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

Sunday, November 21, 2010
Derek Jeter plays the Babe Ruth card

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

Jeter/Ruth
It probably seemed hard to imagine Babe Ruth ending his career outside of the Bronx, too.

In some respects, the situation the New York Yankees face with Derek Jeter is unprecedented in their history.

Never has a Yankee of this magnitude faced a free-agency negotiation that promises to be as contentious and potentially disastrous as this one, because all the previous Yankees who compare to Jeter had to toil under the tyranny of the reserve clause.

Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra had zero leverage when it came time to talk turkey with the Yankees, as they had to every year in the days before free agency shifted the balance of power to where it belonged -- into the hands of the men the fans actually came to see.

Still, it's anything but unprecedented to see the Yankees playing hardball, even the subtle variety of hardball they seem to be playing so far, with a player of Jeter's magnitude.

With all due respect to the Captain, they've done it to better players than him.

So it's more than a bit laughable when Jeter's agent, Casey Close, affects an air of naivete about the tone of the "negotiations," such as they are so far, and when he uses words like "baffled" to describe his reaction the rhetoric coming out of the front office.

In a quote that sounded a lot more like a prepared statement, Close told the New York Daily News on Sunday, "There's a reason the Yankees themselves have stated Derek Jeter is their modern-day Babe Ruth. Derek's significance to the team is much more than just stats. And yet, the Yankees' negotiating strategy remains baffling. They continue to argue their points in the press and refuse to acknowledge Derek's total contribution to their franchise."

In fact, there is nothing baffling about the Yankees' strategy here, and nothing unusual in what they are saying either behind closed doors to him or under the cover of anonymity in the media. And Close, a high-powered agent, had better hope the Yankees don't regard his superstar client as another Babe Ruth.

Perhaps Close doesn't know the history, which is really his only excuse here, but in 1931, when Babe Ruth was 36 years old -- the same age as Derek Jeter -- he hit 46 home runs, had 163 RBIs and batted .373.

The Yankees rewarded him by cutting his salary from $80,000 to $75,000 for the 1932 season. That year, as a 37-year-old, Ruth's numbers slipped -- to 41 homers, 137 RBIs and a .341 batting average. So they cut him to $52,000 for 1933.

In 1933, the 38-year-old Ruth was clearly finished: a mere 34 homers, 103 RBIs, .301 batting average. Numbers, incidentally, that Jeter would have killed to have as a 24-year-old. (By the way, some would argue that Ruth's contributions to the franchise might even have surpassed Jeter's.)

For that miserable production, Ruth was forced to play the 1934 season for $37,000.

Ruth, of course, is not the only Great Yankee to have been chewed up and spit out at the negotiating table by the front office of the World's Most Successful Sports Franchise.

By 1958, Mantle had led the league in home runs three times, been an MVP twice and won the Triple Crown three years earlier. But in that season, although he led the league with 46 home runs, his RBI total tailed off a bit to 97, and his batting average dipped to .304.

So the Yankees lopped $3,000 off his $75,000 paycheck for 1959. That year, Mantle dropped again, to 31/75/.285.

And then so did his salary, all the way to $65,000. It took a holdout and a 54-homer season in 1961 to finally get him to $100,000, the most he ever earned in a season.

Obviously neither the Yankees nor any other team can get away with that kind of larceny anymore, and in the case of Jeter, they aren't even trying to.

But the truth is, at this stage of his career, Jeter has about as much leverage as Ruth and Mantle did. Which is to say, none.

So when Close finds it "baffling" that the Yankees would seek to downplay Jeter's contributions or subtly try to bad-mouth him in the media, you have to hope for the sake of his client that he is only engaging in the same kind of gamesmanship being played by GM Brian Cashman, team president Randy Levine and the never-ending parade of voices that whisper anonymously from behind the walls.

Because the truth is, even without a shred of leverage, the Yankees are preparing to offer Jeter three years at $15 million per and probably will go as high as $20 million or $21 million. Do you really think any other team wants to pay a 37-year-old shortstop with declining range and offensive numbers $20 million a year?

When you consider that the best shortstop in baseball, 26-year-old Hanley Ramirez, is making just $11.6 million, it doesn't sound as though Jeter is being mistreated that badly after all.

If nothing else, it could be a whole lot worse. The Yankees could treat Jeter the way Close seems to want them to.

They could treat him the way they treated Ruth.

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

More from ESPNNewYork.com