Looking back: Jeter’s milestone Opening Day in Cleveland

Don’t expect Derek Jeter to gloat about himself because he simply won’t.

In his first Opening Day, as a rookie donning the Pinstripes, Jeter had the standout performance, crushing his first major-league home run and making a splendid over-the-shoulder grab.

But when asked about that 1996 opener in Cleveland Monday, 18 years later, Jeter wouldn’t call it foreshadowing to an iconic career.

"I just think it was a good day," Jeter said.

Truly though, Jeter’s performance, so early in his career, was a harbinger of what became his trademarks over the next two decades.

To actually get on the field and get that first taste of what feels like a holiday for fans of America’s pastime, Jeter had to wait. Opening Day at then Jacobs Field was supposed to be April 1, 1996 but, no joke, as any Clevelander would believe, it snowed seven inches. So, the next day, April 2, Dennis Martinez took the mound for a Cleveland Indians team with high expectations coming off an American League championship.

Down 1-0 in the fifth inning, the 42-year-old Martinez faced a rookie half his age, batting ninth in a New York Yankees lineup full of grizzled veterans like Paul O’Neill and Joe Girardi, who is now Jeter’s manager.

Jeter strode up to the plate in the grey "New York" jersey, the No. 2, which will someday sit in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, on his back, with a long-sleeved, black shirt underneath. On a 2-0 pitch, Jeter delivered.

"He hit that hanging slider right in front of the plate and crushed it to the left field wall. I was kind of surprised to see a young kid be able to hit that ball," Martinez said, looking back at the at-bat now. "When I saw that, I go, ‘Uh oh. This might be something special, this kid.’"

Martinez was prescient. Up in the press box at Jacobs Field, Indians writers had no idea they were witnessing what would later become one for the history books.

"I don’t think anyone on the Cleveland side really took notice because he wasn’t Derek Jeter then. He was just some rookie who hit a home run," retired Akron Beacon Journal writer Sheldon Ocker said.

Jeter didn’t just give Yankees starter David Cone run support though.

"In the seventh, Cone’s defense helped him," Cleveland Plain Dealer Indians Beat Writer Paul Hoynes wrote in his postgame story. "After Sandy Alomar Jr. doubled into the right-field corner with two outs, Vizquel sent a short fly ball into left center field. It looked like it was going to drop for a single, but Jeter made a fine running catch."

Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, no stranger to great defense himself, complimented the rookie: "That was a big play for them. I thought it was going to drop."

Jeter had no such concern.

"I never took my eyes off it," he said after the game. "I had it all the way."

YES Network reporter Jack Curry, then a Yankees beat writer for the New York Times, described Jeter’s reaction in his gamer: "Cocky? Not really. Just confident."

Jack Curry, pictured here in the YES Network studio, has been covering the New York Yankees for more than two decades. 

On that day, so early in his career, Jeter’s instincts and penchant for the dramatic were on full display.

"It didn’t take him long to make an impression and it’s just continued since that day," Girardi said, sitting in the visitors’ dugout at Progressive Field Monday.

"Here you are, in Cleveland, against a very good veteran pitcher like Dennis Martinez and Jeter was as comfortable as anybody else on the field and he’s 21 years old," Curry said as he remembered the day. "He looked like he belonged."

While the historical significance was not yet apparent, there was something different about Jeter, of which even those Tribe writers took notice.

"Especially at that time, not many Yankee minor leaguers, guys who came up through the farm system, ever got to the Yankees. The fact that Jeter made it to the big leagues with the Yankees was pretty unusual," Ocker said.

An oddity but one that produced a generational quartet in the Bronx known as the "Core Four": Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. At 40 years old, Jeter is the last remaining active player of that group (Posada retired in 2011, Rivera and Pettitte at the end of 2013). The trio of Jeter, Rivera and Posada played together for an unprecedented 17 years.

"It hasn’t happened before. This day and age, it probably won’t happen again," Jeter said, swarmed by the usual crowd of media around him before games in what will be his final season.

It all began for the Yankee captain as a late-season callup in 1995, when he played in 15 games, hitting .250 with 7 RBI in 48 at-bats. Initial expectations were tempered for Jeter’s rookie year after a pedestrian spring training. Even Jeter knew the questions were lingering and he had to prove himself.

"I struggled in spring training. Tony Fernandez broke his arm in the last week or two and I think they were pretty much stuck with me," Jeter said. "I think it was important to get off to a good start to answer some doubts I think that people had."

Jeter singles in the sixth inning against the Indians Monday night. 

That he did, from game No. 1 to No. 162 and then onward.

"The Yankees wanted him to hit .250 and catch the ball," Curry said. "By the time the postseason rolls around, the guy was a leader of the team. That team pivoted on what he did."

Jeter hit .350 in his first taste of October baseball, as the Yankees beat Texas and Baltimore to win the AL pennant then knocked off Atlanta to win the World Series, the beginning of a late-90s dynasty in which they captured four titles in five seasons.

One of his hallmark moments came in the form of a Fall Classic dinger five years later. As the clock ticked past midnight and the calendar turned from October to November, Jeter earned the nickname "Mr. November" with a game-winning blast into the Bronx darkness in Game 4 of the 2001 World Series.

Then, when it came time to reach a hallowed milestone, 3,000 hits, Jeter didn’t do it on a bloop single or weak dribbler up the middle. No, he did it in grand fashion with a shot off Tampa Bay’s David Price into the left field bleachers of New Yankee Stadium, just like home run No. 1 sailed deep into the left field bleachers in Cleveland.

This Jeter guy has a strange affinity for symmetry.

"I always get a kick out of when people say ‘Well, he doesn’t hit home runs.’ I’ve hit a few of ’em," Jeter said. "I’ve been fortunate to hit some in big spots. It’s not something that I try to do."

He just does.

Now New York Yankees manager, Joe Girardi played four seasons with Derek Jeter.

In all, he’s hit 258 regular season and 20 postseason homers (through Wednesday). Five of those have come at Progressive Field, where he sports a career batting average over .350.

"I like playing here. It’s fun," Jeter said. "We’ve had some great battles with some really, really good Cleveland teams."

The 1996 Indians were one of those. Martinez, coming off a 1995 season in which he went 12-5 with a 3.08 ERA, was an imposing foe for Jeter to face down that first time in Cleveland. All these years later, Martinez doesn’t take any shame in being the victim of a milestone long ball. In fact, he has a unique take on putting his touch on a future Hall of Famer’s legacy.

"It was to bless him to have a great career, I guess. I was the person and I’m really proud," Martinez said. "It was blessed by a Latin pitcher with the most wins at the big-league level."

Martinez did not get one of his 245 career wins on that chilly April 1996 opener, as the Yankees scored a 7-1 victory to kick off their campaign.

If the Yankees were handing out a game ball, it would have gone to Jeter, though he wouldn’t have said so. While his stats in 2014 are not what they were in those prime years of New York’s run, Jeter’s demeanor and attitude toward the game have held steadfast.

"We didn’t know it then, but the 21-year-old Jeter was basically the 40-year-old Jeter," Curry said.

Those instincts haven’t disappeared from the 40-year-old version either. Just ask Jason Kipnis.

Jeter’s still an All-Star and ambassador of the game, proving again that first opener was anything but a "mistake on the lake."