The following passage comes from my new book of motivational essays titled Impossible is an Illusion. This book was published by Ravenswood Publishing and is now available on Amazon and other book sellers. This motivational story has a distinct Yankees theme so I'll share it here.
This is one of those stories that, at once, is hard to believe, but it is the absolute truth. This is one of those stories that remind us all that failure need not be permanent. 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 more, it’s a story about failure. And 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). They met at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
The starting shortstop for the Yankees that day was a twenty-year old kid named Derek Jeter. This would be just the thirteenth 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 moment, Derek Jeter wasn’t anything spectacular as a big leaguer. On that day, he had an unimpressive .233 batting average with no home runs.
The starting pitcher for the Yankees was a scrawny twenty-five-year-old right hander named Mariano Rivera. Rivera was making the fourth start of his Major League career. To date, his performances had been even less remarkable than fellow rookie Jeter. In his previous games, Rivera had won once and lost twice. When he pitched, he gave up a lot of hits and a lot of runs. Eventually Mariano Rivera would become known for his coolness under pressure, but at the time people just wondered if this kid could pitch well enough to keep the Yankees in the game.
The first batter for the Mariners 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 from which legends are made.
In 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, as a team the Yankees kept battling back. They started getting hits and scoring runs. Well, most of the players were getting hits and scoring runs. 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. And in many of those games, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were major contributors to the victories. But on this day, rather than winning because of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, you might say that the Yankees won in spite of their performances.
After the game, the Yankees players had to pack their bags because the team was heading next to Detroit, Michigan, to play the Tigers.
Derek Jeter was particularly excited about this. Though he was born in New Jersey, Derek Jeter grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan and for the first time in his life, he 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 to stay in 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 the 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.
Most players don’t ever make it back. They get sent down, the next great prospect captures someone’s imagination, and a promising career slowly fades away.
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 us sometimes fail.
But the greatest, the ones who become winners, use failure as a motivation to work harder and try again.
Back in the minor leagues, Derek Jeter hit a solid .317 for the season. Away from the New York spotlight, forced to play in smaller cities and towns in front of fewer fans, Derek Jeter played liked the champion he would soon 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 happens magically. 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 on days we’d rather just relax.
We achieve success when we are faced with failure and we resolve to learn from our mistakes and not let the failure define us.
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 spirit, the heart, and the character of the New York Yankees teams that would go on to win five World ChampionshipsThose teams were known for their grit, their character, and their perseverance even into the game’s final at bats.
Maybe that was because the two greatest players on those great teams faced abject failure and were able to rise above that failure… to succeed far beyond anyone’s imaginations.