They first played against each other on Opening Day in 1996 in Cleveland on a 38-degree afternoon.
Derek Jeter, 21 and at the outset of his first full big-league season, started at shortstop and batted ninth for the Yankees.
Omar Vizquel, 28 and a three-time winner of the Gold Glove, started at shortstop and batted ninth for the Indians.
“With this kid’s height and build,” Vizquel recalled thinking of the 6-foot-3 Jeter, “he has the perfect body to play shortstop. Let’s see what he can do.
“Then you see him field the first ground ball to him cleanly and make a good throw to first base — great arm,” Vizquel said. “So he had all the abilities to become a great player. He hit the ball the other way with power, he made a lot of contact. Jeter made a great first impression. There was something about him.”
Now, 18 years later, Vizquel is in his first year as the Tigers’ infield coach. Jeter, 40, is concluding his career as a player.
The Yankees are in a series with the Tigers that ends Thursday. It’s their final series against each other in Jeter’s final season. Barring another Tigers-Yankees playoff series, this week will be the final time Vizquel will watch the man who has played more games at shortstop than anyone — except him.
Vizquel already has seen more than enough of Jeter to know what he thinks of him. And his perspective is invaluable, for two reasons:
Vizquel is widely regarded as an unsurpassed virtuoso at shortstop, someone who with his wiry, gymnast-like athleticism made many plays that almost no one else could make.
And secondly, on the steep upper slope of experience, he is the only one who regards Jeter from above, not below. Vizquel played 2,709 games at short, the most ever; Jeter is second at 2,652.
“There were plays that impress you, there are moments that really impress you. He seems to be at the right time, at the right moment.”
Vizquel was sitting on the bench in the Tigers’ dugout earlier this month, and he spoke with authority and passion, as if trying to make sure we fully appreciate Jeter before he disappears.
“When there was a situation where you needed a big double, or a big stolen base, or something, Jeter seems to be the guy who always came through. He was the one who made it possible for the Yankees to win that particular game. He made the difference for a one-run game or a two-run game, whether it was a home run or a base hit up the middle with a man on second base and two out.
“You talk about special baseball players. It’s not only because of their abilities. It’s because they come through in the moment. Michael Jordan did it in basketball. Tiger Woods did it in golf. Derek Jeter was the one who was put out there to make everything happen in baseball.”
Vizquel spoke about plays that aren’t taught, “Plays that are improvised and come out of nowhere.” There is one such Jeter play, said Vizquel, “that is stuck in everyone’s mind.”
It occurred Oct. 13, 2001, in Oakland in Game 3 of the American League Division Series between the Yankees and A’s. The Yankees had lost the first two games of the best-of-five series in New York, but held a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the seventh of Game 3. Oakland had Jeremy Giambi on first and two out. Terrence Long doubled into the right-field corner, and Giambi headed home.
Right fielder Shane Spencer’s throw missed both cutoff men and was rolling toward home plate on the first-base line. It looked as if Giambi would score easily to tie the game.
“The cutoff man was the second baseman,” Vizquel said. “The trailer was the first baseman. There is really nobody between the first baseman and home plate. There was a guy on first base. Jeter is supposed to be around the bag at second base. But he saw something in that particular moment that changed his mind completely.”
As the ball rolled toward home, Jeter came running and, without stopping, scooped it up about halfway between home and first.
“He saw the throw going high, ran in between the first baseman and the catcher, cut off the ball, made a backhand throw to the catcher and threw Giambi out at the plate,” Vizquel said. “That play was the difference in that particular game. They ended up winning because of that play.”
The Yankees won that game, 1-0, and kept winning against the A’s, Mariners and Diamondbacks in that postseason until they lost Game 7 of the World Series.
“That is a play you would never teach to a shortstop,” Vizquel said. “He was just there because he saw something that instantly made him go there and make that particular play.
“After that, I was on a couple of teams that call that ‘the Jeter play.’ When you say ‘the Jeter play,’ you know that you have to be aware for that bad throw over there.
“It is all around the field,” Vizquel said of Jeter’s excellence. “A stolen base, advancing with the ball in the dirt, diving into the stands to catch a foul ball.”
And sometimes, as on that night in Oakland, being in a part of the field where he is not supposed to be.
A DIFFERENT SHORTSTOP
Vizquel made three All-Star teams (there were a lot of good shortstops in his prime years), and Jeter was his teammate on the AL squad each time.
“He always made fun out of the way I got the ball out of my glove and threw to first base,” Vizquel said. “We were taking ground balls at the All-Star Game and he asked me how I could get the ball so quick out of my hand. He had to make sure he catches it.
“When he goes in the hole, he can make the jump and throw the ball all the way to first base. There is no way I could make that play. He also joked around that there was no way he could make the barehanded plays that I was making.
“It was interesting to hear him talking about the different things we do on the field. Obviously his body was different from mine” — Vizquel is 5-feet-9, a half-foot shorter than Jeter — “and we needed to do things differently. The final result was always the same — an out, 6-3.”
That baseball scoring notation for a grounder to short (6-3) is the same as Jeter’s height. He has towered as few shortstops have.
Jeter has played more games for the Yankees than anyone else. He is now beyond 2,700, more than 300 games ahead of runner-up Mickey Mantle.
Vizquel’s admiration for Jeter extends beyond what he has done in those games.
“What I admire about this guy is that in New York you can very easily shift your mind onto different things,” Vizquel said. “He has been able to maintain the focus and to know how big the position of shortstop represents to the New York Yankees. Every challenge, he conquers it and maintains his focus and dedication to be there every day as the shortstop. He really knows how to handle himself off the field. That’s what people don’t realize — it’s easy to lose your focus in that circus.
“There is not going to be another shortstop for a long time that does that kind of thing — stay on the same team, especially in New York.”
From the start in 1996, Jeter seemed to have the understanding he was on the big stage. He wasn’t a kid let loose in New York. Even in his early 20s, he seemed consumed with purpose and insulated from distractions and off-field headlines.
“He had four rings (world titles) in his first five seasons there,” Vizquel said. “After Cal Ripken (Jr.) left, people were looking for that image, and I think Jeter kind of took over that.”
Ripken’s fellow big-leaguers had maximum respect for Ripken. The current players feel the same way about Jeter. “Because he respects the game,” Vizquel said. “When you respect the game and you take the field the right way and you hit a homer and you don’t flip the bat and you don’t do any of the stuff that nowadays players are doing. It shows a huge respect for the game, and people see that.
“There is a saying that, ‘You have to respect me for me to respect you.’ That’s how he treats everyone, and every team. That is something I admire about Derek Jeter.
“I don’t remember Jeter hot-dogging on a fly ball or on a great play he made or in the home run he hit to win a game. There was always the respect for the game.”
In 2012, Jeter produced an astounding season. In the year in which he turned 38, he led the AL with 216 hits and batted .316. In Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, the Tigers led, 4-0, entering the bottom of the ninth. The Yankees hit a pair of two-run homers off Jose Valverde, and the game went to extra innings.
In the 12th, Jeter dived to his left for Jhonny Peralta’s grounder. He didn’t get it. Then, as Yankee Stadium fell silent, he didn’t get up.
He had suffered a broken left ankle. The injury caused him to miss almost all of last year, and this season, though he has been healthy, his OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) is lower than it has ever been for a full season.
He hasn’t been close to a .300 hitter since the injury. On defense, as Vizquel noted, “Obviously the last two years have been hard for Jeter after he had that injury in his foot. Obviously, his movements are not the same.”
If the Yankees don’t make the playoffs this season, then the final postseason moment of Jeter’s career was that one in which he lay at shortstop in the 12th inning, unable to get up. But Jeter still has all of this September to return to the playoffs one more time. He has a higher career OPS in September than in any other month.
Beyond being his sport’s icon, Jeter is like Ripken in another way. Down to his final days at shortstop, a debate carries on about just how well he plays the position. Abundant studies attest to Jeter’s relative lack of range.
Vizquel makes the same point about Jeter that others made about Ripken. He knew where to play, and so although he doesn’t have as much range as some other shortstops, he gets balls for which those players need their range. He does so with instincts and his anticipation.
Vizquel said he has “the ability to be in the spot where he needs to be. I think that balances out his range.”
There are all kinds of defensive statistics now. But Jeter preceded them, and now in some way at the end he towers over them.
Vizquel said: “Jeter is still Jeter. You can’t really rate Jeter.”
Vizquel had been speaking for about 15 minutes about how much he liked Jeter. Not once had he mentioned a statistic. He’d made no reference to Jeter’s 3,400-plus hits (sixth most all time), or to his five Gold Gloves, or to how he has played more games at shortstop than anyone besides Vizquel.
Nor did Vizquel mention the oddity, given Jeter’s overarching value for a team that made the playoffs in his first 12 seasons, that he never has won the AL Most Valuable Player award. He had a strong case in 2006, when he finished second to Minnesota’s Justin Morneau. But could our esteem be any higher for Jeter if he had won an MVP or two?
Jeter truly can’t be measured by the numbers.
“The fact that you might give Jeter a Gold Glove or a Silver Slugger or an MVP doesn’t represent what he is out there on the field,” Vizquel said. “You always want a guy like him on the field.”