This is one of those stories that, at once, is hard to believe, but is the absolute truth. This is one of those stories that remind us all that failure is part of success. This is true even for people who are considered the greatest of all time, for, you see, they weren’t always considered as such.
This seems like a story about baseball, but it’s not. It’s a story about failure. And success. Great success.
Great success that came only after dismal failure.
On June 11, 1995, the New York Yankees, a fourth place team at the time – and not playing particularly well, – faced the Seattle Mariners (a team that was playing pretty good baseball) at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
The starting shortstop for the Yankees that day was a twenty-year old kid named Derek Jeter. This was to be just the 13th game in his budding Major League career. The great plays, the big hits, the World Series that would be coming were just dreams at the time. No one knew what lay ahead. At that particular time, Derek Jeter hadn’t really been anything spectacular as a big leaguer. On that day, Derek Jeter had an unimpressive .233 batting average with no home runs.
The starting pitcher on that fateful day was a scrawny twenty-five-year-old right hander named Mariano Rivera. Rivera making the fourth start of his Major League career. To date, his performances has been even less remarkable than fellow rookie Derek Jeter. In those three previous games, Rivera had won once and lost twice. When he pitched, he gave up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. The coolness under pressure for which Mariano Rivera would become known was something nobody even considered – they just wondered if this kid could pitch well enough to keep the Yankees in the game.
The first batter of the game hit a ground ball through the infield for a single. The second batter of the game hit a line drive to the outfield for another single. The third batter to face Rivera hit a home run into the left field seats. Before some fans had even found their seats, before others had mustarded up their hot dogs, the Yankees were losing 3-0.
Rivera eventually made it out of the first inning without any further damage and pitched just well enough in the second inning that no runs scored.
In the meantime, in the bottom of the second inning, Derek Jeter, batting at the bottom of the lineup, got his first at bat of the game. Jeter hit the ball all the way back to the pitcher for an out – certainly not the type of a result that legends are made from.
Mariano Rivera then began pitching the third inning. After getting an out on a long fly ball, Rivera allowed three of the next four batters to get hits. It wasn’t pretty. Two more runs had scored and the manager was on his way to the mound to send Mariano Rivera to the showers. His day was done. Mariano Rivera did not survive the third inning.
Remarkably, the Yankees, as a team kept battling back. They started getting hits and scoring runs. Well, most of the players were getting hits and scoring runs, just not Derek Jeter.
In the fourth inning, Jeter grounded out.
In the fifth inning, Jeter struck out.
To be fair, it must be noted that in the waning moments of the game Derek Jeter did get a single and would later score a run in the eighth inning as part of a rally that would allow the Yankees to grab the lead.
In the coming years, the Yankees would win thousands of games in which Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera took part. In many of those games, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were the major contributors to the victories. Again, all of that was in the future. If one wishes to add a hint of magic to the story, the Yankees actually won that particular game, but rather than winning because of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, on this day, these heroes were nothing more than bit players. It might be argued, at least in Rivera’s case that the Yankees won in spite of his dreadful performance.
After the game, the Yankees players had to pack their bags because the team would be heading on the road to Detroit, Michigan to play the Tigers.
Derek Jeter was particularly excited about this. After being born in New Jersey, Derek Jeter grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For the first time in his life, Derek Jeter would be returning home as a bonafide Major Leaguer.
His bags were packed; he was ready to go…
But it wasn’t to be.
Rather than traveling with the team to Detroit, Derek Jeter was told that he was being sent back to the Minor Leagues. Based on his performance, the Yankees decision-makers didn’t feel he was ready for the big leagues. But Jeter wouldn’t be alone – another player would be joining him, failed pitcher Mariano Rivera.
On June 11, 1995, two of the most legendary players in Yankees history were sent to the Minor Leagues together. Their greatness, if it was to come, would have to come at another time.
There was no guarantee that they’d ever be back.
In a very true sense, both Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera had been given their opportunity to play Major League baseball and neither did well enough to stay in The Show. They both had to return to the minors to hone their skills, improve, and work their way back. For many players that trip back down to the minor leagues is the first step in the slow deterioration of their professional careers.
Many players don’t ever make it back. They get sent down, the next great prospect capture’s someone’s imagination, and a promising career, full of hope, slowly fades away.
A few hours from returning to his home, in some ways as a conquering hero, Derek Jeter was instead returning to the bush leagues.
It all happened so fast… and now it was over, seemingly before it ever started.
Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera had failed.
Success isn’t always instant. Success isn’t always guaranteed.
Even the greatest among them sometimes fail.
But the greatest, the ones who become winners, take failure as a necessary part of success.
Back in the minor leagues, Derek Jeter hit a solid .317 for the season. Absent from the big city spotlight, forced to play in smaller cities and towns, and in front of fewer fans, Derek Jeter played liked the champion he would become. In September of that year, he returned to the Big Leagues.
The next season Derek Jeter was ready to fulfill his destiny. On Opening Day 1996, Jeter helped lead the Yankees to a victory over the Cleveland Indians. On that day he hit the first of his big league home runs. A legend was being born…
Mariano Rivera also kept working hard. He was back in the Major leagues by early July. On Independence Day, Mariano Rivera pitched eight innings against the Chicago White Sox. In that game he allowed only two hits and struck out eleven batters. In September, the Yankees started using him as a relief pitcher. The position seemed to suit him. Soon Rivera was pitching brilliantly in the playoffs. The Yankees had stumbled upon a gem. The man who would one day save more games than any other pitcher; the man who would be considered the greatest relief pitcher of all time, had found his home.
The rest, as they say, is history.
To be the best, to achieve success in any endeavor, one must be ready to accept defeat. To become great, one must be ready to fail. To truly achieve, a person must know that he will stumble.
You only fail when you don’t get up again.
You only fail when you give up trying.
You only fail when you stop trying to be your best.
Sometimes we think that greatness magically happens. It doesn’t. Greatness takes guts. It takes perseverance. It takes learning how to pick yourself up when it seems you cannot go any further.
Success comes when we work hard when we’d rather just relax.
We achieve success when we are faced with failure and we resolve to learn from our mistakes.
This lesson is one of the very best that we can teach our children. No child is a failure and every child should know that they will never be a failure. All they have to do is try again.
At the start of their careers, two of the very best players in baseball history were sent to the minor leagues on the very same day. June 11, 1995 might be the single day that defined the spirt, the heart, and the character of the New York Yankees teams that would go on to win five World Championships Those teams were defined by their grit, their character, and their propensity for never giving up. Maybe that was because the two greatest players on those great teams faced abject failure and knew, and understood, are were able to rise above that failure…to succeed far beyond anyone’s expectations.