Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dedication: Parents, Jeter and the Yanks


Baseball has been one of the biggest influences in my life for as long as I can remember. My dad was always a big sports fan, and despite being the first captain of Tom Saterdalen's legendary high school hockey coaching career at Bloomington Jefferson, as well as eventually having a chance to be drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, he always says he loved baseball more than hockey. My dad chose to simply quit hockey, rather than be drafted and re-assigned to the then EHL, which in my dad’s words was a dirty league that just “didn’t seem like much fun.” Instead he got married and started a family, and when he tells me he doesn't regret for a minute the decision, I believe him.

When I was about three years old, my dad and I started playing catch on a near daily basis in the summer. As a three-year-old, it was the highlight of my day. At 5:00 every night I would sit in either my living room window that overlooked our driveway, or I’d sit out on the front step with two baseball gloves and a ball. Sometimes my dad would come home at 5, but almost always he wouldn’t get home until 7 at the earliest. No matter what time he got home, he always simply went to his room and changed into some shorts and a t-shirt, and he took me into the backyard. This was absolutely the highlight of my day from the time I was two or three until I was about eight. Here was a man that would go into work at 6 or 7 AM every day of the week, and oftentimes stay until 7 at night, because he worked on commission and he wanted to provide for his family. As I look back on that today, almost twenty years later, I’m blown away. Not only did he work his ass off for 12 hours or more on a daily basis, he never said no to me. Even on his worst days, regardless of how tired he was, he always made time for me, and once my brother showed an interest in playing catch, for him too.

My dad also coached most of my traveling teams growing up, at least from the time I was 10 until I was about 14. We practiced an awful lot, almost daily when we didn't have games, and there’s no doubting it made us a better team. We were always among the top 10 teams in the state, and the dedication my dad and the other parents that helped out had to us kids was something we didn't appreciate then. However, I feel fairly confident saying every one of us kids appreciates what all those parents did for us so many years back, and I can’t thank my dad enough for the time he put in to things he really didn't need to. Sure, we argued, and disagreed as I got older, but that comes with the territory. I was a teenager who was always right, and even if my dad was right (which he was more times than I gave him credit for) I’d still usually find something to argue about being the jackass that I was. It never left the field though, and when we got home everything was always just fine.

Parents are the most dedicated people on this earth, and we don’t give them enough credit, even as we get older. I will never be able to repay my dad for the time he spent with me over the years, or my mom for the things she did for me. But I know they don’t expect that. All they want is to know they’ve raised someone they can be proud of, and someone who will spend the same amount of time with his kids that they did. I strive to be that person every day because I know I owe it to my parents for everything they’ve ever done for me.

This trip down memory lane for me and hopefully most of you leads me to one person: Derek Jeter. Jeter came into the league at about the same time I actually remember watching the World Series, so when I see Derek Jeter I have a million memories from my childhood. Jeter is the kid who got spoiled right away, and the Yankees are his rich parents. He came up in 1996, the same year the Yankees began their ridiculous stretch of four World Series titles in five years. Now, it’d be silly of me to just say Jeter was lucky to be called up when he was, because obviously he had an awful lot to do with those great Yankee teams. But he got called up with Andy Pettite, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, who are all still Yankees. (Except Pettite at the moment but most expect him to re-sign soon.) Jeter was paid nearly $200MM over fifteen years, went to the playoffs every year but one, and won five World Series’ Championships. Five.

We all know Jeter struggled this year. He still posted a slightly above average OPS for his position, at .710. For comparison’s sake, JJ Hardy’s OPS was .713 although he played in less games. Of course, Jeter’s defense ranked as well below average (don’t let that Gold Glove fool you) too, so he actually was below league average last year for shortstops. As a 36-year-old, it looks like his career is entering its twilight years. 

His contract was up this off-season, and after paying him about $19MM a year for the last ten years, there was little doubt that Jeter’s on-field performance and advanced age were going to lead to a reduced salary in 2011. It was tricky though because he still is Derek Jeter, and much like a parent with their own kid, Derek Jeter will always be worth more to the New York Yankees than any team in sports until he retires. The Yankees reportedly started the bidding at $15MM a year over three years, so not too much of a pay-cut. Then Jeter apparently countered with a ridiculous 5 or 6-year contract worth $23MM or more a season. Eventually the two sides met and Jeter agreed to a 3-year, $51MM contract that could be four years if Jeter meets certain incentives over the next three years. 

I don’t care how much Derek Jeter makes, though. The Yankees allegedly pride themselves on being the 'premier organization in sports' yet they had no problems negotiating through the media to put Derek Jeter in an awkward position. $50MM or close to it is a ton of money, and the average people who aren’t agents or professional athletes will never understand how someone could turn down that kind of money. Many people say “Once you get that high, it doesn’t even matter how much more money you make!” Those people are right, to an extent, but to Jeter this wasn’t about providing for his family. No, this was about pride. Jeter is the face of the New York Yankees and has been, honestly, since 1996. When his agent compared him to Babe Ruth, I didn’t even flinch. Ruth was a superior player in every facet, no doubt, but his agent was pointing out that ‘Derek Jeter’ is as much Yankee as ‘Babe Ruth.’ He’s right.

The Yankees didn’t need to go public with any of the negotiations though. Jeter mentioned at his press conference after signing the new contract that he was upset with how public they got, and I don’t blame him. Here’s a guy who has spent most of his career priding himself on staying out of trouble, doing things the right way, and being a stand-up person both on and off the field. Derek Jeter is the captain of arguably the most famous team in the world, and he spent most of his prime as a bachelor in New York City. The guy was absolutely taking home whoever he wanted whenever he wanted, but we never heard bad stories about the guy. Even when he’s taking random girls back to his apartment on a nightly basis, he does it with such grace that nobody even cares.*

*Well, the guys care, but in a God-he’s-fucking-awesome kind of way.

Derek Jeter will be fine, and the $17MM a year he’s getting should help him get over any anger issues he has stemming from the public negotiations. He’s making more than AJ Burnett, so that’s not an embarrassment he needs to worry about either. But Jeter learned that regardless of what you do for your team, or your city, professional sports will always be strictly a business. Jeter has brought joy and grace to a fan base that hadn’t seen it in quite some time, he’s helped lead a once proud franchise back to that status, and yet when it’s time for a new contract the Yankees low ball their captain and then leak that he’s greedy to the press.

Derek Jeter is the perfect example of what we want in a baseball player: Talented. Humble. Charismatic. He’s clutch. Most importantly he's not an asshole.

The New York Yankees as an organization are the perfect example of what is wrong in baseball: Cocky. Entitled. They have a hall-of-fame infield that, not counting the catcher, is making $80MM. Four positions; $80MM. Prior to last season, the Twins had never spent that much money on an entire team, yet the Yankees are doing it for four players. Of course, the Yankees organization has worked incredibly hard over the years to market their brand, to take advantage of their gigantic market, and they've done that successfully.

It’s almost like the Yankees organization spent so much time working to make money so they knew that when this day came, and Derek Jeter needed to be taken care of, they could vastly outspend any team regardless of Jeter's on-field production, because of what he did in the past. So while Jeter may be upset that the negotiations became public, he needs to realize like many of us, that his ‘parents’ still did what was best for him and his career. It’s clear the Yankees are dedicated to Derek Jeter, and I’m sure sometime in the next three years, Jeter will find a way to say thank you. 

Now if I can just find a way to thank my parents...