MORGANTOWN — On Tuesday, Derek Jeter’s career reached the heights that so few before him had reached, taking his .310 lifetime batting average carved out 3,465 base hits in 20 years with the New York Yankees into the Baseball Hall of Fame, named on 396 of 397 ballots.
It was the culmination of a great career.
But what of the birth of that great career? What of his first day in the major leagues, his first of 2,747 games?
What was that like?
I can tell you. I was there, covering the New York Yankees as the beat writer for the Bergen Record, located across the Hudson River from New York City.
Jeter had just turned 21 and was in his fourth year of being groomed for greatness by the one organization that always has known what greatness was. They were bringing him along as slowly as they could, but circumstance cut short what they hoped would be one final minor league season.
I’d seen him and gotten to know him in spring training that year and could taste the budding greatness that so many others did. Having covered any number of Hall of Fame baseball players by then from Henry Aaron and Eddie Mathews and Phil Niekro and Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan and Tony Perez to a brash kid named Barry Bonds I had gotten a feel for what greatness looked like.
Jeter oozed it in his skills both as a player and as a person.
Things had turned terribly bad quickly for manager Buck Showalter’s Yankees that season. They stood at 12-14, having lost nine of 11 games as they went to Seattle to play the Mariners.
“If it weren’t for bad news the Yankees would be making not news at all,” I wrote.
The infield was a mess, both shortstop Tony Fernandez and second baseman Pat Kelly injured, so reluctantly the Yankees called Jeter to the major leagues.
It was a hectic day, that May 29, 1995, with Jeter flying seven hours to get to Seattle.
You knew they expected big things for he had the No. 2 jersey and with the Yankees, single digit numbers were reserved for only the best – Ruth 3, Gehrig 4, DiMaggio 5, Mantle 7, Berra 8, Maris 9.
Jeter’s father, too, hustled in for his debut from Michigan.
And so the stage was set, although the Yankees opted not put any pressure on this manchild.
His first game in the major leagues he batted ninth. His first at bat he hit a short fly to right against Rafael Carmona.
He batted five times in another Yankee loss, 9-8, in 12 innings.
After the game, deep into the night, he and his father went out to get dinner.
The only place they could find open was a McDonald’s.
“I paid,” his father said.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid.
The next day, in The Record, under the headline “Yanks’ Star Prospect Jeter Gets Call to Bail out Infield” I wrote:
“And so began the major league career of one of the most highly touted Yankee prospects to arrive in the big leagues since Thurman Munson — and, at 20, the youngest since Jose Rijo.”
True, it was a modest beginning but I recall after the game one of the other writers complimented Jeter on handling his debut with the calm of a veteran, to which Jeter replied: “Veteran? I have to get a hit first.”
This was a Yankees team about to begin a dynasty, for also that season they debuted catcher Jorge Posada and pitchers Mariano Rivera, already a Hall of Famer and Andy Pettite.
Jeter played with the Yankees until the team got healthy when he was sent back to Columbus.
While Jeter was gone they played themselves into playoff contention, got to within 4.5 games of first place as August dawned, but faded through the rest of the month. On a West Coast road swing, after winning the first game at California, they lost nine of 10.
In the book, “Derek Jeter — Pride of the Yankees,” this was written.
“Meanwhile, back in New York media and spectators were also waiting — with less patience. Bob Hertzel went on the warpath, filing a report on the Yankees dismaying performance in Seattle in late August, and opening with, “If Derek Jeter is the real goods — and there is nothing to make you think he is anything but — the time has come to promote him to the major leagues, stick him in the lineup and see if he can help the Yankees win the American League wild card berth that is rapidly slipping away.
“Anyone who has watched the Yankees sleepwalk through the trips to Boston and the West Coast knows they need a kick in the rear. Jeter might be able to provide that kick with his youthful enthusiasm.”
But they paid no heed to such a suggestion, didn’t call Jeter back to the big leagues until rosters could be expanded on September 1 and gave him only one at bat — from which he added a double to his career statistics — the rest of the way.
As to why they didn’t use Jeter, Showalter simply said, “This is a hard time of year to be experimenting.”
The next year Showalter was gone, Joe Torre was hired, Jeter was the Yankees shortstop and began writing the words that appear on his plaque in Cooperstown.
— Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel