Within the span of the 1996 season, Derek Jeter ascended from a 21-year-old trying to secure a place in the Yankees' starting lineup for the first time to a world champion and American League Rookie of the Year Award winner.
After a slow start in Spring Training, Jeter hit an Opening Day home run and never looked back, batting .314 and collecting 183 hits, 10 home runs and 78 RBI during the regular season.
But Jeter's 1996 campaign was about more than mere statistics. It was a coming-of-age season in what would become one of the most storied careers in baseball history. In his rookie year, Jeter laid the foundation of a career that lasted two decades and included five championships and 3,465 hits. He captivated the Big Apple with his exciting play and infectious smile, and he became one of the most valuable players on a team destined for greatness.
That October, Jeter batted .412 in the Yankees' triumph over the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, and he followed that up with a .417 performance in the team's AL Championship Series victory against Baltimore. Then, in the Yankees' 3-2 win against the Atlanta Braves in the deciding game of the World Series, Jeter collected an RBI single, stole second base and came around to score his team's third run.
Earlier this season, Jeter sat down with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III in Tampa, Fla., to discuss the 1996 season.
What were the most important things you learned from being on the Yankees' roster in 1995 for 15 regular-season games and being with the team during the Division Series?
I came up at the end of May for the first time, and I got sent down during the second week of June. I only played in a few games, but it was good to get a small taste of playing, even if it was only for a couple of weeks. When I came back at the end of the season, the Yankees were in a playoff race, and they won the Wild Card on the last day of the season. Just being around that and seeing how everyone went about their business every single day -- and how every game was so important -- was a great learning experience. Getting an opportunity to be around veteran players like Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs that September and for the intense playoff series against Seattle made it so it wasn't foreign when I was on the field in 1996. It helped me get used to that atmosphere.
Going into Spring Training in 1996, you had a great chance to cement yourself as the team's starting shortstop. What was it like to be on the verge of realizing your dream of earning that job?
Everyone assumed that I was going to be the starting shortstop, but I went into Spring Training like I was trying to win a job. I don't remember statistically how I did, but I know I didn't play well. Honestly, even though they moved Tony Fernandez to second base, I think that if he didn't break his elbow, they probably would have sent me back to the Minors and moved him back to shortstop. That's just my opinion. I knew I wasn't playing well, and I knew that if I didn't turn things around that spring, I would have started the regular season in the Minors. Who knows how things would have worked out for me that year if that had been the case.
It's been well documented that George Steinbrenner seriously contemplated trading Mariano Rivera to Seattle that spring for shortstop Felix Fermin with the idea of making him the everyday shortstop. What did you think of that speculation -- and of members of the Yankees brass ultimately convincing The Boss to stick with you and Mariano?
Honestly, you don't think about it. The guys I came up through the organization with were mentioned in trade rumors all the time. I was supposedly getting traded every offseason when I was in the Minor Leagues. That's what you'd hear. So you can't say you tune it out, because you can't help but to hear about it, but you really try not to pay attention to it. I think that was just the way of the world back in the day.
Bernie [Williams] was the first guy from our era to get an opportunity to come up through the Minor League system and be an everyday player in New York. The Yankees stuck with him. They let him struggle, and he ended up becoming a great player. But we always felt like we were playing for our jobs. So who exactly supported Mariano not getting traded and me getting an opportunity? Who really knows. But I appreciate whoever took a chance on me.
How much of a confidence booster was your Opening Day home run in Cleveland?
Video: NYY@CLE: Jeter hits first homer against the Indians
I was anxious to get the season started, and we actually got snowed out, so we played our first game the next day. Because of all the questions about me in Spring Training, hitting that home run definitely helped, as opposed to going out and having a bad game. The media can sort of hang on to something, and if I got off to a bad start, that would have been it. But yeah, I thought it was big because any time you have any level of success, you use that as a building block for your confidence. So I think I used that, and it just sort of snowballed throughout the course of the season.
Joe Torre said his hopes for you in 1996 were for you to play solid defense and bat somewhere between .240 and .250.
(Laughing) He didn't tell me that.
He never told me that he hoped I would hit .240 to .250.
Well, you obviously far exceeded that, but what were your goals when the season began?
First, I wanted to play every day and contribute. I wanted to help the team win. I don't think I ever really sat down and said, "Statistically, I want to do this, this, and this." I just wanted to contribute. Even though there were a lot of questions about me, I felt as if I could do that. I took it day to day and came to the ballpark with the attitude of, "What can I do on this particular day to, No. 1, get better, but -- more importantly -- help the team win and keep my job?"
How much did the veteran players on that team help you adjust to life as a Big League league player?
We had some good veterans on that team, and I always tried to learn from different players. I never said, "OK, I want to be just like so and so." I took bits and pieces from everyone. We had some guys who kept things loose, like Tim Raines, Cecil Fielder, Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden. They were guys you could learn a lot from. Cecil and Tim taught me how to have fun every single day. They were always smiling, always laughing and always joking around.
Straw and Doc, they were players who had been in similar situations to what I was in at that time. They came up at a young age in New York and had a lot of success. They told me a lot of things not to do. So we had a good mix of veterans and young players, but everyone was trying to accomplish something that the Yankees hadn't accomplished in a long time. When we started winning, the city and the fans really got behind us. We were all pulling in the right direction.
How much of an impact did Joe Torre have on you that season?
Huge. He has the perfect demeanor not only to be a manager and deal with different personalities, but specifically to work with young players. He never gets too high or too low. When you're a young player, your mindset is different than when you're a veteran. When you're a young player and you make a mistake, one of the first things you do is look into the dugout to see how the manager is reacting. Mr. T was always on an even keel, and he always treated me with respect. He treated me like I was a veteran. He never approached me or talked to me like I was a rookie player. I felt as though I was an important part of the team, so for me as a 21-year-old playing for the New York Yankees, he was the perfect manager.
You finished the season with a .314 batting average, but you were at your best in the second half of the season, batting .350 after the All-Star break. What do you feel contributed to that improvement?
At first, there's a sense of the unknown that you have to deal with. You don't know what the league is like. You're facing every pitcher for the first time. You're playing in visiting stadiums for the first time. Once you get to the halfway point, you start going back to places, and you start to feel like you belong. I began to gain an inner confidence and feel like, "I can do this." I think it was about getting used to my environment because everything was new at the beginning of that season. New York was new. The road was new. The flights were new. The stadiums were new.
How would you describe what life was like as a 22-year-old who was the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees?
When that year started, I was 21, so if I wasn't playing professional baseball, I would have been going into my senior year of college. My "college experience" to that point was playing in the Minor Leagues and then it ended in New York. I don't know what to compare it to because it's all I know. But if you have success in New York playing for the Yankees and you win a World Series when you're 22 years old, it's everything you could imagine. I don't know what you wanted to be when you were younger, but that's everything I wanted to be. All the things that came along with playing for the Yankees, that's something I don't know that you could ever prepare yourself for. I guess I was wide-eyed. It's an experience that's hard to put into words.
Your game-tying, eighth-inning home run in Game 1 of the ALCS against Baltimore has lived on in baseball lore. What was going through your mind as the Orioles were protesting the home run that young fan Jeffrey Maier had, essentially, snatched from Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco?
I didn't know what to think because I couldn't see what happened out in right field. I hit the ball, and the next thing I knew, everyone was cheering, so I figured it was a home run. Back then, we didn't have 20 different camera angles, and they weren't showing what had happened on the scoreboard. The umpire said it was a home run. I knew once all of the umpires conferred and said it was a home run, they couldn't change it, so I was excited. But that home run only tied the game, and we still had to win it.
Did you ever speak with Tony Tarasco about that play?
Yes. Tony played for us a few years after that, and I used to mess with him and say, "You should have jumped."
What are your memories of the play you made to record the final out of that series: a ground ball that Cal Ripken Jr. hit deep in the hole?
The Orioles were coming back, and I was just thinking, "How do we get out of here and win this game?" The Yankees hadn't been in a World Series since 1981. The big story was that Mr. T hadn't been in a World Series after so many years of playing and managing, and we were so close.
When I was a kid, my dream was to play in the World Series. That's the bottom line. You're in the backyard pretending that you're batting in the World Series, and we were on the doorstep. When I got to the ball, I remember thinking, "Don't throw it away." And I didn't make a good throw, but Tino [Martinez] picked it.
How much did Joe Torre's confidence rub off on you and your teammates after you lost the first two games of the World Series at home?
We never saw him panic, so we never panicked. Everyone looks at the manager, and if the manager is overreacting and throwing his hands up in a fit, then I think it rubs off on the players. But Mr. T was always calm. We had played well on the road, and we didn't mind playing on the road. We still had confidence; it was just a matter of us winning one game at a time. We knew that anything was possible. But yeah, Mr. T's confidence rubbed off on all of us. As a young player, it was comforting.
After your team won Game 3, you came from a 6-0 deficit to win Game 4, and then Andy Pettitte tossed one of the best games of his life in the 1-0 Game 5 win. How intense were those two games?
Oh man, those games were as big as any I ever played in. We were playing in Atlanta, and everyone in the crowd was doing that "Tomahawk Chop." That was back in the day when there was no Interleague play, so we never played the Braves. All I knew about the Braves was what I saw watching them on TBS when I was growing up.
For a lot of us, we were seeing the Braves for the first time. There were a lot of guys on that Braves team who I had watched all the time growing up, and now I was playing against them in the World Series. We were in a hostile environment and playing in close games, where every pitch was important. Those games were everything that the World Series is about. Those were some of the most intense games I ever played in. Everything we wanted was so close, but we had to play so well to win it all. Those were good times.
How would you describe the atmosphere at Yankee Stadium when you took the field for Game 6?
There was a feeling in the air that we were going to win the World Series that night. We weren't thinking, "We have two games to win one." We were going to win the whole thing that particular night. The Stadium was as loud as I've ever heard it. I just knew we were going to win that game.
Where does the first of the five championships you won rank among them all?
That's a tough question, but the first time you do anything, it's special. Everything that comes along with winning the World Series you've never experienced before. Our team changed throughout the years. You win at home and you win on the road. But the first time you do it, everything is new. That first championship is up there at the top.
How would you describe the first ride up the Canyon of Heroes?
It was absolutely unbelievable. I had never seen that many people in one place. I don't know if there's another place where you can see that many people. There were people hanging from trees and light poles and buildings. You can't describe it to someone who hasn't experienced it. I don't think anything can compare to it.
Whenever I asked you about individual accomplishments during your career, you always said those were things you would reflect on after you were done playing. Now that you're retired, would you reflect on what it meant, after winning the World Series, to not only win the Rookie of the Year Award, but to also win it unanimously?
Everything that I could possibly have imagined happening in my first year happened for me. I can't look back and say, "Well, I wish this or that happened," because absolutely everything did happen. It was the perfect picture. There's no other way I would have wanted it to go.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the September issue of Yankees Magazine. Get this article and more delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription at yankees.com/publications.