In a normal world, Jeter would have been the most-heralded new shortstop in the majors when he took over for an injured Tony Fernandez at the start of the 1996 season. But despite his prodigious talent, Jeter wasn’t even the most-heralded new shortstop in New York. The 1996-97 seasons produced a bumper crop of shortstops, and Jeter had to share top billing with the Mets’ Rey Ordonez, the Red Sox’ Nomar Garciaparra, the Blue Jays’ Alex Gonzalez, the Mariners’ Alex Rodriguez, and the Marlins’ Edgar Renteria. But, even if he was not the best young shortstop in the majors, the 1996 Rookie of the Year played a key role on the powerful Yankee teams of the late 1990s and made a name for himself as one of the most popular players in New York.
For a Michigan kid who summered with his grandparents in New Jersey, playing for the Yankees was a dream come true. (His favorite player was Dave Winfield, and Jeter’s junior-high yearbook in Kalamazoo dubbed him “most likely to play shortstop for the New York Yankees.”) But for many New Yorkers, sports fans or not, Jeter was just dreamy. He was quickly dubbed the second-most sought-after bachelor in the city after John F. Kennedy Jr., and was often seen squiring equally eligible single models and actresses around Manhattan. But unlike other young stars suddenly thrust into the media spotlight, Jeter never let his success off the field affect his success on it.
A poised competitor, Jeter showed a remarkable consistency in his first two seasons, suffering no sophomore jinx after his unanimous Rookie of the Year season in 1996. He became known for his clutch hitting, often from the leadoff spot, his solid, sometime spectacular, play at shortstop, and his older-than-his-years leadership skills. (In Game One of the 1996 LCS, Jeter hit the famous clutch home run that was snagged by young fan Jeffrey Maier over the head of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco.) In 1998, his .324 average, 19 home runs, 84 RBIs, and 30 stolen bases were all personal bests and his teammates widely regarded him as the MVP of the record-setting juggernaut which won 114 games. Jeter also became only the second Yankee shortstop (Phil Rizzuto had been the first) to collect 200 hits in a season.
His only knock as a rookie had been his propensity to bobble the ball, but he cut his errors down from 25 in 1996 to 18 in 1997. In 1998, he made just 9. “Jeter is a six-tool player,” raved Rangers manager Johnny Oates during the 1999 season. “I’ve never eaten with him so I can’t tell you if he has good table mannners, but I would imagine he has those too.”
Normally popular in the clubhouse, Jeter was criticized by Yankees outfielder Chad Curtis in August 1999 for playfully sparring with friend Alex Rodriguez on the fringes of a nasty brawl between the Yankees and Mariners. Jeter shrugged off the remarks and Curtis was dealt to the Rangers before the end of the year.
Jeter had a stellar season in 1999. Although average defensively, nearly all his offensive numbers rose as he set career highs in home runs, hits, runs scored, and reaching triple digits in runs batted in for the first time in his career. He also led the Yankees to a sweep of the Atlanta Braves in the World Series by batting .353 in the four games.
But until the playoffs began, the 2000 season was one to forget for Jeter. He committed a career-high 24 errors, and for once his hitting could not completely mask his defensive struggles. Not only did Jeter hit a career-low three triples, hemanaged only 15 round-trippers with 73 runs batted in. Nevertheless, Jeter did reach 200 hits for the third straight year and saved his season by winning MVP honors in the World Series, hitting .408 with two lead-off homers against the New York Mets as the Yankees took their third consecutive championship.
Jeter posted another subpar campaign in 2001, failing to reach most of his offensive career averages and for once unable to top the 200-hit plateau. But he was selected to his fourth consecutive All-Star Game, a move which generated some controversy around the majors.
Jeter, who was nearly drafted by the Reds in 1992, wears #2, one of two single-digit numbers not retired by the Yankees. (Joe Torre’s #6 is the other.) He had originally requested #13 upon joining the Yankees, but it belonged to utilityman Jim Leyritz.