By any metric (other than the extremely boring ones certain detractors cite as gospel), Derek Jeter was a uniquely influential figure in the game of baseball, and the type of leader the late-90s Yankees dynasty was extremely lucky to have in place.
An important part of Jeter’s story that often gets overlooked, though, is that his coming-out party with the World Series Champion 1996 Yankees wasn’t supposed to happen at all.
Entering the season, Tony Fernandez was supposed to be that roster’s driving force at short before everything was upended in Spring Training and the Yankees chose upside over a stopgap.
Why … don’t they do that anymore?
Because, when Jeter debuted — even though the best-laid plans of Mice and Gene Michael had gone awry — it was all there already. Innately.
The jump through. The oppo pop. The flair for the dramatic. The matinee idol proclivities. Jeter was Jeter from Day 1, something the Yankees never would’ve known if they hadn’t been willing to take a chance on a kid internally instead of chasing somebody else’s backup in a trade for minor-league fodder.
The 2021 Yankees would’ve traded Ramiro Mendoza for Pat Meares.
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Yankees SS Derek Jeter debuted unexpectedly and carried the 1996 Yankees.
Of course — of course — every budding prospect is not the Yankees’ next captain. Opportunity cost varies case by case.
Then again, when the 1996 Yankees were in a bind, they turned to a youngster they believed in. Fernandez was injured back on March 25 of that year. There was precious little time to find a solution, so the team took a significant chance.
This year? They signed Jay Bruce.
Throughout the most recent era of Yankees baseball, as the farm has bubbled beneath the surface, we’ve spent far too much time sitting, waiting, and watching the dullest possible options fill injury gaps while an injection of youth continues to spin its wheels in Scranton. For weeks, Luis Gil has handled his demotion with aplomb while Andrew Heaney tries to eat innings, and instead excretes them. Clarke Schmidt has rumbled back from a spring training injury suffered by overthrowing his fastball — why do you think he was so desperate to impress the Yanks’ brass? They seemed to want very little to do with him in 2020, when he seemed poised to be a big help.
Are the Yankees scared their youth will succeed, changing their well-hewn plan the way Gio Urshela and DJ LeMahieu did when they unexpectedly busted out in 2019? Sometimes it feels like it. Sometimes it really does feel like the modern Yanks would rather succeed their way than simply succeed.
Look, even the ’96 Yankees weren’t perfect. Jeter wanted the job in 1995, and New York entertained a trade for late-career Allen Trammell instead of handing it to him. They didn’t play their trump card until they were forced to.
But, when the opportunity arose, the Yankees pounced and Jeter seized it.
When Gil similarly seized an opening several weeks back and made three consecutive scoreless starts, he was summarily replaced as soon as New York had a chance to do so.
No, every rookie isn’t Derek Jeter. But Jeter’s unexpected breakthrough could serve to teach the modern Yankees about risk, hope and belief in the system.