Though unexplainable and completely inexplicable, Derek Jeter‘s arrival to the New York Yankees coincided with the notion of “magic.”There I sat on the living room chair, reeling, wondering what had happened to my New York Yankees. Though most of the living, breathing baseball world wasn’t surprised after Game 2, my 13-year-old brain couldn’t comprehend what had just played out.
Monday, Oct. 21, 1996, my Yankees had just been beaten by the defending champion Atlanta Braves in the second game of the World Series. The 4-0 victory added more hurt on top of the disheartening 12-1 final score in Game 1.
Two games had been played in the Bronx and Atlanta had outscored the good guys 16-1.
Across from me in that very same living room was a newfound “Yankee hater,” a man whose earlier Yankee pride could only be matched by his hate after he had enough of George Steinbrenner’s antics. The previous hot stove season saw the transformation take place. The moment George fired Buck Showalter, a man whose hard work side-by-side with Gene “Stick” Michael helped rebuild the organization, was the moment this man’s loyalty turned to the Dark Side.
Seeing the agony on my 13-year-old face, my father, this newfound Yankee hater, looked to soften the blow by saying, “Hey, listen … we all knew this would probably happen. With this rotation, guys like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, we can’t be surprised by the early two-game result. I mean, even this young kid Andruw Jones is coming of age at just the right time.”
He finished with, “Winning the American League is an accomplishment in itself.”
The 13-year-old, who just two years prior witnessed his beloved New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup while fighting through a 54-year-old curse just couldn’t accept a Yankees fate of bowing out this easily in the World Series, the first he was lucky enough to experience.
It didn’t matter that this version of the Yankees wasn’t equipped with a natural star. There were no Mickey Mantles or Babe Ruths. Reggie Jackson wasn’t going to suddenly smack three home runs in Game 3 to resurrect the club from the dead.
I knew this at that young age and simply did not care. I wanted to win.
Game 3 saw the series shift to Atlanta for the next three. In Game 1, a rookie who led the team in batting with a .314 mark and later took home the AL Rookie of the Year during the winter, lead off for the Yankees. (Second baseman Mariano Duncan batted .340 that particular season, but only played in 109 games.) In Game 2, Jeter batted ninth in the order, collecting his first World Series hit.
— Elite Sports NY (@EliteSportsNY) May 14, 2017
In Game 3, a must-win situation, Joe Torre elected to put the youngster in the familiar No. 2 spot behind Tim Raines and ahead of Bernie Williams. With Tom Glavine on the mound and the odds stacked against the DH-less Yanks, Raines walked up to the plate as the umpire yelled, “Play ball!”
Raines walked. Jeter then laid down a bunt and moved the future hall of fame speedster to second base. Bernie then singled up the middle which allowed Raines to cross the plate and get the Yankees on the board first and in extremely swift fashion.
The Yankees rookie got the job done. It wasn’t in epic fashion. It didn’t come via the home run. He simply did what his team needed of him. Jeter, Torre and the Yanks had just played baseball. They just out-NLed the NL with their own unique brand of small ball.
Obviously, we all know what happened from that moment on. Whether it was a crucial Jim Leyritz home run, a gutsy outing by Andy Pettitte, or a hustling Joe Girardi triple in the clinching game, New York reeled off four straight in remarkable fashion to take home their 23rd World Series championship, their first in 18 seasons (the longest drought to date).
That 13-year-old and the entire town fell in love with that ’96 squad, but more notably, an identifiable character was born.
Just think back to the ’96 ALCS. For no other reason than “magic” would it be Jeter’s ball that would be hauled in by Jeffrey Maier.
Forget the fact it was lucky. It was. Nobody will ever deny that. What makes this so legendary is that it was an enormous home run not only for Jeter, but for the franchise. Heading into that series, the Baltimore Orioles were the hot pick for many. With the likes of Roberto Alomar, Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro and, of course, Cal Ripken Jr., Davey Johnson‘s lineup was stacked head and shoulders above New York’s.
Down a run in the bottom of the 8th-inning, Jeter changed the entire complexion of the series with one swing of the bat smacking an opposite field shot … with, of course, a little magic from a young fan.
But that’s the unexplainable and inexplicable thing about Derek Jeter. Everything that surrounds him equates to magic. The Maier home run just kicked off a career of incredible and jaw-dropping events.
Who else but Jeter would find himself about 15-20 feet in front of home plate as a shortstop when he has no business being anywhere near the vicinity?
Who else would coin the phrase “Mr. November?”
Who else would fly so dangerously into the stands to make a routine pre-All-Star break matchup against the hated Boston Red Sox so memorable?
Who else would also do it in the playoffs?
Who else would bring those tortured Red Sox fans to their knees in his final game at Fenway? Granted, they have softened up a bit after winning three titles, but still, it’s an accomplishment in itself.
Who else would, in his final at bat, make it one to remember in walk-off variety at home?
Nobody else, and that’s the point.
Those who bash the man and look to make the word “overrated” travel through time hand-in-hand with “Jeter” just don’t get it. They look at the career 260 home runs and 1,311 runs batted in and say, “Eh, it’s OK. It’s nothing to write to Cooperstown about.” They harp about the fact he took home a grand total of zero MVPs (although he was robbed the year Justin Morneau swiped it).
They fail to mention the man collected 3,456 career hits, ranking him sixth in baseball history. They fail to mention he batted a cool .310 for his career, one of only a few right-handed batters to stay near that mark post-war era.
Instead, those haters harp on the fact Jeter was called up and placed in the perfect situation at the right time. Those Yankees teams weren’t built around Jeets. The suits in the front office didn’t go shopping with the express purpose of building around No. 2. Granted, luck has most definitely played a major factor in Derek Jeter‘s career. Who else could be so fortunate to win four World Series titles prior to ever having to shave in the majors?
The point about Jeter’s greatness isn’t about stats. What the haters don’t get is that intangible quality to the kid whose actions and talents allowed him to become synonymous with the Bronx Bombers most recent dynasty. It takes a special set of skills to not only do what the team needs as a rookie and then shoulder the captaincy once placed in the perfect spot.
Even stranger and more curious is the fact that he’s enjoyed a fine off-the-field career pre-marriage and has never found himself in hot water. It’s the mystique he built, the mystique that has never escaped his character.
No matter what’s happened in a given game or season, the Jeter magic factor has always remained true.
On Oct. 21, 1996, that aforementioned 13-year-old kid should have just looked at his father and said, “Listen, pops. I appreciate the pick-me-up, but we have Derek Jeter. We have ‘magic’ on our side and not even the greatest rotation of the last 50 years can stop that.'”
Like myself 21 years ago, nobody could have said that because we simply didn’t know it yet. We didn’t know the epic career of magic to come. We certainly know it now and Derek Jeter and that unexplainable “magic” will live in New York Yankees lore forever.
From “the flip” to Jeffrey Maier, Mr. November to his final at bat. Don’t you dare try to explain it. Just sit back, relax, and smile while enjoying it.
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