Wednesday November 24th, 2010

What if his name were, oh, Frank Menechino?

And what if Frank Menechino were 36, and coming off the worst season of his career, and only a mediocre defensive player with declining speed and power?

What if that were the case?

Would the New York Yankees be anxious to re-sign Frank Menechino? For $20 million annually? For four or five years?

And, were they not, what team would even think of making a lucrative offer? Perhaps the Pittsburgh Pirates, but only because they're the Pittsburgh Pirates. Maybe the New York Mets, but only because they're the New York Mets. The Orioles? The Astros? Anyone?

What about the agent? Were Frank Menechino on the open market, would his agent -- say, someone like Casey Close -- be evoking Babe Ruth comparisons? Would he be talking about all that his client can do for a franchise?

No.

No.

No.

No.

Of course, Derek Jeter is no Frank Menechino, the mediocre middle infielder who, between 1999 and 2005, bounced up and down and all around while playing in 449 career games with Oakland and Toronto. Jeter is a legend. An icon. A man with five World Series rings and a spot alongside Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle as not merely a Yankee great, but a baseball icon.

Which, in the fall/winter of 2010, means absolutely nothing.

Over the past few days, the Yankees and Close, Jeter's agent, have been exchanging barbs through the Big Apple tabloids. Brian Cashman, the team's longtime general manager, insists that, should Jeter feel compelled to test the free-agent market in search of a deal that would pay in excess of $15 million annually for three seasons, well, go ahead. Talk to Cincinnati. Talk to Milwaukee. Hell, talk to the Red Sox. See what's out there, then come back and give us a chance to match.

Close, meanwhile, is crying disrespect. A couple of days ago he told Mike Lupica of New York's Daily News that the franchise was acting ungrateful and petty. "There's a reason the Yankees themselves have stated Derek Jeter is their modern-day Babe Ruth," Close said. "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."

Translated into English, Close's case is this: Derek Jeter has been great for so long, the Yankees must pay him.

Which, of course, is hogwash.

Thanks to the outlandish loot bestowed upon athletes immediately after drafts, professional sports have universally decided to pay for potential, not history. The reason the St. Louis Rams handed Sam Bradford, the No. 1 overall selection in the most recent NFL Draft, a six-year, $78 million contract while simultaneously dumping Marc Bulger, the team's starter for seven seasons? One symbolized hope, the other yesteryear.

In other words, if Close isn't careful, he's about to enter a brawl he -- and the increasingly geriatric Jeter -- can't possibly win. Throughout modern sports history, an endless stream of so-called "irreplaceable" franchise players (many of whom were greater in their respective sports than Jeter is as a baseball player) have concluded their careers elsewhere and the world has yet to explode. Joe Namath, the magnificent Jets quarterback, became a Ram. Wayne Gretzky, the ultimate Edmonton icon, jumped from Los Angeles to St. Louis to the New York Rangers. Michael Jordan was, briefly, a Washington Wizard. With rare exception, the moves never work out. In New York, Namath was cocksure and unflappable. In Los Angeles, he was a battered piñata. In Edmonton, Gretzky was Moses on ice. In New York, he was a fragile porcelain figurine. In Chicago, Jordan was, well, His Airness. In Washington, he seemed shriveled. Small. Insignificant.

When Derek Jeter approaches the plate at Yankee Stadium, decked out in pinstripes and his familiar No. 2, a genuine jolt of anticipation fills the stands. He is New York's favorite son; a man who rose through the system, lifted the ballclub to new heights, became a leader and a symbol of a certain excellence.

Should Close continue with his bombastic stance, however, he better be prepared to walk and, consequently, surrender everything Jeter has worked for. After all, we live in a world of increasingly short attention spans. Ten ... 20 ... 30 years ago, an icon bolting New York is earth-shattering news for months. Now, in the era of Facebook and Twitter, heroes and villains, stars and scrubs all vanish in the blink of an eye. Quick -- who won last season's American Idol? Quick -- who won the Super Bowl three seasons back?

It was Charles de Gaulle who once wisely noted that, "the cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men." If the indispensable Derek Jeter leaves New York, he will be replaced. There are other leaders out there. Other gritty ballplayers biting at the chops to play in New York.

Maybe Frank Menechino is thinking comeback.

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