Jeter, Rivera inseparable? Only seems so

On June 12, 1995, local dailies plopped down on driveways across the United States, carrying a bulletin that would astonish today’s readers. It was there in the Associated Press transactions rundown, that small-print touchstone of newspaper sports sections.


American League

NEW YORK YANKEES — Optioned Derek Jeter, shortstop, and Mariano Rivera, pitcher, to Columbus of the International League.

"Demoted on the same day," Jeter recalled last week.

Their replacements were infielder Russ Davis, later shipped to Seattle in the Tino Martinez/Jeff Nelson trade, and right-hander Brian Boehringer, who didn’t pitch well enough (0-3, 13.75 ERA) to merit a Metallica accompaniment at Yankee Stadium.

Has there ever been another transaction quite like it? How could there be? Two future Hall of Famers, icons of the most storied franchise in baseball, sent back to Class AAA on the same regular-season day.

"And it was the right move," Buck Showalter, then the Yankees manager, recalled over the weekend. "It’d have been a real story if we didn’t bring them back."

The notion of Jeter and Rivera being jettisoned from the Yankees’ roster is jarring, even if it happened almost a generation ago. It’s a reminder of how awkward the day will be — in the not-too-distant future — when a baseball season begins without them.

There has been plenty to discuss this spring, with Ryan Braun, Yu Darvish, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder shuttling between sun-splashed rehearsals and the media spotlight. But we shouldn’t confuse current storylines with enduring history. There will be other drug controversies, other international sensations, other men who switch teams for $200 million. We will not see the likes of Jeter and Rivera again.

Rivera, the greatest closer ever, and Jeter, the Yankees’ all-time hits leader, are beginning their 18th major-league season together. It might be their last, given Rivera’s recent statements about the possibility of retirement after this year.

Perhaps we should put down our iPhones, log off Facebook and Twitter, and take a few minutes to appreciate what we won’t see for much longer.

We know that Jeter and Rivera are great, but it’s more important for us to understand why they are great. And that’s why the story of that June is one worth retelling.

Jeter and Rivera have starred in New York for so long that it’s easy to forget they were prospects once, too. Between now and Opening Day, promising players in 30 camps will be summoned to managers’ offices and told that they must go back to the minor leagues.

Jeter and Rivera received the same news after the Yankees’ 10-7 victory over the Seattle Mariners on June 11, 1995. And they handled it with the traits — professionalism and class — that have defined their careers ever since.

"That wasn’t a happy day for us," Rivera recalled Sunday before pitching a 1-2-3 fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies in his spring debut. "It was tough. When you get sent down, you think about it. Your mind starts wandering. We were down. I was down. But that went away after we got where we were supposed to go, with Columbus, and started working. I needed to get my shoulder right. He worked on his stuff. A few weeks later, I was up again.

"Back then, if you had to work on something, The Boss would send you down in a heartbeat. He didn’t mess around."

The timing was particularly difficult for Jeter. The Yankees made the roster moves just as they departed for a four-game series in Detroit. Jeter, who grew up in Michigan, had been looking forward to playing before friends and family at Tiger Stadium.

"We hadn’t been demoted before,” Jeter said, noting that their careers had been a steady and nearly simultaneous rise: Class A to Class AA to Class AAA to the big leagues. "We were upset about it — disappointed, I guess, is the best way to put it."

Jeter laughed.

"But at least we went down together," he added.

Showalter, now managing the Baltimore Orioles, said the moves were made for developmental reasons: "These guys weren’t getting enough playing time, enough innings, to warrant keeping them there."

Rivera, still two years away from discovering his signature cut fastball, had struggled in four starts (1-2, 10.20 ERA) because he lacked a reliable breaking pitch. Showalter wanted veteran Tony Fernandez to move back to shortstop, his natural position, which meant Jeter wouldn’t get many at-bats.

But even at age 20, on one of the most difficult days of his career, Jeter showed composure that was evident in his remarks to the media.

"I think I got a taste of it, and I think I proved to myself that I can play up here," he told the New York Daily News. "Hopefully, it won’t be long before I’m back."

Tony Perezchica, Jeter’s road roommate with Columbus that year, never saw him sulk. Perezchica said Jeter resumed his routine, ironing his clothes in the morning and working tirelessly at the ballpark.

"It didn’t faze him much," Perezchica, now in his 10th season as a minor-league manager and instructor with the Diamondbacks, said in a telephone interview. "It was like nothing had happened. We all just told him, ‘You’ll be back soon.’

"It was only a matter of time. You knew it. I think he knew it, too. You could feel that. He would never tell us in those words, but there was a lot of confidence about him."

Perezchica said neither Jeter nor Rivera needed much encouragement from their Columbus teammates: "There really wasn’t much to say. They felt it. We felt it. They knew they were going back."

Rivera returned first, moving up for a spot start against the Chicago White Sox on the Fourth of July before gradually transitioning into a relief role. He made the postseason roster and pitched 5-1/3 scoreless innings in a memorable five-game loss to the Mariners — a foreshadowing of his dominance in Octobers to come.

"Hell, if I’d known then what I know now, we might have beaten Seattle," Showalter said.

Jeter, a September call-up, took only one more at-bat in the majors that year — and doubled.

The poise with which Rivera and Jeter handled the setback has become a recurring theme in their careers. In retrospect, it’s no wonder Rivera rebounded from the devastating Game 7 loss in the 2001 World Series, or that Jeter arrived at 3,000 hits last year with a 5-for-5 flourish after his batting average had been stuck at .242 in early May.

Since the ’95 season, Showalter managed the Arizona Diamondbacks, worked at ESPN, managed the Texas Rangers, consulted for the Cleveland Indians and returned to ESPN.

Jeter and Rivera are still where they’ve always been.

"That’s the most remarkable thing — the level they’ve maintained for so long, not only on the field but off the field," Showalter said. "When you think about these guys, they’re so much more than the statistics and championships. They’ve honored the game for so long. The game of baseball is proud of them, as much as anything. I know I am, knowing them when they were puppies. Obviously, their mom and dad did a great job. By the time I got them, they didn’t need much guidance.

"I was honored to be there, but I didn’t have anything to do with (their success). If anyone tries to take credit for them . . . It’s like Billy Martin told me a long time ago, ‘Try as you may, you can’t mess up the good ones.’ And he’s right. The best thing I can say is, if there was a Hall of Fame for people, they’d be in that, too."

Now, of course, it’s Showalter’s job to beat them.

"I’m ready for them to go away," Showalter said with a grin. "I chuckle every year. It seems someone comes up, talking about Derek — they miss the essence of what he brings there, physically and emotionally. That’s what (the Yankees are) really going to miss when they’re gone. It’s not so much the statistical things they bring, but the aura and presence.

"If you’re just evaluating (Jeter) statistically, with some pie chart or zone rating, you’re not getting it. People in the (other) dugout just go, ‘I hope he listens to them and retires.’ "

The Yankees’ Core Four has become the Transcendent Two, with retirement announcements unfolding like a slow curtain call — first Andy Pettitte, then Jorge Posada, now perhaps Rivera. The last ovation will belong to Jeter.

When asked what it would be like continue playing after Rivera retires, Jeter said, flatly, "I can’t sit and answer ‘ifs.’ " He does, however, know exactly how he would like his final season with Rivera to unfold — whenever that happens.

"The perfect final year?" he asked, repeating the question. "We win."