Tuesday, June 7, 2011

How Jeter Almost Ended Up Wearing No. 19

From "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter"

The assignment of a single-digit jersey was no small matter in Yankeedom. Billy Martin was number 1, Babe Ruth number 3, Lou Gehrig number 4, Joe DiMaggio number 5, Mickey Mantle number 7, Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey number 8, and Roger Maris number 9. All those numbers had been retired.

“When you project a single digit at Yankee Stadium,” Buck Showalter said, “you’d better be right.”

Showalter and Gene Michael agreed Jeter was worth the shot. Nick Priore, the longtime equipment manager, was not so sure. When Priore assigned number 51 to the promising center fielder, Bernie Williams, Showalter asked him, “Don’t you think Bernie will be a better player than that?”

“If it’s f---in’ good enough for Willie McGee,” Priore shot back, “it will be f---in’ good enough for Bernie Williams.”

But Priore gave in on Jeter. So did George Steinbrenner, who told Showalter, “You’d better be right about this,” words that did not shake the manager’s faith.

“I knew by the time Derek proved he wasn’t worthy,” Showalter said, “I’d be long gone anyway.”

In ’95, Jeter batted .250 without a home run or stolen base in fifteen big league games, and he had homered only twice in 123 games in Columbus the same year. Maybe Priore did not think Jeter was single-digit material. With Showalter gone and Michael in a reduced role, maybe Priore thought he should act on his gut instinct.

Either way, the equipment manager decided to change Jeter’s number to 19. His assistant, Rob Cucuzza, wrote down the number on a card and posted it above Jeter’s locker.

“Robin Yount wore 19,” Priore said, “and he started his career as a shortstop.” If 19 was good enough for Robin Yount, the equipment manager reasoned, it would be good enough for Derek Jeter.

Only Derek saw it differently. “He came to me and said, ‘You’ve got to get me number 2 back, you’ve got to get me number 2 back,’ ” Cucuzza said. “I think Derek was a little scared to go to Nick. I was caught by surprise that he was so locked in on number 2.”

Was Jeter suddenly locked in because he realized the historical significance of number 2? “Oh, I know Derek had that in mind,” Cucuzza said.

Jeter was given number 2...

from The Captain

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