Is Derek Jeter the Most Important Yankee Ever?

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The frustrating thing about the whole Derek Jeter conversation is that even if you — as I do — acknowledge him as an all-time great, inner-circle Hall of Famer and can’t find a bad thing to say about his professionalism, character or overall significance as a figure in the game, there are still people who will overstate the case for the guy. Example:

source:

Really? Because I sort of think that maybe Babe Ruth mattered more than Jeter did, historically speaking. I hope that’s not construed as a slam on Jeter or anything controversial. He merely redefined the game as it was played, saved baseball from the gambling scandals, put the Yankees on the map after two decades of them being a laughingstock and was the best player in the history of the game. You have to say that Babe Ruth mattered more, right?

But that’s how it’s always gone with Jeter. Through no fault of his own he gets lionized in some quarters to a degree that is preposterous, even if lionizing him in a slightly more reasonable way is totally valid. Maybe it is kind of his own fault, though. Since he never overstated his own importance or had a public me-first attitude, people feel the need to make up for him. I dunno.

But the question raised by that headline — which Yankees mattered most? — is an interesting one. And one completely separate and apart, in my mind at least, from who is the best player in team history, most famous, most admirable, etc. In terms of who mattered, where does Jeter rank?

My totally made-up criteria for that revolves mostly about who can be said to have lifted up the Yankees and brought them or restored them to greatness. Who the “face” of one of their multiple dynasties is. Who thrust the Yankees into the national conversation and who, in the course of that conversation, was the most important subject. Based on that, here’s my list:

1. Babe Ruth: He literally changed the way baseball was played. He literally saved baseball from ruin in the wake of the gambling scandals of the Dead Ball Era. He transformed the Yankees from a laughingstock in their first two decades into a baseball’s flagship franchise, which is a position they’re likely never to relinquish. And, as an afterthought, he was the best player in baseball history. If you say any Yankee — indeed, any player — “mattered more” than Babe Ruth, I’d like some of what you’re smoking.

2. Derek Jeter: Yes, second. I thought of putting Mantle here but changed my mind. My argument for Jeter: He is the face of a Yankees team that rose from the madness of Steinbrenner excess of the 80s and early 90s. People forget how far the Yankees as a brand had faltered by 1991 or 1992 or so, and Jeter represented its restoration. Baseball had reached a crazy parity before Jeter came along and the Yankees were not thought of as anything particularly special. Top-flight free agents signed with the Royals and Blue Jays on a pretty regular basis. When the Yankees won in 1996, the conversation and habits of this team changed, and in so changing, changed baseball. Obviously there were many contributors to this dynasty, but these have been “the Jeter Yankees” for the past 20 years. The decisions the Yankees made since 1996 have all been premised, implicitly or explicitly, on the idea of building around the core led by the star shortstop.

3. Mickey Mantle: Unlike Jeter and Ruth, Mantle did not represent a time when the Yankees were built up from nothing — he took over DiMaggio’s role as caretaker of the dynasty — but he did ensure that it would last for a couple more decades. For better or worse, the living memory of all of the elder statesmen sportswriters and commentators is dominated by Mantle, to the point where, when these folks talk about what the Yankees are and should be, they’re channeling their memories of the 1950s and 60s Yankees. Also: his rise and ultimate fall pretty neatly tracks the line of demarcation between so-called Golden Age Baseball and the next generation of free agents, free spirits, longhairs and all of the wonderfulness that came into the game in the 1970s. Just a historical touchstone and historical keystone.

4. Reggie Jackson: Emblematic of the Steinbrenner Yankees and emblematic of the notion that the Yankees could compete just fine, thank you, in that era of free agents, free spirits, longhairs and all of that. Yes, the Yankees came back to respectability after years in the post-Mantle wilderness thanks in large part to Thurman Munson, but those late 70s teams were, culturally speaking, Reggie’s teams to the bulk of the nation.

5. Gehrig/DiMaggio: When I floated this on Twitter people complained that I had them too low, but remember: this is not a list of “Greatest Yankees” or “Most Inspirational Yankees” or anything like that. It’s “Yankees who mattered” and I’m defining that in terms of guys who put their stamp on the team in some way. I have Gehrig and DiMaggio marked down a peg because (a) in many ways they merely perpetuated, rather than built, Yankee dynasties; and (b) Unlike Mantle, we’ve more or less lost their significance in terms of their living memory (people who were impacted by their exploits are mostly dead). Gehrig came up and spent his first several seasons as second banana to Ruth. He was the main show for really only a few years before DiMaggio came along. Same with DiMaggio bridging the gap between Ruth/Gehrig and Mantle. And his reign was interrupted by war years. It also “hurts” them that neither was a big personality in the way their predecessors or successors was. Not that that is a bad thing in actual terms. I will accept arguments, however, that Gehrig’s unfortunate sickness and the manner in which he left the game — the “luckiest man on the face of the Earth” speech — shoots him up the list because he came to personify a Yankees class that many still like to point to today. I just personally feel that that was more about Gehrig’s class than a general Yankees class than a lot of people think.

Others: Yogi, for all of his character and importance, was always second banana to DiMaggio and Mantle. Rivera was just a closer. I’m sorry. Yes, he was the best ever and there’s a certain drama that goes with closing, but there’s no way a closer is as important either culturally or in a baseball sense as an everyday player is. I mentioned Munson above. I’m choosing not to include owners, GMs and managers, so Rupert, Steinbrenner, Stengel, Cashman and all of them are part of another conversation. I don’t think I’m leaving anyone else out.

What say you?

Agent: Nick Senzel’s reassigment “egregious case of service time manipulation”

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Reds prospect Nick Senzel is ready for the majors. Although he battled injuries, the 23-year-old performed well with Triple-A Louisville last season, batting .310/.378/.509 with 20 extra-base hits, 25 RBI, 23 runs scored, and eight stolen bases in 193 plate appearances. Senzel has also performed well this spring, batting .308 across 39 at-bats.

The Reds, however, announced on Friday that Senzel was among a handful of players reassigned to minor league camp. Senzel was drafted as a third baseman, began playing second base last year, and had been playing in center field during spring training. The common thought is that the Reds, who have built a competitive roster, will keep Senzel at Triple-A to begin the season and call him up right after the club secures an extra year of contractual control.

Per ESPN’s Jeff Passan, Senzel’s agent Joel Wolfe calls Senzel’s reassignment an “egregious case of service time manipulation.” The full quote:

I don’t believe I’ve ever made public statements on this issue in my career, but I feel compelled to do so in this case where it feels like a simply egregious case of service time manipulation.

We are well aware of the mandate from ownership for the Reds to win this year — and this seems to fly in the face of it. The NL Central was decided by one game last year. Every game matters. This is a shortsighted move that may be frugal now but could cost them dearly later.

Nick Senzel is not a young prospect. He’s a major league-ready impact-type player. He has done everything they’ve asked this spring, including working hard to become a major league center fielder.

Nick takes pride in wearing the Reds uniform. He appreciates how much support he’s received from Reds fans. He’s going to go to Triple-A and prove every day he belongs in MLB.

We have covered the service time manipulation issue pretty extensively here, so Wolfe’s statement doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Prior to an injury, the Blue Jays were going to undeservingly stuff Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. — baseball’s No. 1 prospect — at Triple-A for the first two weeks or so of the season. The White Sox were going to do the same with Eloy Jiménez before using their leverage to nudge him into inking an extension. The Braves toyed with Ronald Acuña Jr.’s playing time last year. Kris Bryant and Maikel Franco filed respective grievances against the Cubs and Phillies for service time manipulation several years ago.

Team executives don’t outright admit to gaming a prospect’s service time to gain that extra year of control because that’s how one loses a grievance. They dance around the topic by making a nebulous claim, typically about the player’s defense needing to be worked on at Triple-A. That’s what the Cubs said about Bryant, and it’s what the Jays said about Guerrero. It’s a subjective enough evaluation that it can’t be falsified. It’s why the grievances that have been filed over this have fizzled out and it’s why more and more teams have brazenly joined the service time manipulation bandwagon.

Senzel’s case is, admittedly, a bit more murky. Though he performed well this spring, Scott Schebler has outperformed him, batting .379 with five extra-base hits and 11 walks in roughly 40 trips to the plate. The starting spot in right field is taken by Yasiel Puig and left field is taken by Jesse Winker. Schebler has ostensibly earned the starting job in center. I can’t imagine Wolfe having a compelling case if he were to file a grievance on Senzel’s behalf.

That being said, it is important that agents (and the MLBPA) speak out about this when they can. Senzel’s case may not be open-and-shut, but bringing service time manipulation into the public consciousness will have a lasting impact ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement. Holding team executives publicly accountable may make them less willing to manipulate their players’ service time going forward, as it may sour what could otherwise be a terrific relationship between team and player. Service time manipulation is an important piece of the labor puzzle and those on the players’ side have to seize whatever they can to potentially gain leverage. Awareness leads to solidarity.