By Jason Keidel
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According to an article in Sports Illustrated, a testy salary negotiation in 2010 led Derek Jeter to ask Brian Cashman whom he’d rather have at shortstop.
After asking Jeter if he really wanted the answer, Cash flashed some serious stones, telling the iconic captain that he’d rather have Troy Tulowitzki roaming the sacred dirt between second and third.
It’s blasphemous to say anyone is better than Jeter. Not because it would be untrue, but because Jeter entered the realm of mythology; larger than a single man, single season or season’s batting average.
While Cashman may have been the most important one to say it, he wasn’t the only one.
There were a few of us saying Jeter was slipping. And he was. Not because he was any less of a player, person or legend. But because he was old by athletic terms. And his numbers were indeed dipping.
Jeter turned 36 in 2010, an age when all stars and All-Stars are almost always ground to athletic dust. Especially shortstops, who have the most rigorous gig on the diamond, outside of catcher. Those of us who had the temerity to say he wasn’t the same player were called all manner of moron, even if the rest of his career proved our point.
Tulowitzki was just 25 in 2010, 11 years Jeter’s junior. He’d just batted .315 with 27 homers and 95 RBIs for the Colorado Rockies (in just 122 games). Jeter hit .270 that year, with 10 HR and 67 RBIs in 157 games. Tulowitzki had a much better 2011, as well, with a .302 BA, 30 HR and 105 RBIs, compared to Jeter’s .297 BA, 6 HR and 61 RBIs. (Tulowitzki also won a Gold Glove both years.)
Jeter did have a magical revival in 2012, leading the American League in hits (216) while batting .316. He also had his surreal afternoon in 2011 against David Price, swatting his 3,000th hit over the center-field wall. Despite hitting a combined 10 homers in 2011, 2013 and 2014, he channeled his inner clutch one more time after a career filled with epic moments.
But Jeter, a perennial .300 hitter, didn’t reach his customary mark in four of his last five seasons. And, 2012 aside, he never hit more than six homers nor drove in more than 61 runs during his last four years in pinstripes.
Cashman flatly told Jeter he was paying for production, not popularity. But we all know that’s not entirely true. Jeter eventually got $51 million for three years, double what other teams were willing to pay. Legacy contracts are routine for legendary players.
What Cashman had to know — but wouldn’t admit at the bargaining table — is that we can’t let our heroes go, and that while the dollars should be commensurate to the stats, immortals put people in the seats, even if they don’t run, jump or hit like they used to. Fans generally don’t care about the “diva” moments behind the scenes. All great players have some sense of entitlement.
Steve Young was clearly the younger, better quarterback in 1992, but Joe Montana’s departure to Kansas City was seen as sacrilege, the quintessential betrayal to the fans of San Francisco. Of course it was the right move, as Young led the 49ers to several NFC title games and a Super Bowl victory in 1994, while Montana never got another shot at his fifth Lombardi Trophy.
But Montana was, at that point, the leading face on the Mt. Rushmore of quarterbacks, having won four Super Bowls between 1981 and 1989. Who would be so willing to let him walk?
It’s a GM’s job to dwell in the cold calculus of facts, of stats, of salaries. But it jars their accountant’s sensibilities to factor in legacy and goodwill; the fact that fathers bring their sons to games, to pass the baton of knowledge, to tell their boys about the halcyon years.
A 10-year-old in 2010 wants to hear about the glory days, the Torre days, when Jeter was the young, handsome face of a dynasty, the catalyst of four World Series titles in five years.
Likewise, my old man took me to the old ballpark in 1979. He sprinkled stories about going to the Bronx in 1961, when Mantle and Maris played tug of war with the all-time home run mark, back when the monuments still jutted like teeth from the outfield grass and the deepest part of the sprawling park approached 460 feet.
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. One day we will debate Eli Manning’s fate. In about five years we’ll wonder whether his backup should get a shot, if the interminable Manning gene has finally surrendered to Father Time.
But before Jeter, New York had to wave farewell to Joe Dimaggio, Mickey Mantle and Joe Namath; Reggie Jackson, Lawrence Taylor and Don Mattingly. All athletic careers end, almost all before we’re ready to say goodbye.
You can’t put a particular price on memories. But Cashman didn’t realize that fans would pay good money to stroll down memory lane.
Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.