Joe Torre was on the phone from a beach in Hawaii, and yet, as he started talking, it sounded like he was back in that cold dugout in Cleveland 25 years ago this week, watching his rookie shortstop launch a home run, and a dynasty, that few saw coming. Derek Jeter had hammered a high fastball from old man Dennis Martinez, who had signed a pro contract before Jeter was born, and a quarter century later Torre could still see it sailing over Albert Belle and the left-field wall.
“When that ball was in the air,” Torre said, “it was a no-doubter, and I remember I exhaled a little bit.”
“Then I knew I wouldn’t have to answer any questions about Derek,” Torre said, “because he had such a horrible spring.”
So horrible, in fact, that Yankees executives famously gathered to discuss demoting him, and possibly trading Mariano Rivera for journeyman shortstop Felix Fermin. Jeter (and Rivera) survived that meeting, hit that fifth-inning homer, and then made a running, back-to-the-plate, over-the-head catch in the seventh that reminded of the Willie Mays play in center in the 1954 World Series, with one exception: Jeter’s cap stayed on. Fitting for a legendary player who, over 20 years, never lost his head.
Of course, the Yankees would win four World Series titles in five years, setting the standard for all Yankee teams that followed, including the one opening the 2021 season against Toronto in The Bronx. This team has a dominant ace, a dominant closer, and credible depth behind both. This team has offensive firepower, and sluggers big enough to make Babe Ruth look like a portly second baseman. This team has a good manager with a Torre-like human touch, a general manager who has a rich (if distant) history of building championship clubs, the usual ample resources, and the power of tradition best captured by a father-and-son exchange between the Christopher Walken and Leonardo DiCaprio characters in “Catch Me If You Can.”
Walken: You know why the Yankees always win, Frank?
DiCaprio: ’Cause they have Mickey Mantle?
Walken: No, it’s ’cause the other teams can’t stop staring at those damn pinstripes.
Pretty soon, if the Yankees don’t win their first title since 2009, the opponents are going to stop staring. And in the 25th anniversary season of the magical ’96 team, there is no reason these Yanks shouldn’t win the franchise’s championship No. 28 for starters.
“You can only say, ‘We’re the best team on paper,’ and ‘We should win the World Series,’ for so many years without doing it,” said dynasty mainstay and YES analyst Paul O’Neill. “And it has been a drought. They’ve had good, winning years, but you need to add World Series titles to those years. … When you look at guys on this team like Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole, it’s going to be important that they have ‘World Series champs’ on their résumé.”
It’s the burden of playing for America’s most storied sports franchise. Fair or not, at the end of a Yankee’s career, the first legacy question asked is a direct one: How many rings did you win?
In his first team meeting in the spring of ’96, Torre told his players that, despite appearing in more than 4,000 games as a player and manager without reaching the World Series, he wasn’t interested in winning one title. “I said I want to win three in a row,” Torre recalled. “It took me a long time to come to terms with what I was going to say, I was that nervous.” The Yankees won three straight from 1998-2000, and nobody’s won even two straight since.
O’Neill sees the current team as talented enough to win a couple in the coming years. Torre agreed, but added, “You still have to play every day. You still have to go out and prove yourself to yourself every day.” An old admirer of Red Auerbach’s team-centric Celtics dynasty, Torre talked about the luck, health, and depth required to win consecutive championships. But it also helps to have a Bill Russell or a Derek Jeter in the middle of it all.
Jeter batted ninth in that opener delayed a day by snow in ’96; the shortstop came out of left field after an underwhelming 15-game promotion in 1995, followed by his alarming spring. His former manager, Buck Showalter, thought Jeter learned a ton by sitting and watching the Yankees lose their epic playoff series with Seattle in ’95. “He saw that losing that series made us all sick to our stomachs,” Showalter said, “and that pain helped Derek’s development. It taught him to do everything he possibly could to avoid that feeling.”
The Yankees should have learned the same lessons from their recent heartbreaking playoff defeats. So who is going to start turning that early-to-mid October pain into some serious late October gain? Judge? Cole? DJ LeMahieu? Gleyber Torres?
It’s time, gentlemen. Twenty-five years after Derek Jeter became Derek Jeter, the floor is now open in The Bronx.