Jeter tries to play down feud with Steinbrenner

Shortstop says his focus is still on field, winning

February 18, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. - It was just a typical day at the Bronx Zoo.

Superstar shortstop Derek Jeter was lost in a sea of media, trying to play down the seemingly simmering feud that developed over the winter with volatile owner George Steinbrenner.

On the other side of Legends Field - the New York Yankees' sparkling spring training facility that is currently doubling as a three-ring circus - team officials were setting up a news conference for Japanese superstar Hideki Matsui, who was making his first appearance in the team's major-league camp.

The Yankees open full-squad workouts today, but the headline machine already is running at full throttle.

The club also has welcomed Cuban pitcher Jose Contreras and welcomed back big stars Jason Giambi and Roger Clemens. This Yankees roster will cost Steinbrenner about $150 million over the course of the season, but it's already paying for itself in the any-publicity-is-good-publicity department.

Jeter held an impromptu news conference in the Yankees dugout to clear up the controversy that has been brewing for several weeks. Steinbrenner, rankled by his club's early exit from last year's playoffs, had questioned Jeter's focus and hinted that he was spending too much time enjoying the perks that come with Yankee fame and fortune.

The 28-year-old shortstop is one of New York's most eligible bachelors - and he clearly enjoys his place in the spotlight - but the criticism from the owner seemed misplaced. Jeter has been one of the most productive young players in Yankee history, even if his numbers last year did not glisten quite as much as some of his earlier performances.

"The way it's been painted is that I've lost focus and gotten immersed in the nightlife," Jeter said.

Then the story took on a life of its own. Steinbrenner never specifically questioned Jeter's work ethic, but his comments were ambiguous enough to create the impression that Jeter had become some kind of party animal. When the popular infielder tried to blunt the controversy by saying that he wasn't doing anything differently than he had in the past, that comment was construed by one of the local tabloids to mean that he was going to go right on partying.

The back page of the New York Daily News had a full-page picture of Jeter and a giant headline that said "Party On."

To that point, Jeter said he had been determined to ignore Steinbrenner's comments and let the whole thing blow over, but troubling questions from friends and fans convinced him that he had to deal with the issue before it becomes a spring training distraction.

"It's not a distraction for me," he said, "but I'm sure my teammates are tired of answering questions about me. To me, it's over with. This is the last time I'm going to talk about it."

He tried to portray the whole thing as a classic example of Manhattan media hype - shifting the blame from Steinbrenner to the way the situation was portrayed in the New York papers - but added still another layer to the controversy by delivering his final say on the subject in front of 10 television minicams and dozens of print reporters from around the country.

Jeter has already met with Steinbrenner to discuss the situation. There was no apology from The Boss, but Jeter seemed satisfied that the criticism stemmed from Steinbrenner's disappointment about the club's loss to the Anaheim Angels in the playoffs - a disappointment that Jeter says he shares.

"He's irritated and I'm irritated," Jeter said. "We finished a few weeks earlier than we expected."

This kind of thing used to be commonplace in the land of the pinstripes.

Steinbrenner openly feuded with manager Billy Martin and superstar Reggie Jackson during the 1970s, but he has been more circumspect since he returned from a lengthy suspension in the mid-1990s, and the club has responded to the kinder, gentler version of Steinbrenner with four world championships in the past seven years.

There has been the occasional blowup, such as the time that he called Japanese pitcher Hideki Irabu a "fat toad" a couple of years ago. But this was a first for Jeter, who probably didn't realize that The Boss was kicking him old-school.

"Right or wrong, he's the boss," Jeter said.

Steinbrenner can be irascible and temperamental, but he also fancies himself something of an amateur psychologist, publicly challenging his highest-paid stars in a sometimes ham-handed attempt at motivation.

"I don't need extra motivation," Jeter said. "That's how I've always been ... I think he knows I work hard. I take pride in that."

If legitimate criticism is called for, Jeter said that no one is going to be more critical of him than himself.

"I'm my biggest critic," he said. "Nobody gets on me more than I do. Obviously, I think I could do a lot better [than last year]. It was a tough year."

He didn't need Steinbrenner to point out that his numbers have declined over the past couple of years. He batted .297 with 18 home runs, 75 RBI and 32 stolen bases in 2002, which would be decent numbers for most players, but not for the guy many feel should be named captain of the Yankees.

"I'm a perfectionist," Jeter said. "I really don't think in terms of numbers. I think I'm a better player now than I was in the past. I'd love to hit .400 with 70 home runs and 200 RBI, but that's probably not going to happen."

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