Derek Jeter tries to turn a double play as Kenny...

Derek Jeter tries to turn a double play as Kenny Lofton slides in during spring training in 1996. Credit: Newsday file photo

Young Derek Jeter was mighty proud of himself, and with good reason. He was a mere 21 years old (and looked younger), with only a handful of major-league games under his belt and he had just produced one of the most important hits by any Yankee in years.

It was Sept. 26, 1995, and the team was desperately scrambling for a wild-card playoff berth. The Yankees were in Milwaukee, having begun the day only a half-game ahead of the Angels. Although they were on a hot streak, there was a complication. Bernie Williams had gone home to visit his wife and newborn daughter in Puerto Rico and missed his flight back.

Buck Showalter, having mulled what he estimated as 55 potential lineups, decided on this shuffle: Gerald Williams from leftfield to center, Randy Velarde from shortstop to leftfield, Jeter from quiet observer to shortstop.

Despite not having faced live pitching in nearly a month and not having had a big-league hit since his previous stint in June, Jeter came up in the second inning and rocked a pitch from Scott Karl to right-centerfield for a run-scoring double.

"I trotted out to shortstop for the third inning and I was probably puffing my chest out a little more than usual,'' Jeter said in "The Life You Imagine,'' the 2000 autobiography he wrote with Jack Curry.

"I had gotten a big hit in a crucial game in September, and I felt great. In fact, I felt more and more like I belonged,'' he wrote.

That feeling lasted about as long as it took Velarde to shout his name and tell Jeter his night was done. Williams had just shown up and, still tucking in his jersey, was on his way to his position. Each player switched back to his usual spot.

Jeter later said he felt like a kid who got called off the field because it was time to go to the prom. Yet his hit proved vital in a pivotal 5-4 win. And he did not sulk. When John Wetteland got out of a jam in the eighth, Jeter was the first to bounce off the bench and congratulate him.

Hailing teammates and getting clutch hits became pillars of a remarkable run that will end with Jeter's retirement after this season, his 20th. So with the finish in sight, it is natural and revealing to look back at the beginning.

It was not that Jeter sneaked up on anyone in 1995. He was a highly regarded first-round draft pick (sixth overall) in 1992. Baseball America and three other publications had named him 1994 Minor League Player of the Year. But no one could have foreseen where those first at-bats would lead: five World Series rings, a sure place in Monument Park, a certain bronze plaque in Cooperstown and a stake in the conversation about who is the greatest shortstop in major- league history.

"Nobody is that smart,'' Showalter said during spring training this year when he was asked if he saw all of this coming when he had the confidence to put the rookie into the September cauldron.

Willie Randolph, a coach in 1995 and an instructor this year in Jeter's final camp, said, "There are some who have that 'deer in the headlights' kind of look, some of them just not sure, you can tell by their body language. One thing that struck me about Derek early on, he had a presence about him that gave you the impression he felt like he belonged here. That he wasn't intimidated, that he was ready to seize the opportunity to get his career started with the Yankees, of all people.''

What we all can clearly see now is that after 1995, the Yankees would never be the same.

Skinny kid in pinstripes

Appreciating Jeter's career involves looking at where the Yankees were when he began. By 1995, it had been 14 years since they last reached the postseason -- their longest drought since Babe Ruth came aboard in 1920.

They might have made the playoffs in 1994 if not for the work stoppage by the players that ended the season. That strike did allow Showalter and general manager Gene Michael to see more of their minor-leaguers, particularly their hot shortstop prospect.

"The first time I saw him in the dugout, I'll never forget, he seemed like 160 pounds soaking wet,'' said Showalter, now the Orioles' manager. "I'm comfortable with the report I wrote up on him. At the bottom of it, I said, 'He will be as good as he's capable of being.' That's what I want to see. With so many guys, you think, 'I don't know if they're going to engage enough to get it right.' ''

Jeter might have been the Opening Day shortstop in 1995 if he hadn't developed a sore shoulder in the Arizona Fall League. The Yankees signed veteran shortstop Tony Fernandez to a two-year contract. That gave Jeter a chance to dominate in Columbus (he was batting .354 when he was first called up) and time to overcome his tendency to commit errors.

"Another strength: Working on his weaknesses is not beneath him,'' Showalter said. "So many guys, if they do something well, that's all they do.''

Brian Butterfield worked with Jeter on what he calls "glove action'' throughout the shortstop's minor-league career. To this day, whenever Jeter, a five-time Gold Glove winner, sees Butterfield, now a coach with the Red Sox, he gives a motion that simulates the drills the two of them worked on.

"The first thing we noticed was how his teammates gravitated toward him and liked everything about him. He has a great personality and magnetism,'' Butterfield said during spring training this year. "He was a guy who wanted to be a great player and he worked hard.''

Butterfield was the Yankees' first-base coach in 1995, so he was the one who welcomed Jeter to the base after his first hit, on May 30, after Fernandez went on the disabled list and the kid was summoned from Columbus. On that night in Seattle, Butterfield recalled, "That was a thrill. His dad was sitting right behind us at the time, so that was a thrill, too.''

Even going 0-for-5 in his first game was a thrill for Jeter. He went out to McDonald's with Charles Jeter afterward, as many fathers and sons do. Jeter's mother, Dorothy, had to miss the occasion. The shortstop's sister, Sharlee, was playing in a big softball game for Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High.

"It's just as important. Somebody had to be there for her, too,'' Jeter said 16 years before his mother and sister missed seeing his 3,000th major-league hit because Sharlee's baby was being baptized that Saturday.

After Jeter's 13-game audition, Fernandez returned to action and the rookie was returned to the minors on June 11 (along with a struggling young starting pitcher, Mariano Rivera). But he had made an impression.

"He saw it as an opportunity,'' Randolph said recently. "He just had a maturity about him. He wasn't skittish. Don Mattingly had that type of thing. There are certain guys that have that kind of aura about them where it's like, 'OK, this is not too big for me. I can do this.' ''

Jeter returned to the majors when rosters were expanded in September, which put him in position to get that big hit against the Brewers. Still, he was not included on the postseason roster (unlike his buddy and fellow rookie Jorge Posada, a pinch runner who was on base for Jim Leyritz's big homer against the Mariners). The Yankees wanted Jeter to get a taste of it, so they had him travel and practice with the team during the playoff series.

He made the most of it. Before one game, he introduced himself to Phil Rizzuto, the last homegrown Yankees shortstop to make the Hall of Fame (if you don't count Mickey Mantle, who was switched to centerfield). Rizzuto was delighted and complimentary.

The 21-year-old absorbed everything he could from the highs and lows, including the heartbreak of a Game 5 loss in Seattle. "He didn't even play and it seemed like he was disappointed ,'' Randolph said. "I remember when I was leaving the bench, everybody was kind of stunned. He just stayed there. Some young kids would just get up and go, get out of the way. He was just sitting there, just kind of staring out at the field.''

Showalter's specific instructions had been to "just watch'' this rare experience, this first postseason trip since 1981. "And Derek said later, 'Geez, I thought that's the way the Yankees are supposed to be every year,' '' the kid's first big-league manager recalled. "And he was just about right.''

With David Lennon

and Seth Livingstone

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