TAMPA, Fla. – The high road has transported Derek Jeter(notes) to unimaginable glory, wealth and personal satisfaction. He isn't about to take an alternate route now, even with the New York Yankees refusing to discuss a contract extension with him until after the season.
Jeter might have lucked onto his well-appointed career path when the Astros, Indians, Expos, Orioles and Reds passed him up in the 1992 draft, leaving him for the Yankees, who picked sixth. But he's done his part since, becoming a model employee by remaining ethical, diplomatic, productive and focused on the greater good of the organization.
So given a chance Wednesday to grouse about the Yankees' policy to put off contract discussions until a player becomes a free agent, Jeter didn't come close to exiting the high road. If anything, he compromised his negotiating power by stating repeatedly that he doesn't want to play for another team.
"It's their organization and they can make any policy they want. I have no issue with that," he said. "This is the only organization I ever wanted to play for, and that's true today. I was a Yankee fan growing up, this is where I want to be. I've never envisioned myself playing anywhere else and hopefully I don't have to."
He said he wouldn't address the topic again until after the season. New York is a tough town to stonewall the media on a subject of such great interest to the fan base, but nobody knows that better than a player who has spent his entire 15-year career with the Yankees.
"I think it is unfair to talk about myself when we are trying to win," Jeter said. "I know it might cause a lot of speculation, and maybe a few stories. But it won't be a distraction because I won't talk about it."
Determining his worth will be more complex than for most players. That the discussion takes place in baseball's uppermost economic stratum is surely a reason Jeter prefers to remain with the Yankees, and prefers to do so via quick, quiet negotiations befitting his status as captain, franchise cornerstone and immaculate marketing icon.
Economics is the primary reason Jeter has been in pinstripes as long as he has. No other team doles out 10-year, $189 million contracts the way the Yankees did for Jeter in 2001. Most teams lose younger stars because free agency drives them to more lucrative environs. The Yankees keep the guys they want because they can pay them: Jeter, Alex Rodriguez(notes), Mariano Rivera(notes) and Jorge Posada(notes) are the most recent examples.
Rivera is in the same position as Jeter, in the last year of a generous deal at an advancing age. Expect both players to be re-signed. General manager Brian Cashman won't negotiate with any of them until the season ends.
"They’ve been Yankees for life and that's what we intend to see happen," Cashman said. "You start those conversations at a different time and place you feel is more appropriate."
What would it take to re-sign Jeter? Disliking free agency and wishing to remain a Yankee doesn't necessarily mean he'd agree to a hometown discount. Why should he when Rodriguez will be paid $174 million for seven years beginning in 2011, carrying him through age 42?
Jeter is in similarly excellent physical condition. He is coming off one of his best statistical seasons, batting .334 with an .871 OPS and rediscovered range at shortstop. And, of course, the Yankees won their first World Series title since 2000. Even projecting that he'd change positions in two or three years, an offer of less than six years and $120 million could feel like penny-pinching.
Barring injury, he'll reach 3,000 hits in 2011. That ought to happen in a Yankee uniform. He'd likely eclipse Hank Aaron and end up third on the all-time hits list behind Pete Rose and Ty Cobb before retirement. That, conceivably, could happen in another uniform if the Yankees don't offer more than a three- or four-year deal.
Willie Mays finished with the Mets and Babe Ruth with the Boston Braves. Teams often recognize when a player is through before the player does. For all the heartfelt die-in-the-pinstripes sentiment he expressed Wednesday, Jeter could end his career as a designated hitter for the Rays, Royals or Rangers.
He acknowledged life beyond the Yankees only in the context of Johnny Damon(notes) and Hideki Matsui(notes), aging former teammates ignored by the team when they became free agents after the World Series.
"That's when you realize this is a business," Jeter said. "Guys move on, guys retire. Those are the things that are hard to adjust to, losing the people you get to know."
So Jeter enters the season with no promises, having just watched two longtime teammates be ignored by the Yankees despite publicly saying they wanted to re-sign. For the first time, his high road doesn't lead to a clear destination. Chances are it will carry him to more seasons in pinstripes, more riches and possibly more championships. He doesn't want to consider alternatives, won't allow himself to veer off course.
"I can't think about what happens after this year," he said. "I'll say it again: This is the only organization I want to play for. I can't say that enough times."