Ruffling Jeter's feathers is vintage Steinbrenner

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

February 16, 2003|By PETER SCHMUCK

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner knew exactly what he was doing when he got under the skin of superstar shortstop Derek Jeter during the offseason.

Steinbrenner, still stinging after a short postseason, hinted that his franchise player was spending too much time on the town and not enough time working to maintain the level of performance that established him in the late 1990s as one of the game's best clutch players.

It was an old-school Steinbrenner tactic intended to light a fire under a team that has gone two whole years without a world title. Jeter took the bait and fired back Thursday, creating just enough residual acrimony to keep the New York tabloids humming through the first weekend of training camp.

The initial charge was specious. Jeter is a diligent professional who is known by his peers to have his priorities very much in order. He puts his job first, but he also clearly enjoys some of the perks that come with being a rich, handsome, famous, young bachelor. Who wouldn't? The Boss doesn't really care about that, but he has become so spoiled by the Yankees' recent success that one year without a World Series was enough to get his blood boiling. He has done a pretty good job of staying out of the spotlight since returning from a lengthy suspension in the early 1990s, but he couldn't resist the temptation to stir the pot for old times' sake.

Give Steinbrenner credit on one count. He generally picks on someone his own size. During the 1970s and early '80s, it was Billy Martin or Reggie Jackson. During the '80s, it was Dave Winfield. Now it's Jeter, one of the players most responsible for the great Yankees resurgence.

No doubt, the volatile Yankees owner fancies himself a master manipulator, pushing just the right buttons to re-establish the edge that he felt was lacking in 2002. Jeter was just a convenient target.

Trouble is, Jeter isn't Martin or Jackson or Winfield. He's much more accustomed to cashing World Series checks than playing mind games with the owner, so there is no way of knowing just how he'll respond to Steinbrenner's machinations.

Most likely, he'll go about his business and the well-stocked Yankees will cruise back into the World Series, allowing Steinbrenner to believe that he helped the franchise get refocused.

Then Jeter won't have to look over his shoulder every time he goes dancing next winter.

Piniella's glass half full

New Tampa Bay Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella apparently is an optimist. What other choice does he have after giving up one of the prime managerial jobs in baseball to take over a train wreck like the Devil Rays organization?

Piniella has set a reasonable goal for the first year - to set a franchise record for wins in a season, which shouldn't be an impossible dream considering that the team has never finished out of the American League East cellar. After that, the next step is a .500 record.

If all goes according to the Piniella plan, the Devil Rays will be competitive in the AL East in three years.

"Our job here basically is to get to .500 first," he told the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. "The quicker we can get this thing to .500, the better off we're going to be as an organization, and from there we can take the next step forward.

"I think that's going to be done here quicker than people anticipate."

General manager Chuck LaMar has bought into that positive outlook, predicting that the Devil Rays also will turn around at the gate.

"Winning is going to attract fans to the Trop and Lou Piniella helps us win," LaMar said. "You put a winning product at Tropicana Field and you're not going to hear any more about driving across bridges. You're not going to hear about concessions. You're not going to hear about parking. You're not going to hear about anything. They're going to come."

Of course, they'll have to cross that bridge when they come to it.

No fool for a lawyer

Seattle Mariners pitcher Jamie Moyer succeeded this winter where a lot of experienced player agents could not. He personally negotiated a three-year contract with the club that will guarantee him $15.5 million.

Not bad for a guy who turned 40 in November and doesn't throw much harder than the average corporate attorney.

"It was a good experience," Moyer said. "I learned a lot about the business side of the game, how this organization deals with negotiations. I felt I had to be well-prepared and thorough."

Just another impressive achievement from a resourceful pitcher who has never taken no for an answer. He was little more than a journeyman pitcher when he passed through Baltimore in the early 1990s, but he transformed himself into one of the most dependable winners in the American League.

Cone's comeback

What made David Cone decide to come out of retirement and sign a minor-league contract with the New York Mets? Mets pitchers Al Leiter and John Franco talked him into it.

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