USA TODAY Sports Weekly

Leading OFF

Jeter had ‘it,’ which bred winning for the Yankees

- Stephen Borelli

He was an 18-year-old who was homesick and, perhaps to the untrained eye, was looking like a flop.

It was the summer of 1992. The Florida sun was scorching the baseball fields of Tampa, even more than the glares of owner George Steinbrenn­er.

Derek Jeter would call his mother and father 1,200 miles away in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in tears. He hit .202 in rookie ball that first summer. He was 6-foot-3 and 159 pounds, all arms and legs.

Fellow Yankees prospects, including Andy Pettitte, were asking themselves: This is our first-round pick?

“He looked really young,” recalled Mike Buddie, whom the Yankees selected second in the draft that year but not until the fourth round. “Physically, he was very wiry.”

Buddie was a pitcher out of Wake Forest. He and many other of the Yankees’ college-aged prospects had played a level up at short-season Oneonta (New York) in 1992. At a fall minicamp in Tampa, Buddie found himself eyeing this skinny, awkward, high school kid who had signed a deal for $800,000, the second most the Yankees had ever paid to a draft pick to that point.

“We all knew the amount of money that he had signed for and his reputation and all these things, so, I think it’s probably pretty consistent in every organizati­on is you expect these first-round guys to be extremely talented and there’s a little bit of envy, little bit of jealousy,” said Buddie, now the athletic director at Army. “You look at a kid like that and he’s three years behind you from a physical maturity and never playing in college and you just have all these questions about whether he fits in.”

The next spring, playing with Buddie for the Class A Greensboro (North Carolina) Hornets, Jeter committed 56 errors. It seemed the harder he worked, the more errors he made. Sometimes, his throws from shortstop landed eight rows into the seats behind first base.

Then something happened that would become the essence of Jeter, who will be inducted Sept. 8 into the Baseball Hall of Fame. The numbers from his major league career – the .310 average, 1,923 runs scored, 544 doubles – say Jeter is a Hall of Famer. He also has the most hits (3,465) in the history of the Yankees.

But what made Jeter who he was went well beyond the numbers: He had a knack for letting a bad day roll off his shoulders. He worked tirelessly with coach Gary Denbo, who now servers as his player developmen­t director with the Miami Marlins, and the hits started to come.

“I remember him going 0-for-5 one game and he said, ‘Tomorrow night, I’m going 5-for-5,’ ” said Nick DelVecchio, a first baseman the Yankees drafted the same year out of Harvard who would lose sleep over those endless failures of baseball. “He went 4-for-4 and his last at-bat, he hit an absolute laser at the second baseman and this guy made this diving catch.

“It was beautiful to see that true selfconfidence in such a young kid. … It almost liberates you as a player.”

Jeter would gently rib Hornets manager Bill Evers, one-liners directed perhaps at his socks or hat, that would have Evers laughing and loosen everyone up.

Jeter batted .295 with five homers, 71 RBI and 85 runs in 1993 as Greensboro reached the South Atlantic League championsh­ip. Buddie noticed how if Jeter had a big hit, he would go out of his way to praise a teammate to reporters in postgame interviews.

“He always had a great feel for what the team needed,” Buddie said. “Consistent­ly over time, just, you sit back and you think, ‘Somebody either taught him well or the kid’s just got that special ingredient that he always thinks of the team first.’ And, obviously, that’s a natural gravitatio­n toward somebody that you want in a leadership role.”

The older guys watched this teenager punch line drive after line drive to right center with his inside-out swing and occasional­ly extend his arms and power a ball to left. Jeter also had a cannon for an arm that could have made him a pitcher.

“He had it,” said Mike DeJean, who was drafted and signed for $1,000 out of the University of West Alabama in 1992, played with Jeter in the minors and went on to pitch 10 seasons in the majors. “And I don’t even know what it is, but, I mean, he had it. It was, he just had everything – he had the game, he had the demeanor, you know, I mean, big, tall, good-looking kid and he had a great personalit­y and, you know, just a … you just had the feeling that Derek Jeter was gonna be the next best thing in New York.”

Joe Torre knew nothing about Jeter at first. When he took over managing the Yankees in 1996, Torre had a veteran shortstop, Tony Fernandez, who injured his elbow during spring training and wound up missing the season. Steinbrenn­er wasn’t convinced Jeter was ready to start. But Torre insisted it was too late to go another direction.

On opening day in Cleveland, Jeter homered leading off the fifth inning against Dennis Martinez, who had won 231 big-league games at that point, and made an over-the-shoulder catch at full speed to end the seventh with a runner in scoring position. The Yankees, who led 2-0 at the time, went on to win 7-1. The next day, with Pettitte starting, Jeter went 3-for-3 with three runs scored, a stolen base and no errors as the Yankees won 5-1.

Jeter hit .314 and had 78 RBI that season, the most by a Yankees shortstop since Frank Crosetti had the same number in 1936. The 1996 Yankees were experience-laden with Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, David Cone, Tim Raines, Joe Girardi, Wade Boggs and others. Yet down the stretch run, Torre sensed in the dugout the veterans were looking to Jeter to do something late in the game – start a rally with a hit, knock in a run.

“There’s a certain sense that he’s not supposed to do it because he’s just a kid,” Torre said. “The veteran guys got over that real quick.”

The Yankees had built a 12-game lead in the AL East over the Orioles that July, but it sagged to 2 ½ games in September. Jeter hit .356 in the season’s final month and the Yankees won the division. Then he hit .361 in the playoffs as the Yankees won their first World Series title in 18 years.

Jeter played in 20 seasons and won five World Series titles. Steinbrenn­er named him team captain in 2003. You probably wouldn’t call him the best player on any of his Yankees clubs, but he was the emotional center of them all.

“Immediatel­y when he came up to the big leagues, he just carried himself like a – I wouldn’t say like a veteran because he had respect for the guys and stuff like that – but just carried himself like he knew he belonged,” said Pettitte, who became his longtime teammate and friend with the Yankees, “and knew he was gonna be here and stick around for a long time.”

 ?? ROBERT HANASHIRO/ USA TODAY SPORTS ?? Derek Jeter played in 158 playoff games, hitting .308 with 20 homers, 111 runs, 61 RBI and a .838 OPS. He played all 20 of his seasons with the Yankees.
ROBERT HANASHIRO/ USA TODAY SPORTS Derek Jeter played in 158 playoff games, hitting .308 with 20 homers, 111 runs, 61 RBI and a .838 OPS. He played all 20 of his seasons with the Yankees.
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States