What Do You Do With An Aging Player?

Derek Jeter and the Yankees are currently embroiled in some low-hum sort of back-and-forth about how much they’ll pay the young legend for his final years of service. Will it be an insulting 15 mill a year, or a peaceful 20 mill a year, who knows? What’s notable about the negotiation is that Jeter has anywhere near the leverage to make this thing fair.

Here’s where I come from: I watched Craig Biggio slip and slide into statistical face-slappery as he got older. He played out his big money contract past the point when he was earning his keep, and when he and the Astros got back to the table, he took a monster pay cut because he wanted to play for the team what brung him, and the Astros were happy to oblige. The Astros side of the bargain was to give this guy, this scion of Houston, a spot on the baseball field from which to work a little longer, until he got to 3000 hits and we carried him off down the road on our shoulders.

The feeling at the time was that the Astros were doing Biggio a favor, and he was repaying us fans and the team with his glowing presence and the pleasure of his Hall of Fame credential-building. The money had less to do with it than anything. The currency in those negotiations were the good vibrations exchanged from player to fans to owner to fans to player: a big drum circle of love.

What does that say about Derek Jeter and the Yankees? I think it says that Jeter should be happy enough with the 189 million he put away for his prime years contract and change what he thinks of as the currency in this latest transaction. Because the money, for an aging player who is sufficiently wealthy, is about the last thing that he should be worrying about. The currency is the career.

Eyes open, Derek, and take a look at Brett Favre. Is he worried about some extra scratch at this point, or is he floating psychologically speaking like a man in a lifeboat out at sea, wondering where the hell the ocean liner underneath him went? Of course Jeter is unlikely headed for any kind of outright shame or embarrassment, but the general point is, with me bringing up both Biggio in the good guy sense and Favre in the d-bag sense, is that the negotiations for these fellows who are Hall of Famers in their craft involved not how the money would flesh out in the twilight years, but how the twilight years themselves would look. Biggio’s last years glowed like the dying embers in the fireplace of an Aspen ski lodge, because he made it so, he negotiated that with his employers and with his fans.

Favre’s career has barfed itself and passed out in a nightclub bathroom, because he showed up to the negotiations half in the bag and has stumbled around the place since then, alienating most everybody he gets near.

My point is that the currency of the late years in a career is not dollars for this caliber of player. Rather, it’s the way that you negotiate your positioning with the team and with the fans. When Jeter’s slowdown reaches the point that it inevitably will, when he is a wildly overpaid shortstop clogging a roster spot because he makes too much money to cut him, well that will play out as a badly negotiated contract. Not for his bottom line, of course, but for the bottom line of his legacy.

I feel like a schmuck for bringing up the “legacy” deal. It’s just a sleazy way to admit that we are all sitting around in judgment of our fellow man and woman, waiting to decide how we will perceive them after their tours of duty in the public eye are complete. Ooh, how is his legacy, is her legacy in tact, how many miles across is that legacy? Yes, that’s our job as fans, but at the core of it there’s this awful human truth that what you did 15 years ago either doesn’t matter or has become such a tired topic of conversation that it’s more important right here and right now that we’re all extremely happy with how much you’re being paid as a dwindlingly competent baseball player.

So the currency here isn’t money, and it’s not really even doing “the right thing.” Rather, the currency is in the perception. Negotiating the final years of a masterful career is about positioning oneself skillfully between the fans who want a winner on the field but who never really want Derek Jeter to leave or to diminish, and between the team, who want to win and to grab new players and to honor their old guys but see that they get along on their way. Upset the fans and you find yourself an albatross in the public eye and you tarnish your legacy and everyone’s in a sour mood (an example that comes to mind would be Carlos Lee, not a super elite player but a well-liked one who is basically the easiest joke in the Astros fan arsenal). Upset the team, though, and you’re out on your ass before you’re ready to stop playing (this is, of course, highly unlikely in Jeter’s case, but then who thought Favre would ever don a Viking’s jersey?).

Take care, Derek Jeter, is what I’ll offer. There will be a time when your brain tells your body to grab that sharp grounder, and your body will disobey. You will probably feel like the physical world is turning its back on you, that the rules were changed when you were looking away. The rules didn’t change, they’ve always been the same. Where there’s a variable, it’s in choosing who is waiting for you at the crossroads when it’s a new road you’ve got to travel down.

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