Gene Michael said that Rickey Henderson was the best he ever saw at getting a fast start which, the former Yankees shortstop and director of scouting explained, is the reason that Henderson could steal all those bases and beat out so many infield hits.
To paraphrase an old song, “And then along comes Jeter.”
In the first game of the 1996 ALCS, New York Yankees rookie shortstop Derek Jeter beat out three infield hits. Two of the hits were on hard hit ground balls straight at Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken.
The consensus was that Ripken would have thrown out every other right-handed major league batter except for Jeter.
Orioles first base coach John Stearns, a former New York Mets catcher, was impressed. “He’s the fastest righthand (sic) hitter in the American League. I don’t know how he gets out of the box so fast.”
Michael started to think of Jeter’s speed in terms of Rickey Henderson as the fastest right-handed batter in the league.
“I know Derek gets out well enough, but I didn’t know he was the best,” Michael says. “Maybe he is, now that you mention it. I can’t think of anybody faster, off the top of my head. I don’t know. I just know he’s flying at the end. And I know when he’s on first and he steals a base, he gets out really quick.”
Michael’s contract was purchased by the Yankees in Nov. 1967. He was Mickey Mantle’s teammate in 1968, but by then, Mantle had lost his speed. If Michael has seen Mantle batting right-handed in his prime, he would have seen that Mantle was faster getting to first base than either Henderson or Jeter.
Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Neifi Perez and Rey Ordonez were among the most heralded young shortstops in 1996. Now, in 2012, the total number of World Series rings among the five as shortstops is five. All belong to Jeter.
On opening day in 1996, Jeter became the Yankees sixth opening day shortstop in the last six years. That number will reach 17 in a few months.
First year manager Joe Torre used Jeter to the Yankees best advantage. At various times, he batted the Rookie of the Year, future World Series MVP and Hall of Famer first, second, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth. Jeter batted .314/.370/.430 during the season and .379 in the post season.
“I always say that I don’t care where I hit as long as it isn’t 10th,” Jeter says. “The thing is, sometimes you get hits, and sometimes you don’t. Doesn’t matter where you’re hitting.
“Early in the Texas (division playoff) series when I wasn’t hitting, everybody said I was a rookie and I was nervous and I choked on the pressure and all that other stuff. But you get hits sometimes, and sometimes you don’t. That’s all I can say.”
Jeter is not a prolific base stealer, but he is one of the most efficient. In his career, Jeter has 339 steals with 91 caught stealings for a 79 percent efficiency rate. His season’s high in stolen bases was 34 in 2006. He has at stolen at least 30 bases in four different seasons.
As the years pass, the appreciation for Jeter will increase.