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from Yankees Magazine

May 1996

Nothing Short of Spectacular

By Mark Balk

Coaches have loved him since his early years in Kalamazoo, MI, when he was named High School Player of the Year by the American Baseball Coaches Association. Managers have loved him since his first full year at Class-A ball in Greensboro, NC, when he was selected the Most Outstanding Major League Prospect by the South Atlantic League skippers.

As the Yankees completed their first homestand, Derek Jeter emerged as the unlikely go-to bat in the lineup- unlikely for right now anyway. The 21-year-old is projected to be one of the stars of the next century, but with his approach to the game, the future may be now.

"I want them to know that I'm a positive, hard-working guy who's excited about getting this opportunity and will do anything it takes for the ballclub to win," said Jeter after finishing a recent workout with coach Willie Randolph. "I don't worry about what others say about my play or what others think. That's their deal and I can't control what they feel. I don't think about the negative stuff, though, or worry about some other expectations. I think you have to be a professional, and to me, professionalism means both on and off the playing field. On the field, I'll just go out there, do the best that I can and try to play baseball the way I should. I play hard."

"Derek is approaching this season and this job like a mature adult and he should get credit for that," added Randolph, who knows more than a thing or two about conducting oneself as a no-nonsense pro. "He's been working hard and he's a smart guy. He's young, though, and a young player in major league baseball is going to make his share of mistakes. I think the organization recognizes that a little more patience with the young guys will probably pay off in the long run." When Jeter made his major league debut on May 29, 1995, he was just 28 days shy of his 21st birthday. That made Jeter the youngest Yankee to put on the Pinstripes since 1984, when an 18-year-old pitcher named Jose Rijo took the hill. And though 48 at-bats in 15 ballgames may not sound like much, it gave Jeter a chance to break in and experience the sights and sounds of competing and winning at the highest level.

"The time that I spent here last season will help me a lot, definitely," he said. "Anytime you have the opportunity to go somewhere and then go back to that place, you're more familiar with the whole atmosphere. It's helped me throughout my career to know things. I remember in Columbus last season, I knew what to expect when I went back. The veterans, especially Tony Fernandez and Mariano Duncan, have also helped me out with the tips and advice and I've learned from them by listening and watching. I like being around the older players. I know the bigs are tougher, but I feel more comfortable after the experience I gained last time."

Experience can only be gained by accumulating more time in the Bronx, but it's obvious to all who meet Jeter that he is certainly wise beyond his years. Most 21-year-olds aren't known for their abilities to put things in perspective or have their acts together, but this is no ordinary 21-year-old. Or perhaps his ordinary nature is part of what makes him so extraordinary.

"You almost don't believe how nice and honest and intelligent this guy is- he's got what some people like to call character," opined John Sterling, the Yankees' radio voice on WABC. "The guys who've really worked with him everyday, like Willie and Don Zimmer, enjoy him and the way he toils at his craft. We know he has the physical talent- he's proven that every place he's been in his young career- but what many people may not know about him is the kind of mental and emotional talent he has to face in his day-by-day life."

A Wisdom Beyond His Age

Pressure. Expectations. Results. Jeter knows that he is stepping into a winning situation surrounded by veterans like Wade Boggs and David Cone and Paul O'Neill. New York is not a small town where you can ease your way in without fanfare or notice, and with last year's wild-card playoff berth, the Yanks enter the season hoping to take care of some unfinished business. And the rookie shortstop who attended those highly charged post-season contests in Seattle as a non-active player hopes to participate in more Yankee post-season history this time around.

"Once you see what the playoff atmosphere is like, you literally say to yourself, 'What can I do to help my team go back there every single year?'" admitted Jeter, the sixth-highest rated prospect by Baseball America heading into 1996 and a number six in your scoring column. "I mean it was just incredible with the noise and the spirit and the excitement. I know I've never seen that many people in a stadium before in my life. You know that saying about New York about making it here, I think it's probably true when they say that it can't get much better than winning in New York. I was born in New Jersey and I spent many summers there with my grandparents so I grew up a Yankee fan. I remember some of the winning when I was growing up, and I feel like I've been waiting all my life for this. It's a dream come true to be here but it would be an even bigger dream to play in the playoffs and World Series."

If there is a quintessential New Yorker on the Yanks, a player that thrives on the beat and soul of this cosmopolitan metropolis, it would have to be Cone. And this ace likes what he's seen thus far of the youngster's glove and bat. "He's done everything he could to prepare himself and he certainly has the talent to succeed up here," said Cone. "He's got a quick bat and he can hit. A lot of people asked him about the defensive side but he's got terrific range and a live arm. I'm confident he can do the job, but like anything else in the world, you don't know with absolute certainty until you get out and actually do it." Jeter committed 29 errors last year, but as several written accounts pointed out earlier in the spring, Phil Rizzuto had 29 miscues in his initial go-around in 1941. Most of the mistakes have occurred on the throwing end, and the coaching staff believes that the mechanical problems can be corrected in due time. And offensively, there's nothing offensive about a .305 lifetime batting average in the minors- unless you're an opposing pitcher.

When he is asked about the type of shortstop he'd like to become, it comes as no surprise that former Michigan Wolverine and current Cincinnati Red Barry Larkin is his choice. Good bat, good glove, good speed, MVP. The total choice, the do-it-all shortstop. Needless to say, the Yanks are hoping for good production from the shortstop who will likely see a lot of time towards the bottom of their order.

"He could turn out to be a .300 hitter on the major league level, too," gushed one scout, who requires anonymity for fear of insulting his own team's shortstop. "He could be one of the best-hitting shortstops for a long time. Barring any sort of injury or something, he's only going to get better and better."

Added Sterling, "It wouldn't surprise me one bit if he was the Yankees shortstop for a long, long time. He's so young that he has so much room to grow as a player and you can see how seriously he goes about doing his job. The good looks and the brains and the talent don't hurt either. These days you hear so much talk about the anti-heroes. Well, in this era of anti-heroes, he can really become a star in New York."

The future star is just the third shortstop in Yankees history to be selected in the first round. The future star is the sixth different Opening Day starter at short in the last six seasons. And the future star knows not to pass up anything of this golden opportunity.

"I knew in the spring that I had a real chance to win the job and play with the Yankees, and I've done that," he said. "I know I have to prove myself every single day as a big leaguer and as a New York Yankee and I'm excited about it. I want to go out there and show why I should be playing. It's a very positive thing. I know I'll make mistakes- everyone does because it's a part of the game- but I'm not afraid because I know I'll work hard and continue to improve.

"My folks taught me at a very young age that there may be people who have more talent than you do, but there's no excuse for anyone to work harder than you do, and I believe that. I'm playing short here and I want to win here and I hope to do both for a very long time. I hope to be a part of all that winning tradition."

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