In a weeklong series, The Post is looking at alternate realities in New York sports. We are examining “what if” scenarios for our teams, reversals of fortune that would have radically changed not only the franchises themselves but dramatically altered their leagues, too. There are two rules: The scenario must be grounded in reality and have taken place within the last 30 years. Today’s edition: What if the Yankees traded Mariano Rivera in 1996?
George Steinbrenner. Yankees owner, The Boss. If he called a meeting in 1996 he was going to overwhelm a room, pit executives against each other and create a scenario in which no matter the result he would take credit that he was right or you were wrong.
Clyde King. The lone man to have gone through the endless Steinbrenner caravan as manager/GM/pitching coach. He was part of George’s “special advisory committee,” a nebulous group that fed the owner concepts without any actual chain of command or power, except that Steinrbenner adored dissension.
Gene Michael. The GM from 1990-95. He stepped down in a contract dispute and was replaced in title by Bob Watson — but not in influence. No one had Steinbrenner’s trust quite like Stick because he was willing to stand up to The Boss.
Derek Jeter. Picked sixth-overall in 1992, now Baseball America’s sixth-rated prospect in the game. Annoyed at all the publicity the Mets were getting with their plan to go with Generation K in 1996, Steinbrenner has the Yankees counter by announcing soon after the ’95 season that Jeter will be the starting shortstop in 1996. In December 1995, Jeter impressed the new manager, Joe Torre, for the first time by maturely saying it only means he will get first crack. Jeter is just 21.
But would he? Second baseman Pat Kelly had a bum shoulder. On March 24, Tony Fernandez, the backup shortstop, fractured his elbow playing second. King, watching spring, tells Steinbrenner, “We can’t win this year with Derek Jeter playing shortstop every day. He’s not ready [defensively].” Without Fernandez or Kelly, Mariano Duncan — who was signed to replace jack-of-all-trades Randy Velarde — was to bring his suspect glove to second next to Jeter’s suspect glove at short.
Because the Mariners were going with their own youngster, Alex Rodriguez, at short, Felix Fermin and Luis Sojo were available. The Yanks were told they could have Fermin for either Bob Wickman or the only reliever who performed well against Seattle in the 1995 Division Series — Mariano Rivera.
Scene: On the evening of March 26 — “Driving Miss Daisy” would win the Best Picture Oscar later that night — Steinbrenner called a meeting in Torre’s office at Legends Field, which opened that year. This has been a problem for Yankees officials because Steinbrenner, a Tampa resident, is coming to camp daily in the first year away from Fort Lauderdale and becoming more and more itchy for change, which is his comfort zone. About a dozen Yankees employees filed in.
Now appreciate the scene and who Steinbrenner was. It would have been so much easier to bend to his core beliefs that veteran was better than young and his persistent envy for what the Yankees didn’t have rather than what they did. If the room had gone full yes-man, then it was possible that Rivera (no one in the room was even sure what his pitching role was in 1996) would be traded for Fermin. Jeter would be sent to the minors, perhaps to learn center field. A dynasty would have crumbled before beginning.
But Michael knew this couldn’t be Steinbrenner’s idea and everything began to shift in the room when he forced The Boss to, first, admit that it was King’s, and then Steinbrenner summoned King to join the meeting and explain his ideas. Others would speak up for Jeter. For example, Willie Randolph, the third-base coach who worked with the infielders, hailed Jeter’s work ethic and the idea that Jeter’s defense would improve.
Michael reminded Steinbrenner that when the decision was made in October 1995 to go with Jeter at short in ’96, Michael had counseled The Boss not to watch the growing pains the first month. Now, he joked, “don’t watch until the All-Star Game.” Those in the room, including George, laughed. The tension was removed. The discussion closed. Jeter was the shortstop.
Conclusion: Fermin was released by the Mariners and played his final 11 games as a major leaguer in 1996 as a Cub. Duncan and Jeter led the team in hitting in a 1996 championship season that triggered a dynasty. Rivera and Jeter starred in their first full seasons en route to careers that would produce the two largest vote percentages ever for the Hall of Fame.