Jeter as the villain? It could happen

For 15 years, Derek Jeter has staked out a piece of higher ground and called it his own.

He has developed it, fenced it off, spruced it up and made it the most desirable piece of real estate in professional sports, while one by one, his main rivals for that bit of turf -- Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Brett Favre -- have fallen by the wayside.

It is the hallowed ground of the flawless personality, the one pro athlete you could actually feel good about your kids wanting to emulate.

Jeter might be in no real danger of giving back that ground -- fighting for a bigger paycheck is a national pastime we all can identify with, even if few of us can actually play the game -- but if he isn't careful, he might be in danger of something almost as unthinkable.

For the first time in his career, Derek Jeter is in danger of making the New York Yankees look like the good guys here. Or, at least, the more reasonable side of an argument involving money. Imagine that.

Because no matter how you parse the stats, how heavily you weigh in issues like character, personality and marketability, or how you factor in things like "intangibles,'' there is just no way to make a three-year contract offer at $15 million a year look like an insult.

Not in these economic times. Not for playing a game. Not even for Derek Jeter.

More and more these days, we find that the more privileged the person, the more he or she feels put-upon and abused by the world at large. Just recently, we've had to suffer Conan O'Brien bemoaning the sad fact of his "demotion'' at NBC, which came with a $36 million farewell package, and Tony Hayward, the multimillionaire, yacht-racing (now former) CEO of BP, expressing how he'd like to get his life back as his company's oil well gushed all over the Gulf of Mexico.

You'd hate to see Derek Jeter join the ranks of those who are so out of touch with the reality of everyday life that they fail to see how good they really have it.

So even if you sympathize with Jeter in this one, if you think the Yankees should give him what he wants simply because of who he has been rather than who he is, even if you hate the Yankees like poison and abhor the damage they have done to the culture of sports and the financial structure of baseball, it is impossible to make the case in any way, shape or form that Jeter is being mistreated, disrespected or underpaid.

It is a no-win strategy being pursued by Jeter and his agent, Casey Close, because you are never going to get any sympathy from any rational human being on this issue.

Yes, Jeter has been the face of the world's greatest baseball team for nearly 15 years, its captain for nearly 10, and so far as we know, an exemplary individual on and off the field for every minute we have known him.

There are no out-of-wedlock kids kicking around, no jam-ups with bookies or hustlers, no young ladies with ugly stories to tell, no public ego trips or power plays.

Hell, the guy has led the life of the most-eligible bachelor in the most media-infested city on the planet and hasn't had so much as a parking ticket. He has always presented himself as a Prince of the City, a mensch, the guy you would have liked to be when you grew up and the one you would like your kids to grow up to be now.

And yet, it is beginning to look as if Derek Jeter is human after all, and susceptible to the two curses that have brought down so many of his predecessors in sports and in business.

Ego and greed. Or, if you prefer, greed and ego.

The Yankees have good, solid reasons for not wanting to give Jeter more than three years or $15 million. One is his age (36). Another is his numbers for 2010 -- the lowest of his career since he became an everyday player in 1996. A third is his declining range at shortstop, a drop-off his sure hands, strong arm and fifth Gold Glove can't cover up.

And their refusal to grant Jeter arbitration at Tuesday's deadline is clear evidence the gloves are off, that the Yankees are not fooling around. Even if they aren't really worried Jeter could win an arbitration case off his 2010 performance -- and of course, anything is possible once a case goes to the arbitration panel -- they know to give Jeter another year is to give him a do-over, a chance to have a good 2011 and return to the negotiating table with all the leverage on his side, not theirs.

That's a tough negotiating tactic that tells Jeter the Yankees intend to bargain this on performance alone, a yardstick by which he can't really measure up this year.

Then again, they probably could be playing even harder with Jeter than they already are, because it is a more than good bet that if forced to sell himself on the open market, Jeter wouldn't find another team willing to go anywhere near $15 million for three years.

Probably, he couldn't get even $10 million, when you consider Hanley Ramirez, 10 years younger than Jeter and right now many times better, makes only $11.6 million.

And yet, out of respect for what Jeter has meant to them and out of sensitivity to how any move they make in regards to him will be received, the Yankees make an offer that ensures Jeter will be the highest-paid shortstop in the game .

Still, we are told, Jeter wants more. How much more is a matter of educated guesswork and informed speculation. Four, five, six more years -- $20 million a year, $21 million, $25 million?

Some guess that he wants to be guaranteed as many more years in pinstripes as Alex Rodriguez, who in the worst contract ever negotiated -- or not negotiated, since the Yankees bid only against themselves -- will be around until 2017.

Only Jeter and Close know for sure, but this much is guaranteed: If this thing drags out and it begins to look as if Jeter is trying to wring every last dollar out of his final baseball contract, that finely detailed, perfect little statue of a ballplayer many of us have worshipped at the foot of for the past 15 years will begin to show some cracks.

The sad part is, there really is no need for Jeter to haggle over salary. His stature as captain of the New York Yankees as well as the mass crossover appeal of his carefully crafted public persona practically assure he will make many millions more away from the ballpark for as long as he wants to.

Already, there is the sense that public opinion is starting to turn away from Jeter, that all these people who live and die with the Yankees' fortunes aren't quite so enamored with the kind of fortune Jeter is said to be demanding.

It's expensive to be a fan these days, whether you are spending your money on tickets, concessions and parking at the ballpark, or on your satellite TV package and flat-screen for the living room. And it's especially tough when unemployment hovers around 10 percent, when ruthless employers are laying off workers every bit as loyal to their bosses as Jeter has been to his, slashing paychecks, raising health care premiums and dismantling retirement programs.

For those people, it's going to be tough to swallow the argument that the Yankees are slapping a guy in the face by offering him "only'' $15 million a year to play shortstop.

Even if that guy is Derek Jeter, who since 1996 has done a wonderful job of making himself and the Yankees look very, very good but now might be on the verge of helping the Yankees make him look very, very bad.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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