This year, that player is Jeter, who somehow has gone from the second coming of DiMaggio and Gehrig to the reason why the Yankees failed to win the division last year and bombed out in the ALCS.

If he gets off to a slow start this year, you get the feeling they will never let him hear the end of it.

Not the fans, but the owners.

Already, we know that when Cashman went on the offensive in November, it was with the blessing of Hal Steinbrenner, who didn't take kindly to Jeter's agent, Casey Close, using the word "baffling" to describe the Yankees' negotiating strategy.

Since then, we have had the GM floating the idea of moving Jeter from shortstop to center field at some point, and Joe Girardi entertaining, at least, the notion of dropping Jeter in the batting order.

Kevin Long, the hitting coach, although careful to wrap his criticism in a blanket of euphemisms, has been quite open about all the work he has had to do on Jeter's swing, which served him quite well for the first 15 seasons of his career.

And now, Hank Steinbrenner, who represents 50 percent of the controlling interest in this team and without whose approval nothing gets done, is talking about guys losing hunger and focus and spending too much time picking out tile for their new mansions.

The last time I checked, only one Yankee was building a mansion of any note. Coincidentally, it happens to be the Yankee who walked off with the biggest slice of Steinbrenner cake this offseason.

If it's any consolation to Jeter, there is some measure of honor in being singled out by a Steinbrenner, whether it be George or Hank. It means a lot is expected of him, a burden that Jeter has always borne eagerly.

It also means that this year, it is his turn to experience what Dave Winfield went through with The Boss 30 years ago, his turn to be flogged with his own contract any time things go wrong around the Yankees.

In exchange for that $51 million contract, Derek Jeter may be about to pay a stiffer price than he ever could have imagined.

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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