In June 1995, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera sat in a booth at a New Jersey Bennigan’s, unrecognized by patrons, as they consoled each other after a very bad day.
Both had made their major league debuts a month before and had just been told they were being sent back to the minors. In their brief time with the Yankees, Jeter had a batting average of just .250, while pitcher Rivera had a disastrous stint, allowing 12 runs over his last two starts.
Rivera apologized to Jeter.
He said “that had he pitched better, maybe the two of them wouldn’t have been sent down,” according to “Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in Yankees History Led to the ’90s Dynasty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
But Jeter disagreed.
“I just said that we would have to prove ourselves again,” Jeter recalls in the book by Bill Pennington, out Tuesday. “It was the only way to get back up there.”
While it’s hard to think of Rivera and Jeter as anything other than two of the greatest players in baseball history, their journey to that point was far from assured.
When the Yankees offered Rivera his first contract in 1990, the 20-year-old was working 12-hour days, six days a week, on his father’s fishing boat in Panama. He hated the job. His only relief came on Sundays when, after church, he would play baseball in the afternoons, using a cardboard glove.
He was a shortstop at the time, but when he was asked to pitch in a local all-star game, he wound up having a natural affinity for it.
“He threw only fastballs, at about 87 miles an hour, but Rivera could throw it wherever he wanted — outside corner at the batter’s knees, inside corner, up and in. His control was effortless,” Pennington writes.
As it happened, a local cab driver moonlighting as a baseball scout was at the game and persuaded the Yankees’ Latin American scouting director to give Rivera a tryout.
Rivera was offered $2,000 to join the Yankees’ minor-league team in Tampa, which was both an adventure and a risk.
“Rivera did not speak English, had left school in the ninth grade and had never been outside Panama,” Pennington writes. “When the Yankees talked to him about their minor-league training complex in Tampa, he asked, ‘What’s a Tampa?’ ”
“I wasn’t even a pitcher,” Rivera later said of this time. “I was scared.”
Despite his fears of the future, he was glad to escape his old life.
“The alternative was to head back to sea, where only a few months earlier his uncle Miguel had been fatally injured in an accident with the rigging on his father’s boat,” Pennington writes.
The early story of Derek Jeter couldn’t have been more different.
Yankees scout Dick Groch started checking out the Kalamazoo, Michigan-raised player when the future sensation was 15 and his potential as an All-Star shortstop seemed evident.
“Catlike movements, the personification of athleticism,” Groch said of his initial impressions of Jeter. “Scouts watch thousands of players, waiting to see a special player. You wait to see a kid who has it all. I saw that in Derek Jeter.”
The Yankees were so nervous about tipping off other teams to their interest in Jeter they told Groch not to introduce himself to the player or his coach and to keep his scouting as secretive as possible.
‘Scouts watch thousands of players, waiting to see a special player. You wait to see a kid who has it all. I saw that in Derek Jeter.’
“To watch Jeter play, Groch sometimes stood on the hill of an adjacent field or in the shade of a shed far down the left-field line,” Pennington writes. From hidden spots, he would watch Jeter play through binoculars.
By 1992, Jeter had agreed to play baseball for the University of Michigan, but the Yankees were hoping to change his mind.
Even so, the Yankees — who had the sixth pick in that year’s draft — didn’t know if they’d have a chance at Jeter. The Houston Astros had the first pick. The team’s Midwest scout, Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser, “strongly advised the Astros to take Jeter, saying Jeter was as good a player as he had ever seen,” Pennington writes.
“When the Astros took [third baseman Phil] Nevin instead, a disgusted Newhouser quit and never worked in baseball again.”
Amazingly, the next four teams also passed on Jeter. The Yankees got their historic pick and an $800,000 contract persuaded him to bypass the University of Michigan and start his career instead with the Tampa Yankees, the Yankees’ “A-Advanced” farm team. (The team changed its name to the Tampa Tarpons in 2018.)
But his initial days as a professional player were less than impressive. Jeter hit just .202 with Tampa, sparking Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to rib the director of scouting, Bill Livesey, with comments like, “How’s your top pick, the .200 hitter?”
Joining the Class A farm team in Greensboro, North Carolina, later that season, Jeter, “skinny and unseasoned … would play 11 games and make nine errors. At the plate, he was a sucker for a breaking ball and hit .243.”
Andy Pettitte was also on that team and had heard the hype about this supposed superstar-to-be.
“This is our top pick?” he asked, incredulous.
Feeling the pressure, Jeter wallowed in regret and never left his hotel room when he wasn’t playing.
“He was constantly on the phone, calling his home in Michigan. He’d sometimes cry to his mother, asking if he could go back to Kalamazoo, wondering why he hadn’t just gone to the University of Michigan.”
But even with his shaky adjustment, Jeter was already showing signs of leadership on the field. He and Rivera became good friends as teammates at Greensboro, and Jeter provided crucial assistance to the hurler as he transitioned to pitching in the pros.
“It was Jeter who helped Rivera count his pitches during his 1993 starts,” Pennington writes.
“Jeter would visit the mound and the two would talk about his pitch count. ‘It’d be something encouraging but helpful,’ Rivera said. ‘He’d say, ‘Hey, 40 pitches, time to sit this batter down, Mo. This is probably your last inning. Let’s get out of here.’ ”
But by 1993, Jeter’s future as a shortstop was in question after he made 56 errors in 126 games. At that point, Steinbrenner urged Yankees general manager Gene Michael to move Jeter to center field, but Michael, who had seen years of scouting reports on the player, knew better.
“I said, ‘George, he’s a shortstop. He’s our shortstop. Get used to it,’” said Michael.
Eventually, it was a crucial mentor who helped Jeter improve in the field.
For five weeks in the winter of 1993, Jeter worked one-on-one with Brian Butterfield, a team instructor considered the infield “guru.”
“He changed how Derek turned double plays, making him more aggressive in receiving the ball from the second baseman,” Mitch Lukevics, the Yankees farm director, tells Pennington in the book.
“Brian even changed how Derek held his glove on his hand. He wanted it more relaxed, more open and welcoming to the ball.”
In 1994, Jeter made the unprecedented rise from Class A to Double-A to Triple-A in one season, hitting .329 in A ball then building from there, ending the season with a .344 average overall.
“The Derek Jeter I saw in 1994 was a man compared to the boy I had seen the year before,” Rivera said in the book. “He always had confidence, but now he had acquired the skills to turn that confidence into success on the field.”
The Class A to Triple-A jump was more common for pitchers, and Rivera did the same that year.
When Rivera made his major-league debut for the Yankees in May 1995, his fastball still hovered around 90 mph. After four starts and an ERA over 10, he was sent back to Triple-A.
Jeter made his Yankees debut six days after Rivera. He was hitting just .250 when he, too, was demoted back to Triple-A on June 11, the same day as Rivera.
By this point, the Yankees were openly considering a trade for Rivera.
“I had not agreed to trade Mariano, but we were certainly leaning that way,” Michael later said. “At that juncture of the season, we certainly needed a proven starter.”
But then something miraculous happened.
When he returned on June 26 for the Yankees’ Triple-A Columbus Clippers, Rivera pitched masterfully in one inning, striking out two and retiring the third batter on a weak grounder.
And suddenly, after five years of throwing fastballs at 90 mph, Rivera started hurling at 95 mph — a crucial difference for a major leaguer.
Future Yankees catcher Jorge Posada was behind the plate for the Clippers and “was stunned by the velocity of Rivera’s pitches,” Pennington writes.
“‘His fastball was exploding out of his hand,’ Posada said many years later. ‘He was hitting my glove with that loud smacking sound. The hitters had no chance.’”
Jeter was also one of the first to notice Rivera’s evolution. In the book, Pennington quotes Posada: “Jeter always used to say that Mariano had Jedi powers.”
After Michael heard about Rivera’s performance the next morning, he decided not to trade him.
Both Rivera and Jeter got called back up for the 1996 season. Finally, they could prove to themselves and the world that they were truly ready for the majors.
Even so, during spring training, Steinbrenner still believed Jeter wasn’t ready for prime time and pushed to trade for a new shortstop. An angry Michael argued otherwise, and Jeter was kept at the position.
It’s a good thing he did, as that was the year Jeter set his future in stone. On Opening Day, he hit a home run in his second at-bat and made “a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch in shallow left field to preserve the first Yankees victory of the year.” The next day, he had three hits and scored three runs.
By season’s end, Jeter hit .314, earning him the American League Rookie of the Year Award.
Rivera, meanwhile, finished the season with a 2.09 ERA and set a team record for strikeouts by a reliever. He came in 12th in MVP voting for the American League and third for the Cy Young Award.
That year, the Yankees won their first World Series title since 1978, beating the Atlanta Braves four games to two. With Jeter and Rivera leading the way, they would win three more titles over the next four years.
“The 22-year-old Derek Jeter was about to become an incandescent figure in the sport,” writes Pennington.
And Rivera, 26, “would soon establish himself as the greatest reliever, and one of the most dominant pitchers, of all time. The connection to the long lineage of Yankees championships was reborn with new homegrown stars. And the party was just beginning.”
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