NEW YORK — In 1995, Derek Jeter found himself heading back to Triple-A Columbus with then-failed starter Mariano Rivera.
“He had a bad game and they sent us both down the same day,” Jeter said of his first Major League stint. “So I thank Mariano for the only time getting demoted in my professional baseball career. You guys laugh now, but we were crying.”
Twenty-five years after his final substantial struggle as a player, Jeter can laugh now too. The former Yankees shortstop and fellow inductee Larry Walker reflected upon their journeys to the Baseball Hall of Fame at a news conference Wednesday.
“This was something that was not a part of the dream when you’re playing,” Jeter said. “When you’re playing, you’re just trying to keep your job — that’s first and foremost. You’re trying to compete year in and year out, trying to win. And when your career’s over and done with, then it’s up to the writers.”
Although Jeter was only sent down that one time in June 1995, that was not his first rough patch. After being selected sixth overall in the 1992 Draft, the Michigan native struggled to adjust to being away from home, hitting .210 with 21 errors in 58 games across Rookie ball and Class A Greensboro.
And he wasn’t much better the following year. Remaining in the South Atlantic League, Jeter never seemed to get comfortable, making 56 errors in 126 games while racking up a large phone bill home.
“It was a learning experience. You go through some growing pains, you have to overcome it,” the now-45-year-old said. “I grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I signed the day after my 18th birthday. And now, all of a sudden, you’re playing against the greatest players in the world. I was completely overmatched.
“I had to learn how to deal with failure. Growing up, when you’re younger, a lot of times you don’t have to deal with that. It helped prepare me for what was to come in New York.”
The following season, Jeter posted 25 errors. And the year after that, he was in the Majors.
While Jeter had to learn about failure, Walker had to learn about the game, period.
Growing up in British Columbia, the former Rockies and Expos slugger played more hockey and softball than baseball, so there were many lessons to be learned when he got to the Minors.
After signing with Montreal for $1,500 as an international free agent in 1984 (Canada was not a part of the MLB Draft until 1991), Walker crossed the continent to play for Class A Short Season Utica. One time, Walker took off from first base on a hit-and-run play. Once he saw third base coach Gene Glynn telling him to turn back because the ball was caught on the fly, Walker ran across the infield to get back to first. Of course, he was subsequently called out.
“I got back, slid in to first, ahead of the throw, and was safe … easily safe. Got up kicking and screaming like a little baby,” Walker said on MLB Network on Tuesday after getting the Hall of Fame call. “Then [manager] Ken Brett said, ‘Hey, Larry, you gotta go back and touch second. You can’t go across the pitcher’s mound.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I already touched second, why do I gotta touch it again?'”
Once Walker picked up all the rules and nuances of the sport, he began to hit his stride. In his first three seasons, the outfielder batted .275 with 61 homers while stealing 54 bases in 63 attempts across 323 games for Utica, Class A Burlington, Class A Advanced West Palm Beach and Double-A Jacksonville.
Derek Jeter and Larry Walker spent time with Triple-A Columbus and Indianapolis respectively.
But his momentum was halted during winter ball in 1987 in Mexico. Walker tore three ligaments in his knee and needed surgery, costing him the entire ’88 season. After sitting on his parents’ couch for weeks and working his way back to the batter’s box, Walker started the ’89 season with Triple-A Indianapolis. The Canadian outfielder wasn’t sure where his game stood, but after four months, 36 stolen bases and 114 games, his game moved to the Majors for good.
“The Minor Leagues is where it all happened,” he said. “All the coaching and watching other players from their successes and failures and learning from them, it paved the way for me.”
Now in his role as Marlins CEO, Jeter’s in a position to pave the way for a new crop of Minor Leaguers, whether they’re high Draft picks or international transplants. During his stint to date, Miami’s Major League winning percentage has remained low, but the farm system has improved, boasting six of MLB.com’s Top-100 prospects by the end of the 2019 season.
“We believe in the fan base in Miami. We believe in the organization that we’re building,” Jeter said. “We understand that it’s going to take some time. I’ve said it before. I preach patience, even though I have none.”
He didn’t have to practice much patience as a player, though, winning his first of five World Series rings in his first full season, then getting elected to the Hall in his first year on the ballot.
But before Jeter heads to Cooperstown to be teammates again with Rivera, who was elected last year, he reflected on his biggest lesson from his time in baseball, one that he’d pass on to his two young daughters, Bella and Story.
“You’re going to fail a lot. That’s the best way to put it,” he said. “When you fail, you still gotta wake up the next day and move forward. Baseball’s a game that you’re going to fail more than you succeed, and you have to be able to bounce back.”
Kelsie Heneghan is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kelsie_Heneghan. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.