Now pitching for the Seattle Mariners, No. 42, Mariano Rivera.
It’s difficult to imagine, but that unfathomable scenario was close to becoming a reality.
It was March 1996, and the Yankees’ young rookie shortstop was scuffling during Spring Training. Derek Jeter was expected to fill the position for Joe Torre’s club on Opening Day, but the 21-year-old looked overmatched at times, causing owner George Steinbrenner to grow concerned.
“He was pushing hard,” said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who was the assistant GM at the time. “Derek Jeter, this up-and-coming young rookie that we’re going to go with at shortstop, didn't look good in in his Spring Training of '96, and so therefore we need to trade for an everyday shortstop. Felix Fermin could be had, and Woody Woodward was the GM of the Seattle Mariners. And the trade partner request was Fermin to the Yankees for either Mariano Rivera, Bob Wickman.
“We spent what felt like three hours trying to convince the Boss not to do it. We huddled in Joe Torre's office in Tampa and basically banged it out, and the Boss reluctantly left and allowed us to not make the move. And then the rest was history.”
Just imagine if Rivera had been traded to Seattle. Might the Mariners have tried to use him as a starter? The greatest closer in baseball history might never have collected a single save.
And what about Jeter? Had Fermin been traded to New York, Jeter might have been sent back to Triple-A -- or even worse, used as trade bait himself.
“We never worried about things that we didn't control; we were so focused on doing what we need to do,” Rivera said. “Derek, they didn't give him that job. He earned it. He proved it. It wasn't that he was the best athlete there, but he had the best desire and willing to get better, every year. I was the same. I wasn't worried about where I was going, or why. I just wanted to be in the big leagues. Now, I got into the big leagues, I wanted to stay here and I will do whatever it takes. Everything worked because God make it that way.”
Fermin wound up being released by Seattle the following month, prompting the Yankees to sign him on May 8. Jeter, of course, was fine once the season began, playing his way to the American League Rookie of the Year Award. The Yankees went on to release Fermin on May 22.
“Mariano Rivera became Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter won Rookie of the Year and we won the World Series,” Cashman said. “So a lot of great things happened because of that. But that decision was something that was, I think, right on the fence. And that was at the time that we still didn't realize who Mariano was just yet, despite what he did in the '95 playoffs.”
For more on this would-be trade and Rivera’s journey through the Minors, check out Episode 2 of MLB.com’s Full Account podcast series on the life of the Yankees Hall of Famer.