Commentary

Will Cap be dignified in his response?

Jeter aims for artful answer to imperfect '10, knowing graceful aging is no guarantee

Updated: March 29, 2011, 2:31 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Derek Jeter desperately wants a dignified endgame to his career, and he knows that being a New York Yankees icon never guarantees you one.

Babe Ruth was denied his managerial ambitions and dumped on the Boston Braves. Joe DiMaggio hobbled away from a boss he didn't respect, Casey Stengel, and Mickey Mantle retired a physical wreck who was hitting .237.

Jeter doesn't want a fight, or a feud, or a feeble body and batting average to define his twilight years. This is why he was so upset -- "angry" was the word he kept using at the offseason news conference, stunning everyone within earshot -- over the contract negotiations that turned into full-contact drills before millions of fascinated witnesses.

For the first time his pristine pinstripes were smudged, his perfectly centered No. 2 looked a little crooked, and his carefully guarded image took a direct hit. Jeter wasn't hurt so much by the tens of millions of dollars that the Yankees wouldn't give him.

[+] EnlargeDerek Jeter
Kim Klement/US PresswireHis disappointing contract negotiations are behind Derek Jeter and his 3,000th hit is just ahead of him.

He was hurt by the public nature of the quarrel with his employer, and by the fact he was sucked into a swirling A-Rodian drama he couldn't control.

But now the 36-year-old captain and his downsized $17 million wage are back in control. Jeter can restore the narrative of his charmed baseball life with his bat, his glove and his legs, assuming they're up to the task of winning this last game the shortstop will play:

Jeter against the undefeated forces of gravity and time.

That was a blowout loss last year, when Jeter was a living ground ball and a breathing double play. The renaissance of 2009, a season that saw a suddenly youthful and supple Jeter win every award but the Pulitzer, gave way to the cruel realities of 2010, when the captain trudged toward the negotiating table like a man walking the plank.

Jeter wanted another nine-figure deal and accepted much less -- with the same kind of incentive plan that ran Joe Torre out of town -- because he had no choice. After throwing obscene amounts of cash at everyone else's stars, sluggers and aces who hadn't accomplished a fraction of what Jeter had, the Yankees decided to draw their line in the infield dirt with the captain.

Jeter and his agent, Casey Close, had always beaten the Yanks at the money game, and beaten them with class. But this time they were knocked flat on their butts. Understanding the value of being a one-uniform athlete, a Yankee for life, Jeter made it clear he had no desire and no plan to test the market.

His employers proceeded to pummel him with that confession.

Brian Cashman, Randy Levine and Hal and Hank Steinbrenner maintained they wanted to pay Jeter for his ballplaying abilities, and not for his role in enhancing the Yankees brand and in building the YES Network and the new ballpark.

These men weren't columnists or talk radio hosts telling Jeter his skills were in decline; these were his bosses. So he took the pay cut and the hard-to-reach bonuses and told the world he was angry that Yankees executives, especially Cashman, had fired all those fastballs under his coverboy chin.

Only now is the time to get even, not angry. Deep down, Jeter believes that last season was an aberration, an inevitable bad year, rather than the beginning of his end. He believes he can do in 2011 what he did in 2009, when even some members of the sabermetric crowd thought their favorite target had an athletic bounce to his step.

Jeter worked with a new fitness trainer after 2007, and the results were staggering across his fifth championship season. The captain had jumped into a hot tub time machine and emerged smack in the middle of his prime, when the likes of Bobby Cox were calling him one of the two or three best players in the game.

But the resurgence was fleeting. The new trainer, Jason Riley, was powerless to prevent last year's career-worst .270 batting average, .340 on-base percentage, and .370 slugging percentage.

Jeter would never admit it, if only because he doesn't admit much, but the looming negotiations -- and the notion that he was losing leverage with every benign grounder off his bat -- had to have weighed on him. The captain wouldn't be human if it didn't.

This time around, Jeter doesn't have a new trainer, just a new stride. Actually, it's no stride at all.

"I'm not changing a swing," Jeter said. "My swing is exactly the same. I'm shortening down the stride. It's really not as drastic as people are making it out to be."

Jeter downplays everything, of course. If his parents let him get away with it, he'll downplay his 3,000th hit, too.

But this much is clear: Jeter's ability to rebound is of vital importance to his team. The Yankees need him to be productive, to give them a little less of 2010 and a lot more of 2009.

After all, Jeter is signed for up to four more years. If he's a shot player, the Yanks are in trouble.

If he needs to be taken out of the leadoff spot and, ultimately, deposited near the bottom of the order, that will be a huge, franchise-rattling story. If he needs to be moved from shortstop to who knows where, the coverage of that demotion will be defined by an apocalyptic tone.

For now, Jeter is still Jeter, a future Hall of Famer who just needed some extra face time with the hitting coach, Kevin Long. With the contract done and the footwork adjusted, the smart money says the captain will make something of a comeback this year.

Beyond that is anyone's guess. It's possible Jeter will play a season or two too many, making for a painful and sad sight. It's also possible Jeter will slap balls into right field into his 40s, and then go out the way Ted Williams did, by sending the final pitch he sees over the outfield wall.

As one of the most dignified Yankees of all, Derek Jeter deserves a dignified ending. That doesn't mean he's guaranteed one.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

SPONSORED HEADLINES

EDITORS' PICKS

  • The Final Chapter
    Today's Jets-Dolphins game looks to be the end of an era for Gang Green.
  • Wishes Do Come True ...
    John Idzik is expected to be fired by the Jets after two years as the team's GM.
  • Bye, Bye, Blue
    Enjoy one more look at Odell Beckham Jr. when the Giants play the Eagles.
  • 1-17
    The Knicks, who have lost 17 of 18, hit Portland tonight.
  • Money For Nothing
    Brook Lopez and D-Will are nothing more than sixth and seventh men right now.

MORE MLB HEADLINES