Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Monday, October 4, 2010
Derek Jeter needs to put his ego aside

By Johnette Howard
ESPNNewYork.com

Derek Jeter could have the postseason of his life for the New York Yankees, starting Wednesday, but it won't materially affect his upcoming contract negotiations. Anyone inclined to cue the foreboding opera music and try selling the idea that these could be Jeter's last few weeks in pinstripes has to connect a lot of dots and presume: (A) Jeter or the Yankees have some hard contract numbers in mind that (B) one side will find so unreasonable that (C) Jeter forgets all the romance of retiring a Yankee and just moves on down the road.

Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter has done a terrific job of hiding his ego throughout his career.

Jeter has done a terrific job of hiding his ego throughout his career with his aw-shucks, team-first mantra. But the disassembling of the 36-year-old Jeter's ability and sacred-cow status already has started. And we're about to get a peek behind the curtain and see just how big his ego really is.

Because how these contract talks play out is almost entirely in Jeter's control.

As Jeter reminded people during one of his longer hitting slumps this season, "I've never really had a problem with confidence." But Jeter has shown a growing sensitivity to criticism in the past year.

If you ask Jeter a question about moving to a position other than shortstop someday -- something even iron man Cal Ripken Jr. had to do -- you're likely to get a long pause and perhaps a slightly annoyed look. People who are around the Yankees every day say Jeter was even unhappy about the outside rebukes he caught for failing to represent the players at the recent funeral of the team's iconic public address announcer, Bob Sheppard.

Jeter also has this persnickety uber-planner/manager, Joe Girardi, who in his heart of hearts might think that Brett Gardner should be his leadoff man -- if not now, then perhaps as soon as next year if Jeter's batting average or on-base percentage continues to slide. But would Girardi ever dare to write Jeter into the seventh or eighth spot in the order? Or would Jeter treat it like a sign that the apocalypse is upon us?

What if it's not just that the Yankees don't want to give Jeter a raise over the $18.9 million average of his expiring 10-year deal? What if they actually suggest he takes a slight pay cut because the projections for a shortstop from ages 37 to 42 are not rosy?

Jeter can pre-emptively defuse every one of these issues if he wants to. All he has to do is good-naturedly acknowledge all of them are possibilities.

Even that much humility might be too much to ask from Jeter, a proud man who has never liked airing his feelings in public. But there are plenty of examples of other proud athletes who have made that leap.

Julius Erving, who was as elegant and spectacular in his NBA prime as Jeter has been with the Yankees, had a wise way of reconciling growing old before everyone's eyes. I remember Erving telling me once near the end of his career that it was fine with him if people said he played pretty well for a 36-year-old. What he couldn't abide was people comparing him at age 36 to the player he was at 26 because that guy, Erving said with a laugh, was gone and wasn't coming back.

Jeter also could learn from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, another winner who values his public image and legacy. Brady could have waited out Peyton Manning, whose contract also will be up after this season, and insisted that the Patriots make him the highest-paid quarterback in the league. But Brady, who signed first, almost certainly will get less than Manning despite having more championship rings. So what could've turned into an ugly spat or a public referendum pitting the "Pay him anything!" crowd trying to shout down the "Why is he so greedy?" side was quietly and sensibly avoided.

Like Brady, Jeter will have to let go of the idea that the Yankees are paying him for the past more than the future. His expiring 10-year deal just might have been the best bang-for-the-buck, long-term contract in baseball history. In addition to all those rings he has lying around the house, all Jeter did the past 10 years was bat .309 and average 151 games, 192 hits, 108 runs and a .380 on-base percentage per season. He went on the disabled list only once.

Compared to agreeing on the money or length of his next contract, Jeter's stated desire to keep playing shortstop until 40 and beyond is the easiest problem to solve. He's not moving anywhere. Why should he?

Jeter's subpar defensive range drives the stats junkies nuts. But really, how is Jeter's presence at shortstop hurting the Yankees? The Yankees won the '09 World Series with Jeter hitting a robust .334. They still had the best record in the majors for a significant stretch of this season even though Jeter hit .269 and some of his offensive numbers were his lowest since his rookie year. So how is he pulling them down? Jeter doesn't have terrific defensive range, but he still caught 98.9 percent of 100 balls he got to this season and had only six errors -- both career bests.

So even if Jeter's offensive decline is here to stay -- a reasonable assumption, because he'll turn 37 in June -- the Yankees still should have enough hitting around him to absorb it. There's even a Jeter-friendly sabermetric argument to be made for why moving Jeter to the outfield would be worse.

So there's no need to get all misty-eyed when Jeter runs out to his usual position once these playoffs begin, then to wonder how long it will last. You're better off worrying about the Yankees' starting pitching. Given that the Yankees have attached what amounts to honorarium years onto the end of A-Rod's most recent contract, the Yankees don't figure to do something stupid with Jeter.

Which leaves only Jeter's ego to blow things up.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.