Derek Jeter bumps fists with Tino Martinez, a key member of the Yankees dynasty during the late-1990’s.Photo: Charles Wenzelberg
Long ago, before he even made the majors— let alone become a one-man industry — Derek Jeter befriended Michael Jordan during the latter’s brief foray into professional baseball. In time, the two men moved beyond mere friendship and became brothers in both spirit and finance.
To one man who has spent extensive time in both Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, however, Jordan isn’t the best NBA comparable for Jeter, who will retire upon the conclusion of this Yankees season.
“I would compare Jeter to, I would say, the Lakers with Magic [Johnson],” Arn Tellem, a veteran baseball and basketball agent, told The Post. “I would say Jeter and Magic have totally different personalities, but I would compare Jeter to Magic because of what he meant to the sport.
“Magic was all about making other players better. He did that better than anyone in basketball. He was always about the team and not about his individual statistics. Jeter, in his own way in baseball, is the embodiment of that.”
They share more than just personal qualities. Just as Johnson played the central role in the “Showtime” Lakers of the 1980s and 1990s, a group that became famous even to people who didn’t follow the sport closely, Jeter stood in front of the ubiquitous Yankees’ dynasty, a period that began in 1996 and lasted, by some measures, well beyond the 2000 World Series the Yankees captured for a fourth title in five seasons.
“I’m not sure we’re going to see that for a long, long time,” commissioner Bud Selig said. “That was a wonderful period, a remarkable period. Derek Jeter was right in the middle of it.”
Selig, who will join Jeter in retirement come January 2015, likes to say the baseball industry has never been stronger. A significant portion of that strength must be credited to Jeter’s Yankees, who for 20 years helped the sport overcome scandals involving illegal performance-enhancing drugs as well as embarrassing stumbles for jewel franchises such as the Mets, Dodgers and Cubs.
It started organically, with the baseball. Owner George Steinbrenner, himself of course an epic character in the dynasty, received a lifetime ban from then-commissioner Fay Vincent during the 1990 season for his involvement with gambler Howard Spira, whom Steinbrenner paid to dig up dirt on Yankees’ star Dave Winfield.
With Steinbrenner’s role muted — he was allowed a degree of involvement — general manager Gene Michael exhibited patience with the young players he liked. Even after Steinbrenner returned in 1993, he stuck with Michael’s plan as Jeter developed alongside Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and, a couple of years ahead of that quartet, Bernie Williams.
“Maybe one young player [alone] won’t make it in New York,” said agent Scott Boras, who represented Williams. “But five will.”
Williams blossomed in 1993, Pettitte in 1995, Rivera and Jeter (who won American League Rookie of the Year honors) in 1996 and Posada in 1998. And in ’96, Joe Torre replaced Buck Showalter in the manager’s office and added a key component to this multi-medium juggernaut: Not only was the savvy and relaxed Torre a great fit for his team, but his narrative — Brooklyn native who had never reached a World Series — turned the Yankees into even greater theater.
Of the 18 World Series contested from 1996 onward, according to MLB, the Yankees have played in six of the eight which generated the highest television ratings, in this order: 1) 1996 (Yankees over Atlanta); 2) 1997 (Florida over Cleveland); 3) 1999 (Yankees over Atlanta); 4) 2004 (Boston over St. Louis); 5) 2001 (Arizona over Yankees); 6) 1998 (Yankees over San Diego); 7) 2003 (Florida over Yankees); 8) 2000 (Yankees over Mets).
When the World Series titles poured in, so too did the revenues for all participants.
“There’s nothing like winning in New York. And when you win as often as the Yankees did, everyone wanted to get involved,” Maury Gostfrand, president of Vision Sports Group in New York, wrote in an email. “Usually, teams that win may have one or two marketable players, but everyone on those teams, including the coaches, was being offered TV commercials, personal appearances, memorabilia deals, book deals, appearances on late-night talk shows, etc.
“…And we had a very strong economy at the time. A lot of different types of companies and organizations, both locally and nationally, were securing Yankees for appearances. It was an incredible time.”
They were so popular that even their bench coach significantly supplemented his Yankees’ income. Gostfrand represented Don Zimmer, who passed away this year, as well as Torre.
Derek Jeter and bench coach Don Zimmer joke around at Spring Training in 2000.Photo: Charles Wenzelberg
“Everyone loved Zim,” Gostfrand wrote. “He got a lot of face time during the games, and people loved his expressions. He was featured in television commercials, had a book deal and made appearances. Companies loved hearing his stories. Not every company had the budget to pay the star players, so Zim was able to do well off the field. I also was able to pair Joe and Zim together for appearances and a commercial. They were great together!”
“Late Night with David Letterman” annually sent a crew, fronted by beloved stage manager Biff Henderson, to Yankees’ spring training to film a package of comedy bits. On Oct. 24, 1998, three days after the Yankees swept past the Padres for the championship, “Saturday Night Live” welcomed players David Cone, Chili Davis, Graeme Lloyd, Tino Martinez and David Wells to stand behind host Ben Stiller during the opening monologue.
And on Dec. 1, 2001, Jeter became the first active athlete known primarily for baseball — qualified because NFL All-Pro and part-time outfielder Deion Sanders hosted in 1995 — to host “SNL.” He is still the only active full-time baseball player to host, although Jeter’s frenemy Alex Rodriguez has turned down the opportunity.
The Yankees’ Q factor grew so large that even what seemed like solely a baseball story graduated into something bigger. After the Yankees lost to the Angels in the 2002 AL Division Series, Steinbrenner went after Jeter publicly wondering whether the shortstop was too immersed in off-the-field fun. This carried some precedent; The Boss loved to use the media to rile up his employees, although he had waited particularly long to do so in Jeter’s case. Yet because the Yankees had reached such a level of recognition, this dispute earned itself a national commercial.
“You had an outsized personality like George Steinbrenner, who completely transcended baseball for sure. Just watch a ‘Seinfeld’ episode,” Jimmy Siegel said. “Derek was one of the biggest stars in baseball in one of the biggest markets in baseball.”
So in 2003, Siegel conceived of a television advertisement for Visa in which the two men would make light of their tension and donate their fees to charity. “It was seeing that story in the sports section,” said Siegel, who now runs his own shop called Siegel Strategies. “Derek was kind of sacrosanct. People in the front office didn’t criticize him. George didn’t criticize him. That was the news. It seemed to lend itself to the spot.”
By 2003, the composition of the Yankees’ roster had begun to change. Martinez got pushed out and signed with St. Louis. Cone headed to Boston after an awful 2000 with the Yankees. Paul O’Neill and Scott Brosius retired. And in most cases, the Yankees opted to replace these players with big names and big contracts.
Three straight winters, 2000 through 2002, Tellem represented high-shelf free agents who, on the surface, held little in common. Pitcher Mike Mussina was an introverted Pennsylvania native. First baseman Jason Giambi was an extroverted California party dude. And outfielder Hideki Matsui was a Japanese slugger, looking to join MLB.
The one quality the three men shared is all prioritized joining the Yankees. Even though the Yankees stopped winning the World Series every year — a result that said more about the rest of the industry getting smarter than any Yankees’ misstep — they continued maintain their strong reputation, thanks to the presence of Torre calling the in-game shots and Jeter and his fellow pillars running the clubhouse.
“I think for all three players, and how I viewed it, it probably was the most attractive place to go,” Tellem said. “They had an incredible group of players that were not just great players on the field but were incredible teammates led by Jeter. Between Derek, Mariano Rivera, Pettitte and Posada, it was a unique moment for one team to have great players and great teammates. They had great ownership and a front office that was committed to doing everything to support the players. They played in the most exciting city in the United States. They had it all.”
It seemed like the only big-name free agents who didn’t join the Yankees were those the club turned down, like Carlos Beltran when he instead signed with the Mets in 2005. The Yankees passed on Rodriguez after the 2000 season because they already had a stud shortstop in Jeter, yet A-Rod engineered a trade to the Yankees in February 2004 as he agreed to slide over to third base.
An enormous part of this star-studded equation was the YES Network, standing for Yankees Entertainment and Sports, which launched in 2002.
“The network thing was the alignment of the stars,” Boras said. “The promise was there, the core was there, and then you could make great additions, but you have this core in place. And it was something, that juggernaut of knowing they were going to be a winner and that George would still bring forth his powers to bring on the best players to that young core. This is when the Yankees worked, when they had both a young core and free agency.”
The core aged, of course — even as the ballpark got younger, with a new Yankee Stadium opening in 2009 and one more “Core Four” title to go along with it that season — and the Yankees’ failure to adequately replenish their talent supply has them in their current quagmire. Yet Jeter’s popularity has only multiplied with age. MLB began tracking its jersey sales in 2010, a season during which Jeter turned 36 and his performance took a turn for the worse. Nevertheless, Jeter has topped the jersey-sales list in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and — after dropping from his perch last year, as injuries limited him to just 17 games — back on top in this, his final season.
“Jeter was the star that everyone, young and old, admired and rooted for,” Gostfrand said. “He turned casual fans into die-hard fans. He handled himself with such class on and off the field. And once MLB and its corporate sponsors identified him as the face of the game, his marketability took off. Someone like Derek comes around once in a generation.”
Wrote John Thorn, MLB’s official historian, of Jeter: “As captain and shortstop of the Yankees, his apotheosis is complete. The numbers don’t place him on a level with [Babe] Ruth, [Lou] Gehrig, [Yogi] Berra and [Mickey] Mantle, but he may well exceed all of them in adulation.”
Tellem noted of the Yankees, “I still think it remains a very attractive place going forward,” and, for sure, the Yankees will be in spend mode this winter, trying to build another dynasty.
They’ll do so with a group entirely different than the one that turned the Yankees into baseball’s Beatles. And they’ll do so knowing that, even if the Yankees have faltered, no other club has approached the consistent success and global impact they achieved during Jeter’s prime years. On one hand, that’s a positive, as teams have shared the World Series wealth and glory.
Nevertheless, MLB would accept another such dynasty in an instant.
“I must say, it was a great period for baseball,” Selig said. “It’s one of the great teams that I’ve seen in a long time. This was something special, and I think something special is very good for baseball.”