As virtually any baseball fan can tell you, Derek Jeter had something of a magic touch. While things weren’t always perfect, the New York Yankees’ captain seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Whether he was diving into the stands to catch a foul ball or arriving in the Bronx just in time to win a championship, things just worked out for the living legend.
Ahead of the 1996 season, though, Jeter wasn’t so sure.
During spring training, the rookie had to compete for a place on the big club. Things didn’t go smoothly, though, and after one interaction with Joe Torre, Jeter feared that he had blown his chance at making becoming the Yankees’ shortstop.
Derek Jeter had a tough spring training in 1996, and Joe Torre let him know about it
Let’s flashback to 1996. Tony Fernandez, the Yankees’ previous shortstop, had made it known that he wanted a trade. Jeter, having cut his teeth in the minors, looked like a potential replacement, but he needed to prove himself in spring training.
“His task did not go well,” Tom Verducci wrote in a 2021 Sports Illustrated story. “The first time Jeter touched the ball in an intrasquad game, he threw the ball away for an error. The first time he touched it in an exhibition game, he threw the ball away in his haste to avoid a slide from Kenny Lofton of Cleveland.”
Fernandez, however, broke his arm. George Steinbrenner considered a trade, but the trio of Joe Torre, Brian Cashman, and Bob Watson convinced the Boss to remain patient and trust the rookie. That reality, however, didn’t totally assuage Jeter’s fears.
During one of the Yankees’ final spring training games, the young shortstop failed to cover second base. The Bombers, however, escaped the inning without incident and, during their turn at the plate, Jeter exited the dugout for the on-deck circle. There, he found himself next to Torre, who wasn’t too pleased.
“Mr. T, in only the way he knows how to do it … he didn’t look at me and he …”
Jeter starts laughing as the memory of Torre’s manner and words wash over him again like the tide returning. Torre, per Jeter’s condition, picks up the story.
“I told him, ‘We’re leaving here in a couple of days. Get your bleeping head out of your ass.’” (Torre, of course, did not say bleeping.)
“You know, Mr. T is like a second father to me,” Jeter says. “And he said that, and I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ I didn’t know how to take it. Does that mean I’m going with the team? I mean, did I just screw up my chance again? I wouldn’t write the language if he didn’t approve it, but that’s how spring training went for me.”Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated
Needless to say, Jeter did manage to pull it together.
Derek Jeter, of course, shone as a rookie and became a Yankees legend
Despite that tough love, Torre had faith in Jeter. It goes without saying that he repaid that faith and then some.
As a rookie, the shortstop appeared in 157 games during the 1996 campaign. He hit .314 with 10 home runs and 78 RBI, cruising to American League Rookie of the Year honors. He then stepped into the lead-off spot during the postseason and helped the Yankees capture a World Series crown.
From there, of course, the rest is history. Jeter would go on to win four more World Series titles, captain the Yankees, and become one of the biggest names in modern baseball. While you could take some issues with his game — defensive range comes to mind — no one would ever accuse him of having his bleeping head anywhere other than in the game.
Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference
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