Friday, November 19, 2010

Class & Professionalism on Clearance

This week’s New York sports news centers on the most important baseball player the city has seen over the past 15 years. It seems inconceivable, yet the New York Yankees have chosen to play hardball with Derek Jeter in contract negotiations, with the owner even going so far as to warn us all that this could get “messy.”

Hal Steinbrenner and associates are apparently working hard to avoid overpaying the face of the franchise. New York has won five championships during Jeter’s tenure as starting shortstop, captain and overall role model for the pinstriped club. Apparently, Jeter’s clutch play and classy professionalism are not enough to stand in the way of his drop in offensive statistics last season. The Yankees have reviewed the data, and have decided the best way to do business is by making the ultimate stand-up guy sweat.

It’s true that Jeter has earned more money than any of us need in a lifetime, and it hardly seems productive for any of us to worry about the salaries of multimillionaires. But sometimes, we follow these contract talks not out of any concern for the salaries awarded, but more out of a genuine interest in knowing how much loyalty and integrity are worth these days.

I don’t think the Yankees could have ever dreamed they’d have a more impressive team leader in the astounding run of success they’ve experienced in this past decade and a half. When you are running the most profitable franchise in the history of professional team sports, you honor that success by going ahead and paying the man who symbolizes everything there is to like about you. There are some athletes and entertainers who transcend the word “overpaid” – the Jordans, the Ripkens, the Bradys, the Gretzkys. No one cares how much they made – only that they stayed put.

In 21st-century baseball, statistics rule the day. Yesterday, Felix Hernandez of the Seattle Mariners won the American League’s Cy Young Award with just 13 wins – the lowest total in history for a Cy Young-winning starter. While Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price won 19 games for a division-winning team, Hernandez received the award based on his overall numbers. And it’s true that Hernandez gave up fewer runs per game than Price and struck out more batters. But it’s also true that Price won numerous big games in a pennant race, with constant pressure. He was stronger in September than in any month of the year, and he continually found a way to win. Yet that was not enough to make up for the fact that the computer screen tells us Hernandez was better.

Derek Jeter was not the best player on anyone’s fantasy baseball team last year, and he won’t be the best next year, either. But if you think the Yankees will be a better team without him next year, or the year after that, then you aren’t watching the game – you’re just looking at statistics. There is a lot more to a great athlete than numbers. And if you’re going to use the numbers as the foundation for your negotiations, then you can assure yourself that you’ll build a team with no chemistry and no intangibles. Just a half-decade ago, the Yankees gave Jeter supremely talented teammates such as Randy Johnson, Gary Sheffield, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Giambi – only to see those players bring New York no further than the first round of the playoffs in their time together.

There is something more to life than mere numbers. If stats were everything, then colleges would ask only for students’ SATs, discarding all those essays and recommendations that give us a much closer look into the minds and hearts of these kids. Data assessment may drive the working world of 2010, but if you don’t look up from your spreadsheet once in awhile, you can miss some pretty amazing things.

Like Derek Jeter singling to the opposite field on a 3-2 count in the late innings of a playoff game. Or Jeter knowing just what to say to calm a rookie starter before a game against the Red Sox in Fenway Park. Or Jeter taking the time to work with children in need on an off-day. Or Jeter nodding his head to the young fan who calls out his name as he jogs back to the dugout.

The Yankees are crunching numbers and eyeing the bottom line. In so doing, they’re trying to reduce the price of true professionalism. If you can glance away from the data for a moment and look more deeply into the value of the man, you’ll see that this is one mistake that no one should even consider making. You can’t get a class act like Derek Jeter on clearance. And you really shouldn’t be trying.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Woes of a Pinstriped Democrat

This November 5th feels a bit different for me than it has in recent years. Two years ago on this day, I drove around town buying as many different newspapers as I could in order to save all accounts of Barack Obama’s election the day before as 44th president of the United States. Last year, I did the same thing in order to save all accounts of the New York Yankees’ 27th world championship the day before against the Philadelphia Phillies.

But oh, what a difference a year or two makes. There was no reason to hit up the delis for newsprint today. Unless, of course, I want to chronicle the rise of Marco Rubio for my children. Or share the detailed accounts of the San Francisco Giants’ victory parade.

For a man who has found much inspiration from the slogans “Yes We Can” and “Let’s Go Yankees,” November 2010 is a rather downcast month. The Republicans are back in power and rarin’ to dismantle the president’s policies. And the Giants used rock-solid pitching to overpower a Texas Rangers team that had easily dismissed New York’s superstars a week earlier.

So what’s a Democrat in pinstripes to do?

I could join the crowd, turn on Obama and chide him for any number of reasons – from failing to turn around the runaway economic train in time for the midterm elections, to failing to communicate as effectively as he did while campaigning, to being too moderate/centrist/liberal/socialist (pick your label, then spin away). I could watch the cable stations, listen to the pundits, and let their words become my own.

As for the Yankees, I could blame manager Joe Girardi for his playoff pitching decisions. I could blame the overpriced hitters who didn’t hit in the postseason. Or I could chalk it up to a shortage of pitching, and hope that the teams spends the equivalent of a developing country’s entire GDP on Texas Rangers starter Cliff Lee.

I could complain, lower my head, and remind myself that fairy tales don’t last forever. I could retreat to cynicism, that safe harbor where we all can drop anchor and protect ourselves from ever having the audacity to hope. It’s an eerie place, that harbor, one where everyone hides inside a shell only to pop out every so often to shoot a spitball at somebody else.

I could go there, sure. But every April, when a new baseball season begins, I find myself unable to do such a thing as lose hope. I can’t ever stop believing in the Yankees, no matter what the lineup looks like. You simply can’t associate yourself with such a long, hard, unpredictable sport unless you’re willing to pour all the hope you’ve got into your team. The game will break your heart far more often than not, but the heartbreak is all worth it if you’ve followed those balls and strikes with passion.

Our nation’s government is exponentially more important than a baseball game. But the sport’s rhythms can serve as a guide for this cold November rain I’m feeling right now. When you’ve felt inspired and deeply moved by the words and ideas of an elected official, a few months of disappointment and defeat cannot be enough to turn your hopes into hardened bitterness. Like baseball, politics is a game of seasons, and when one season ends that simply means another is on its way. In between those seasons, we witness adjustments and reevaluations. We hear about new game plans, new supporting players, and new energy.

There have been very few politicians in my 39 years who have inspired me to become a better person through their words and leadership. Two years ago, I voted for one of those select few. I have hung my hat on President Obama, and that hat is staying right where it is. He is retooling now in the White House, just as the Yankees are doing in the South Bronx. The next season will differ from the previous one. The road map toward change looks different now, but that’s a result of the democratic process.

I stopped into a deli today and checked out the front pages: A few stories about the Tea Party. A feature on Conan O’Brien. Obituaries on Sparky Anderson, the legendary baseball manager. The post-election stories explained quite clearly that our political landscape looks much different than it did two days ago. But the remaining stories reminded me that life has gone on. There is still a country to lead, and still a need for inspiring guidance and encouragement.

This is not a time for quitting. Not for the president, and not for those who have placed their trust in him. You pick your head up, you look ahead, and you keep hoping. Can we at least do that? Yes, of course we can.