Can you imagine if the Yankees didn't have Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera for not only the 1996 season, but at all throughout the 2000s? Can you imagine if Joe Torre had turned down a job to manage the team? Can you imagine if Paul O'Neill was benched in the World Series due to injury, thus leaving the fate of Luis Polonia's Game 5 warning track shot to someone else?
All of these topics, and more, were covered in a special "Legends of the Game" feature from the National Baseball Hall of Fame, part of a weekend of exclusive interviews with Hall of Famers during what would have been their Induction Weekend. The largest Induction Weekend crowd at Cooperstown ever was expected to swarm the Clark Sports Center to celebrate the enshrinement of Derek Jeter, Larry Walker and Ted Simmons, with the current record standing at 82,000 fans for the 2007 ceremony of Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.
Now that coronavirus has put that on hold, the Hall of Fame has gone virtual with much of its programming, including this Zoom roundtable with the Hall of Fame's Bruce Markusen sitting down with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Joe Torre. Much of the conversation revolved around the 1996 season, ranging from the very beginning to the very end.
Surprisingly, none of the three Yankee greats were cinches to be in New York.
"Even coming out of Spring Training, I wasn't sure if I was going to go to New York," Jeter said. "I didn't really have that great of a spring. I was struggling there quite a bit."
Jeter says his struggles were more prevalent defensively than offensively, which should come as no surprise to anyone who followed the Hall of Famer's career. An unfortunate injury to veteran Tony Fernandez blew the door wide open for the then-21-year-old to earn a spot with the team.
Rivera, similarly, was unsure of his future.
"I didn't even know... if I would make the team," Rivera said. "I had to fight for a position... in Spring Training and thank God I was able to make the team."
Everything from a language barrier -- he tried speaking Spanish to Torre, who couldn't reciprocate -- to the presence of both John Wetteland and Bob Wickman made his road a tricky one. Eventually, he made it as a long reliever and credits Wetteland with teaching him a lot.
1996 wasn't the first time Jeter and Rivera had seen or played with each other, though. Rivera remembers seeing an 18-year-old Jeter back in 1992.
"I was there watching my cousin, Ruben," Rivera said. "Ruben was playing with (Jeter) in 1992... and I came to watch him, and I saw him playing shortstop and I was amazed."
"He (had) a lot of desire to play the game and a lot of respect, a love for the game."
The two youngsters played ball together with many Minor League clubs until finally getting called up, and each credits several figures within the organization as mentoring them to become professionals. Jeter credited David Cone for helping him learn how to deal with interviews after both good and bad games, pointed out that he learned how to have fun from guys like Cecil Fielder, Tim Raines and Charlie Hayes, and had a serious talk with Darryl Strawberry about dealing with the expectations that New Yorkers place upon you as a ballplayer.
He learned from Bernie Williams, too, while acknowledging the outfielder's goofy personality.
"He didn't say much," Jeter recalled. "Half the time, he wouldn't even know where he was. He didn't even know he was on a baseball field."
It was perhaps surprising to learn that Mariano Rivera's biggest mentor was Steve Howe, given the late Yankee's frequent run-ins with drug and alcohol abuse.
"Although he had his problems... he mentored me under his wing, from every angle," Rivera said. "...You mention Wickman, and that guy and I... we didn't get along together. I mean, he made my life miserable, but at the same time I had Steve Howe in my corner and he was a person that was always there for me."
Jeter laughed at the reference of Wickman's behavior toward Rivera while the longtime Yankees manager added that "he was a little rough (around) the edges."
When Torre came to town in 1996, he hadn't met several of the aforementioned players on his roster. He recounts that he had just been fired from the Cardinals after getting off to a 20-27 start, and because of how good the Yankees were, he said that he never thought in his "wildest dreams" that the end of their series with the Mariners would affect his career the subsequent season.
But losing the Division Series to Seattle and refusing to fire hitting coach Rick Down ultimately proved to be the end of Buck Showalter's managerial stint in New York, leaving a door open for Torre. It wasn't a managerial role, though, that was first offered to him.
"Between the time I was fired and the time I got the Yankees managing job, I was interviewed to be the general manager by Gene Michael," Torre said, explaining that Michael was to shift into a consulting role for George Steinbrenner. "They offered me the position and I asked this question, and I probably knew the answer before I asked the question. I said, 'Is there any vacation time?'
Torre recalls that Michael told him there wasn't any, and that Torre politely refused the offer due to his wife's pregnancy and his desire for some more time. Two weeks later, the Yankees called back to offer him the managerial position.
Good decision, Yankees. Torre's managerial record in New York is among the most impressive in baseball history: 1,173 wins and 767 losses, with six pennants and four World Series titles to prove that they were more than just a regular season juggernaut.
By the time the Yankees made it to the World Series, Torre was well-loved in his role as manager. But the World Series was by no means an easy stretch. Facing off against the reigning champion Atlanta Braves is a lofty task, and several of Torre's key managerial decisions came into play to help them win the series.
"There were some tough decisions to make," Torre said. "Probably the best decision for me was, having both played and managed in Atlanta, knowing what a tough ballpark that was to pitch in, I had David Cone... and I picked him for Game 3 because, of all the starters we had, he was the only one that ever pitched in that ballpark. And I just didn't want a pitcher overwhelmed in that ballpark, and as it turned out, we're down two games and he goes out there and wins a courageous game. I mean, that turned the tide for us."
Cone went six innings, allowing just one earned run on four hits in a 5-2 Yankees victory.
Among the other decisions Torre made were sticking with Kenny Rogers in Game 4, even after George Steinbrenner apparently came to Torre before the game and asked if there was anyone else they could go with -- he may have been right on that one -- and reverting his decision to bench Paul O'Neill due to injury.
“I called in O’Neill and said he wasn’t going to play and I remember when he left the room, Zimmer said to me 'You know, he’s been playing on one leg all year,' " Torre said, "And then we talked about it and I changed my mind, and I called him back in and I told him he was going to play right field. So he almost didn’t even start that game and luckily things worked out perfectly."
You can check out the whole presentation in the video below. Be sure to check out more upcoming programming from the museum as they continue to adjust to the impact of coronavirus.