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1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Derek Jeter

The perfect rookie year for the perfect Yankee career.

Vincent Laforet/Getty Images


This story has become a stock narrative when discussing the great Derek Jeter's career, but each time it's told, it's still a little jarring to hear. On the eve of the 1992 MLB Draft, Hal Newhouser, a scout for the Houston Astros, had his eyes fixed on Jeter for their first overall pick, and he was absolutely convinced that he would be the future centerpiece of the Astros' franchise. Instead, the Astros chose outfielder Phil Nevin. Nevin did play until 2006 and put up a decent 114 OPS+ and 15.8 rWAR, but none of that was to the benefit of the Astros, who traded him on August 15, 1995 for Mike Henneman, who pitched a grand total of 21 innings for the club before becoming a free agent.

Jeter, on the other hand, had a much different trajectory. The son of Dorothy and Sanderson Charles Jeter, Derek spent most of his early years in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and he quickly ascended to the role of the top high school player in the state. The University of Michigan offered him a scholarship, and his parents certainly valued an education, but he instead decided to pursue his dream of becoming the shortstop of the New York Yankees. The Yankees drafted him at sixth overall, with a signing bonus of $800,000. When advocating for the selection, scout Dick Groch said, "the only place Derek Jeter's going is to Cooperstown."

The Yankees were in a pretty horrible position at this point. Going into 1993, the organization had not seen a playoff appearance since the 1981 World Series, and they had not finished higher than fourth place since 1986. Luckily this era coincided with owner George Steinbrenner getting temporarily barred from baseball after hiring a gambler to find dirt on Dave Winfield, so that gave GM Gene Michael the freedom to build the club in his own image, and just in time for Steinbrenner's reinstatement in 1993.

The Yankees had a great season in 1994 on the backs of the likes of Wade Boggs, Paul O'Neill, Bernie Williams, and Jimmy Key, and they were a few pieces away from a championship caliber club, even though the season was cut short due to the strike. They got close in 1995 as well, but they were eliminated in the very first divisional series against the Seattle Mariners. Going into 1996 Jeter was the sixth best prospect according to Baseball America, but George Steinbrenner wasn't convinced. Typical of his character, he thought Jeter was not ready, and wanted to acquire a battle-ready shortstop. He was ready to trade Mariano Rivera in exchange for Felix Fermin, but Gene Michael convinced him to give Jeter a shot. Next time you want to bring back the baseball strategy of Steinbrenner, think about that for a second. Instead of that disaster, he got a storybook ending.

1996 Performance

Results: 157 G, .314/.370/.430, 101 OPS+, 10 HR, 78 RBI, 3.3 rWAR

It's funny, because while many Yankees fans hold 1996 Derek Jeter in very high regard, it was actually one of the worst seasons of his career. He topped his home run total from that year 12 times, his WAR total 12 times, and his season OPS+ 14 times. Nonetheless, a high batting average and some poor rookie performances around the league captured him a Rookie of the Year title, easily topping players like Tony Clark, James Baldwin, Darin Erstad, Jose Rosado, and Rocky Coppinger. He was just the fifth unanimous selection up to that point.

That year the Yankees clinched their first division title since their World Series appearance in 1981 with a record of 92-70, beating the Baltimore Orioles by four games in the AL East. This postseason is where Jeter, for the first time of many times, would shine. Over the course of the three series against the Rangers, Orioles, and Braves, he hit .361, and his most notable hit came in game one of the ALCS, when the Yankees were trailing 4-3 in the eighth inning:

It's an iconic moment, even considering that this home run wouldn't stand today given the current review rules. Nonetheless, the Yankees still won the series in five games, and they would go on to win the World Series against the Braves to capture their first title since 1978. It was a time when the Yankees were actually the underdogs, and Derek Jeter would be at the center of a new era in Yankees history.

What did he do after?

Anything and everything. He would go on to win four more World Series titles, putting up a cumulative postseason batting line of .308/.374/.465. He would go on to tally 3,465 hits, the most in Yankees history, fourteen All-Star appearances,  a career 115 OPS+, and 71.8 rWAR. He is currently fifth on the Yankees' all-time WAR leader board. He is also considered the 12th best shortstop all-time by JAWS, and he is likely on his way to the Hall of Fame come 2020. But most of all, he gave us numerous iconic plays throughout his career: The Flipthe lunge into the stands in 2004, his 3,000th hit against David Price, and the walk-off hit on his final home game. It's become pretty common to bash on the fact that he's overrated, but if we're being objective here: the man is ridiculous. He was not only one of the greatest shortstops in the history of baseball, but he was the face of the sport during a time of great change and controversy, and he manufactured some of the greatest moments in the history of the sport. Re2pect.

Now you can find Derek Jeter in a business-oriented and philanthropic light, which is strange to see considering how long he was a player, but also interesting to see him succeed elsewhere. He founded the new platform The Players' Tribune, which gives a digital platform to athletes and has already changed the face of sports journalism. He also runs his charitable organization, the Turn 2 Foundation, which gives back to children affected by drug and alcohol addiction. The 1996 season kicked all of this off, and one cannot deny that the Yankees, baseball, and even American culture would be altered, in the most positive way, by his presence.