The untold story of Derek Jeter’s Yankees debut

Derek Jeter

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During an interview on the eve of his selection for the Baseball Hall of Fame, Yankees’ superstar shortstop Derek Jeter was asked about his Yankees debut, his most memorable experience of that day, and how he felt after being sent back to the minor leagues the next month.

Just as Derek Jeter was about to respond, Larry Walker, another Hall of Famer sitting next to him, immediately asked “You were demoted?” He was in absolute disbelief that a player of Jeter’s caliber had ever been sent back to the Minor Leagues. The audience, which included members of the local and national press as well as the honored players’ loved ones, busted out laughing.

Derek Jeter responded, saying that he would address that topic in a moment. While pondering on the remarkable 20-year career of MLB’s most legendary shortstop and the Yankees’ most famous icon, it’s easy to overlook one of the initial chapters in his famous tale. You’ve likely come across stories about Jeter’s beginnings, his rise through the Yankees’ minor league system, and the challenges he encountered during his journey.

However, prior to winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 1996, Jeter had already participated in 15 games at the major league level.

Instead of jumping straight to Opening Day in 1996, let’s pause for a moment and revisit Jeter’s initial experience in the Major Leagues. It was a two-week period that commenced 25 years ago on a Friday.

He remembered that May 29, 1995, which marked his first game in Seattle.

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, fielding

The selection of Derek Jeter

Twenty-five years ago, Evers served as the manager of the Columbus Clippers, which was the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate back then. The team’s management in New York informed him that Derek Jeter, their highly talented prospect, would be called up to the Major Leagues. Derek Jeter would be stepping in for Tony Fernandez, the Yankees’ injured shortstop.

Evers informed Derek Jeter about his promotion, clarifying that it was a temporary assignment while Tony was recovering from his injury. Evers explained that once Tony was ready to return, he would come back to him. Derek Jeter was thrilled to have the opportunity to go to the Major Leagues for the first time and embrace the role.

During that time, the Yankees were facing a string of injuries, which may sound familiar in the world of baseball. Both Fernandez and second baseman Pat Kelly were dealing with injuries that landed them on the disabled list. Despite being named Minor League Player of the Year in 1994 by Baseball America, Derek Jeter had initially been overlooked in favor of Robert Eenhoorn, a 27-year-old infielder who had already played in the Majors the previous season.

After Eenhoorn struggled, going 0-for-7 in his first three games, the Yankees’ general manager, Gene Michael, decided to call up Derek Jeter for the team’s series opener at the Kingdome in Seattle on May 29, 1995.

George Steinbrenner, in a conversation with the New York Post just a few days before Derek Jeter’s call-up, mentioned that he had often faced criticism for not showing enough confidence in their young players. He had been accused of letting go of promising young talent. Steinbrenner emphasized that the team had some exceptional young talent and expressed his eagerness to see how they would perform in upcoming opportunities.

Evers made his way to Derek Jeter’s hotel room to personally deliver the news.

Derek Jeter’s debut

At a mere 20 years old, Derek Jeter had his entire career in the big leagues stretching out before him. This was his first opportunity to demonstrate his abilities and show that he belonged to the highest level of professional baseball.

Unfortunately, his first game didn’t unfold according to his expectations.

During a 12-inning defeat against the Mariners, Derek Jeter, who would later become the team captain, had a tough time in his debut game. Batting in the ninth spot of the Yankees’ lineup, he went 0-for-5. In his initial four at-bats, he managed to make contact with the ball but unfortunately ended up striking out swinging in his last at-bat. Little did he know that this strikeout would be the first of many throughout his impressive career, totaling 1,840 strikeouts over the following two decades.

derek-jeter-new-york-yankees
Anthony J. Causi/NYP

The shortstop once told that day, the only thing he could recall from that day was seeing a zero next to his name in the box score, indicating a lack of hits. Derek Jeter couldn’t forget events that unfolded after the game.

Derek Jeter went 0-for-5. He walked alongside his father, and since no restaurants were open at the time, they ended up going to McDonald’s.

However, it didn’t take long for the young shortstop to break free from his hitless streak. The very next day, Derek Jeter achieved his first base hit in the big leagues. It was a solidly hit ground ball that found its way through the left side of the field, occurring in the fifth inning and serving as a leadoff hit.

Seattle’s Tino Martinez seemed to express his congratulations at first base while Derek Jeter prepared to lead off and decipher the signs from the opposing team’s dugout. In that fleeting moment, a smile played on the phenom’s face. Little did they know that their paths would intertwine in the seasons to come, leading to an extraordinary accomplishment of four World Series championships donning the iconic pinstripes. This remarkable journey began the following spring and exceeded their wildest expectations.

On that particular evening, the New York Yankees had a strong lineup of players. Some notable names included Wade Boggs, Paul O’Neill, and Don Mattingly. Bernie Williams, who hadn’t yet reached All-Star status at that time, was batting ahead of Derek Jeter in the eighth spot in the lineup. It’s interesting to see how Williams would later develop into an All-Star player in the following two years.

During the game, Derek Jeter had a total of four at-bats. In his first three at-bats against the starting pitcher Rafael Carmona, Jeter hit a flyout, a groundout, and a lineout. Then, in the ninth inning of a tied game with a score of 7-7, Derek Jeter faced Jeff Nelson, who would become his teammate in the future. Unfortunately, he was grounded out during this crucial moment of the game.

As the game entered the 11th inning, the score remained tied. It was an intense moment when Derek Jeter approached the plate, and Gerald Williams was on third base, ready to bring in the crucial run that would give their team the lead. However, Jeter faced Dave Fleming, the opposing pitcher, and unfortunately, he struck out swinging. This marked the first of Derek Jeter’s career 1,840 strikeouts, a statistic that would accumulate over his playing career.

In his first game, the Yankees lost 8-7 in 12 innings. Unfortunately, Derek Jeter didn’t get any hits and finished the game 0-for-5.

Derek Jeter didn’t give up

His dad, Charles, who had flown to Seattle to watch the debut, met up with him after the debut game. They decided to grab a meal together and ended up choosing McDonald’s.

The following night, Derek Jeter was back in the lineup for the Yankees. It was a significant game for him as he finally got his first career hit after starting with a rough 0-for-6 record. He ended that game, which unfortunately ended in another loss for the Yankees, with a 2-for-3 performance, including a walk. In the final game of the series, Derek Jeter added another hit to his growing list. Unfortunately, the Yankees were unable to secure a win in any of the games, resulting in a series sweep by the Mariners. This loss proved to be a significant setback, as the Mariners would later become a formidable opponent for the Yankees in the memorable five-game American League Division Series later that year.

Derek Jeter
CNBC

It took some time for Derek Jeter to experience his first win in his rookie season. It wasn’t until June 4th when the Yankees finally ended a five-game losing streak by securing a victory against the Angels. The game took place at Yankee Stadium, and it was a significant moment for the shortstop to be part of the winning team after a series of tough losses.

In that game, the Yankees dominated the California Angels with a score of 11-3. Derek Jeter, batting from the eighth spot in the lineup, had a remarkable performance, achieving his first game with multiple runs batted in (RBI). He contributed to the team’s victory by driving in three runs. One significant play was when he hit a double in the first inning, resulting in two runs being scored. This hit proved to be crucial as it forced the Angels’ starting pitcher, Mark Langston, to be taken out of the game after only recording one out.

Following that game, Derek Jeter continued to make an impact as he managed to get five hits in the next seven games he played. In his first 13 games, he had a batting average of .234, with a total of 11 hits and 11 strikeouts in 46 at-bats. Unfortunately, during this period, the New York Yankees struggled, winning only three games out of the 13 played.

The demotion

Derek Jeter had an opportunity to start in 13 consecutive games, during which he achieved a batting average of .234. He displayed his hitting skills with three doubles, a triple, and six runs batted in (RBIs). In a remarkable turn of events, in 47 at-bats he managed to match his career high in strikeouts with hits.

On June 11, in the last game of a 10-game home stand, Derek Jeter had a solid performance. He went 1-for-4 at the plate, meaning he got one hit out of four attempts. Additionally, he managed to cross home plate and score a run in New York’s 10-7 victory over the Seattle team.

After beating the Mariners on June 11, the Yankees were preparing to play the Tigers in a four-game series in Detroit. Derek Jeter, who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, around 140 miles from Tiger Stadium, found this potential very appealing. He was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to perform in front of his native fans. However, Derek Jeter had to wait patiently for almost a year before he could finally experience the thrill of playing in front of his loved ones in Detroit.

After the game in Seattle, the Yankees made the decision to send both Jeter and Mariano Rivera, another rookie who had a challenging start to the game, giving up five runs in just over two innings, back to Triple-A.

At the time, Rivera was a 25-year-old player primarily serving as a starting pitcher for the Yankees during his rookie season. However, in June of ’95, Rivera had a difficult outing where he struggled on the mound. As a result, his earned run average (ERA) soared to 10.20, indicating the number of runs he allowed per nine innings pitched. It was a challenging period for Rivera as he faced difficulties on the field. Except for one impressive start against Oakland in mid-May, Rivera had a tough time in his first four appearances, giving up five or more runs in each of them.

Derek Jeter fielding
SL

In 2010, Derek Jeter recounted to the New York Post that he and Rivera had experienced profound feelings of sadness and disappointment during that time. He expressed how terrible it was to be sent down, particularly when they believed they were capable of playing at that level. Derek Jeter conveyed the sentiment that being demoted was something they wanted to avoid, as it negatively impacted their confidence and aspirations in their baseball careers.

Before leaving the ballpark, Don Mattingly, a veteran player and mentor to Derek Jeter, approached him at his locker. Mattingly reassured the young 20-year-old, saying, “You’ll be back.” Mattingly expressed confidence that Derek Jeter would have another opportunity to return to the Major Leagues in the future

As the Yankees made their way to the airport, Derek Jeter and Rivera opted to find solace and comfort in a nearby Bennigan’s restaurant close to their hotel in New Jersey. There, they sought to heal their disappointments and frustrations while enjoying a burger meal together. It was a chance for them to reflect on the game and perhaps find some consolation in good food and each other’s company.

With their return to Columbus, Derek Jeter and Rivera regained a strong sense of determination and purpose. Having experienced the life of a Major League player, they were even more motivated to earn another chance to compete at that level. However, they were determined to make their next opportunity permanent and lasting. They aimed to showcase their skills and abilities consistently, ensuring that once they got the chance again, it would be for an extended period rather than a temporary stint.

In July, Rivera was once again called up to the Major League team. He stayed with the Yankees until their ALDS loss to the Mariners. However, Derek Jeter returned to action only in September, albeit for a brief four innings spread across two games. Manager Buck Showalter made the choice to keep Derek Jeter around for the playoffs even though he wasn’t on the official postseason roster. This allowed Jeter to experience the excitement and atmosphere of October baseball firsthand.

The subsequent spring marked a significant turning point for Derek Jeter as he assumed the role of New York’s starting shortstop. He capitalized on the opportunity presented when Fernandez suffered an injury that ended his season, ultimately leading to the beginning of an incredible journey that is widely known and celebrated.

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