- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 30, 2010

There will come a time in the near future when a plaque honoring Derek Jeter will join some of the great Yankees of the past behind the center-field fence at the new stadium in the Bronx.

Not a terribly large one, of course, because the oversized tribute to George Steinbrenner now hogs most of the space in Monument Park. But a plaque nonetheless, complete with a likeness of the shortstop and some numbers delineating his years of service to the Yankees.

That those years are winding down is the one thing both sides in Jeter’s current contract talks might agree upon. Shortstop is a position for a young player to occupy, and Jeter is now 36 and coming off a season where his batting average plummeted 64 points to .270.

His value to the Yankees going forward won’t necessarily be in leading off a game with a double or flashing some leather up the middle. He’ll earn his money by selling a new Yankee legend and making fans feel all warm and fuzzy when they reach deep into their wallets to watch him play out the string.

For that he reportedly wants to be rewarded with four or five more years on the payroll. Jeter would like another $100 million or so, boosting his career earnings from the only team he has ever played for somewhere north of $300 million.

Crazy money, sure, though not nearly as crazy as the money the Yankees are on the hook for over the next seven years for the 34-year-old who plays next to Jeter on the infield. The numbers suggest a supposedly steroid-free Alex Rodriguez is already in decline, yet the biggest portion of his 10-year $275 million contract has yet to be paid.

The Yankees don’t want to repeat their mistake with Jeter. The problem is, they really don’t have much choice.

The Boss would have realized that. His son apparently doesn’t.

“As much as we want to keep everybody, we’ve already made these guys very, very rich, and I don’t feel we owe anybody anything monetarily,” Hank Steinbrenner said last week. “Some of these players are wealthier than their bosses.”

Chalk that up as public posturing, if you will. But a baseball executive familiar with the negotiations told the AP’s Ronald Blum on Monday that Jeter and the Yankees haven’t talked in more than a week and that Jeter’s side hasn’t made a formal counter proposal to the club’s initial $45 million, three-year offer to the future Hall of Fame shortstop.

Then again, there’s no real need to hurry. Jeter isn’t going anywhere else.

No other team is going to pay him superstar money in the twilight of his career. The Yankees don’t have to get into a bidding contest for his remaining talents.

But they do have to sign him. And they will have to give him more than three years.

Assuming things don’t get too acrimonious between employee and employer, it will be money well spent. Jeter is the face of the Yankees this generation, just as Reggie Jackson was before him and Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra were before that.

He’s played shortstop for five World Series winning teams in two different stadiums in the Bronx, come to bat 10,548 times as a Yankee, and lived his life in a fishbowl without a whiff of any kind of scandal. In an era where players _ A-Rod included _ routinely bulked up on steroids to cheat the game there’s never been a hint that Jeter used anything other than talent and hard work to play shortstop at a consistently high level over 15 full seasons.

Jeter will break into the exclusive 3,000 hit club sometime next year, and will likely one day end his career in the top five in hits of all time. He’s done it all in one uniform under the most demanding expectations from both fans and a larger-than-life late owner.

Jeter is such a Yankee that he stood in front of home plate after the final game at the old stadium to lead the crowd in farewell to the stadium that Ruth built, then led his teammates on a slow lap around the field. Every time he comes to plate at the new stadium he is introduced at his insistence by a recording of the late public address announcer Bob Sheppard. He’s a link to Yankees of the past, a bridge to the Yankees of the future. His popularity is one of the reasons the Yankees were able to build a new stadium, and one of the reasons they have a television network that makes them huge profits.

Former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent suggested in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal on Monday that players seeking huge contracts might be better off negotiating for a piece of the team instead. Indeed, the idea of Jeter owning a small percentage of the Yankees would likely be appealing to both the shortstop and New York fans, if not the Steinbrenners themselves.

In the absence of that, give him money and give him years.

And start polishing the plaque for the day that will surely come.


Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org

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