What do you do about a 36-year-old beloved franchise icon with fading defensive skills but enormous brand value? Why, of course, you give him a 15 percent raise to make sure the team benefits from his legacy. That's exactly what the Baltimore Orioles did for Cal Ripken Jr. on Opening Day 1997, a sort of global view of the player that stands in stark contrast to how the Yankees are valuing Derek Jeter at the same age.
When rewarded, Ripken still was a year away from free agency and entering the final year of a five-year contract for $32.5 million, once the richest total deal in baseball history that included post-career compensation ($2 million for four years) and special hotel, parking, security and merchandise arrangements.
"It was a multi-dimensional deal, not just a baseball deal," said Larry Lucchino, the Orioles president then, of the five-year contract he negotiated with Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro. Lucchino now holds a similar title with the Boston Red Sox. "We worked on it over a long period of time."
The Orioles adhered to the same perspective in 1997 -- not even letting the face of their franchise get to free agency. They gave Ripken a raise from $6.5 million per year to $7.55 million per year in what was a two-year extension with an option. Not only was the option picked up at $6.3 million, the Orioles also brought him back at age 40 and with a bad back and coming off a .256 season again without a pay cut, giving him another $6.3 million.
Baltimore paid Ripken an average of $6.925 million per season in the last four years of his career, ages 37-40, which was more than the $6.5 million rate in his record deal previously.
Putting a number on iconic value -- especially when introducing a pay cut -- is at the heart of the Yankees' negotiating troubles with Jeter. To compare Jeter in a one-year statistical vacuum to shortstops such as Marco Scutaro is foolish. Jeter is the most marketable player in baseball, has the sport's highest Q rating, a measurement of not just popularity but also appeal to fans, has accumulated 16 years of tremendous goodwill for the Yankees and is their modern link in the chain of Yankee Hall of Fame everyday players who never wore another uniform, from Gehrig to DiMaggio to Mantle.
The Yankees have every right to take a hard line on Jeter based only on the ominous statistical models of how infielders age through their late 30s. They want to significantly cut his pay and they don't want to pay him for more than three years. But also by picking a fight so publically with Jeter, the Yankees have shown a willingness to live with two consequences of such an approach: they don't mind losing an iconic player and they don't mind having devalued one of their greatest assets if he does come back.
"I don't get it," said one National League GM. "You see all the money they [throw] away on much lesser players year after year and they choose to hold the line on this guy, of all people? They're always giving out extra money and extra years but not for their captain? You would think there is some room for loyalty. I mean, who was the one standing at home plate addressing the crowd at Yankee Stadium when George Steinbrenner died? Franchise players like this just don't come along often."
"With iconic players, you pay a player because of what he's done for you," said a senior NL executive, "whereas another team pays him because of what they think he
Think in Yankees terms, not baseball terms, about the cost of playing hardball with Jeter, who just finished a 10-year, $189 million contract. The Yankees, who reportedly offered Jeter a three-year, $45 million deal, want to cut Jeter's pay by 21 percent, to pay him less money than they committed for Kei Igawa, to pay him less money annually than they do A.J. Burnett, and, including this deal, to pay him less money over his entire Yankee career than they will give Alex Rodriguez just for the nine seasons between when he turns 34 and 43. Of course, no one is allowed to mention Rodriguez's 10-year, $275 million contract in the negotiating room.
In 2010 alone they paid $20.7 million for pitchers Igawa, Javy Vazquez, Damaso Marte and Andrew Brackman -- none of whom were on the postseason roster. And there was another $16.5 million -- and three more years of it -- for Burnett, who last year was the worst pitcher in franchise history ever given 30 starts (5.26 ERA) and, unfortunately for the Yankees,
Cutting an icon's pay is difficult, especially in how heavy-handed the Yankees have been about wanting to do it. Consider these comps to Jeter:
All of those icons, three of whom (Brett, Molitor and Ripken) are already in the Hall of Fame and two who have a good chance to get there, played in small markets with nothing close to New York's resources or pattern of excess spending. And how did they fare past their age 36 seasons? The results are mixed. Here are the years they played after 36 and the average number of games played, batting average and adjusted OPS in those sunset years:
In the best case scenario for Jeter, he is another Molitor and makes a run at becoming only the sixth player ever with 3,500 hits -- a most unpleasant scenario for the Yankees if Jeter does so in another uniform. Jeter did have a markedly worse season than Molitor in their walk years, but also did show signs at the end of the season closer to his usual self. In his final 28 games, including the postseason, after some physical and mechanical adjustments, Jeter's batting average (.311) and OBP (.390) were in line with his career averages (.314 and .385).
A few down months by Jeter 16 years into his career have handed the Yankees leverage, and they are wielding it like a ballpeen hammer in public.
Twelve months ago they refused a request by Jeter to talk about an extension. Five months ago they refused to put his heir apparent, Eduardo Nunez, in a trade to get Cliff Lee, a refusal that cost them the World Series. And now they run a media campaign, both overt and covert, to convince Jeter and the public of his diminished value.
The NL senior executive considered one possible endgame to keep Jeter with the Yankees: The club adds enough money to the package, especially in a large fourth-year buyout, to avoid a pay cut and keep Jeter's average annual value (AAV) at $18.9 million. One proposal: salaries of $16 million for the next three years with an $8.7 million buyout in the fourth year. "The Yankees can claim lower annual salaries and Jeter can claim the same AAV," the executive said. "At some point the move to reach out to Jeter will have to be made by Hal [Steinbrenner]. He's the one with the [family] name."
New York would need to add just $11.7 million spread over four years for that proposal. But there is no indication the Yankees want to retreat even that much. And there is no certainty Jeter would accept such a deal.
If there is no movement, Jeter and his agent, Casey Close, soon could begin to engage other clubs -- not so much to find more money as much as interpreting the Yankees' campaign as time to move on. The Giants are monitoring the negotiations. The Dodgers or Angels make the most sense because of the star-driven Los Angeles market, where Jeter's girlfriend, actress Minka Kelly, works. The Dodgers saw the economic boom when Manny Ramirez hit town in 2008; Jeter could provide measurable effects across multiple media platforms, and his agents at Creative Artists could sell and craft such a deal to owner Frank McCourt in the way they sell movie stars to studios. As it stands now, the Dodgers have no true marketable star coming off a losing season and, according to one baseball source, stand to "lose season ticket holders in droves."
Understand that the most likely scenario remains that Jeter returns to the Yankees, albeit diminished by this negotiation.
"All of us thought it's just a matter of time before it gets done," said the NL executive. "And I still think so. But I will say that with each day that goes by, another outcome becomes possible. The thing you have to remember is when you have players of this stature, it's very hard to cut their pay."
If Ripken's endgame is instructive, so, too, is the one for Molitor. Eighteen years ago, all of baseball assumed Molitor would return to the Brewers, as people do today with Jeter and New York -- until the day Molitor, stunned by the proposed pay cut by Milwaukee, wrote a letter to the other 27 teams to inform them that he was "not totally committed to coming back" to the Brewers. He signed shortly after that with Toronto.
"Some people take people for granted," Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick said then.
The Brewers immediately sank to last place. Molitor was the 1993 World Series MVP for Toronto. Watching him from the stands was Brewers owner and interim commissioner Bud Selig. "It hurts, no question about it," Selig said.
Three years later, Molitor was a free agent again. The Brewers tried to bring him back. Instead, he signed with Minnesota, his hometown team.
"I get the impression there are some people there who don't understand how I could turn down the opportunity to return to Milwaukee," he said then. "Maybe the majority of it might have been increased bitterness that existed from when I left the first time."