• Sal Maiorana

On Opening Day, this Jeter kid looks like a star in the making

CLEVELAND (April 2, 1996) – If there was one thing that separated Derek Jeter from so many of his contemporaries, it was his unfailing sense of the moment.

When the lights were the brightest, when the pressure was at its most intense, Jeter almost always found a way to stay cool, stay focused, and then deliver.

It was a trait that defined his brilliant 20-year career, something that one moronic Hall of Fame voter who prevented Jeter from being a unanimous inductee in January 2020 apparently failed to recognize, as if the five World Series rings, 3,465 hits and the .310/.377/.440 slash line weren’t enough.

And while no one could have known it at the time on a 38-degree day at Jacobs Field, Jeter gave everyone a glimpse of what the next two decades were going to look like as he helped lead the Yankees to a 7-1 victory over Cleveland, spoiling the pomp of the Indians raising the 1995 American League championship banner in commemoration of their first title since 1948.

“It feels good,” said Jeter, who became the first rookie to start at shortstop on Opening Day for the Yankees since Tom Tresh in 1962. “We won the game. I did all right. I think I’m pretty happy but there’s some negatives. I struck out twice.”

Well, yes, he did, but he also hit his first major-league home run, a blast to left off Cleveland starter Dennis Martinez, a man who began his professional baseball career before Jeter was even born. And in the field Jeter flawlessly handled seven chances including a beautiful backhand play in the deep hole in the second inning, and a superb running catch in short left field in the seventh that saved a run and preserved New York’s 2-0 lead.

In what became typical Jeter fashion, always downplaying his own performance with the most mundane of post-game interviews, he said the catch in the seventh, which he made with a quick stab over his head, was a little lucky, then added, “The game could have turned. I was just trying to get there as quickly as I could.”

No one was happier about Jeter’s debut, outside of perhaps his parents, than Joe Torre, who committed to the 21-year-old as his starting shortstop even though he struggled at the plate during spring training. “He did all you could ask today,” Torre said.

Late in the spring, George Steinbrenner made it clear what life was going to be like for his new manager. He met with Torre to discuss on-field matters that most owners would have stayed away from, and one of the topics was the rookie shortstop.

“My advisors told me they don’t think Jeter is ready to play,” Steinbrenner said. Torre’s reply was, essentially, “too late now because he’s my guy.”

That advisor may have been long-time Boss confidant Gene Michael who had communicated to Torre early in the spring, “You’re going to have to be patient with Jeter. He’s made some errors in the past, but he’ll get better. He may not be ready from Day One.”

Torre took all that under advisement, then penciled in Jeter’s name as the shortstop batting in the No. 9 hole, right behind catcher Joe Girardi, and the kid not did disappoint.

Neither did David Cone, who the Yankees had acquired in a trade deadline deal in July 1995 from Toronto, then opted to re-sign in free agency to anchor their rotation with previous ace Jack McDowell no longer on the team.

“I really feel fortunate,” Cone said of a performance that included six walks, but only two hits and most importantly, no runs across seven gritty innings. “I did flirt with disaster. It could have been an ugly day for me. When you struggle, and you don’t panic and make the pitches in the key situations, it’s something to be proud of. But I’d rather not use this formula very often. I’m proud, but I feel lucky.”

“His breaking ball during the fourth, fifth and sixth innings was the best I’ve seen since I got here,” said Girardi. “We all know he’s human, but he’s going to keep you in the game. That’s what he did today.”

Bob Wickman, Steve Howe and John Wetteland covered the final two innings, doing so in relative comfort after Bernie Williams launched a clinching three-run homer off Alan Embree in the eighth.

“We got rid of all the stuff that goes with Opening Day,” Torre said. “Now we can settle in and play baseball. This is special.”

If only he knew at that moment just how special his first season in pinstripes would ultimately become.

NEXT post on March 30: Andy Pettitte gets the home opener assignment.