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Jeter recalls time with Rizzuto

Jeter recalls time with Rizzuto

NEW YORK -- It never failed. The Yankees would invite Phil Rizzuto out to the Bronx to throw a first pitch or take part in some ceremony, and the Scooter would always find a way to wander off before the game.

"Where's [Derek] Jeter? Where's Jeter?" Rizzuto would chirp, his eyes scanning the limbering and long-tossing players.

Among all the current Yankees, Jeter undoubtedly shared the closest bond with Rizzuto, which made news of the Hall of Fame shortstop's passing especially touching.

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"You'd get those two together and they'd embrace," said Yankees manager Joe Torre, recalling the moments when Rizzuto would finally locate his target near the dugout. "Of course, he was half Jeter's size. Whether it was a shortstop connection or the Yankees, spending your whole career in the same uniform, I think there was an automatic bond there."

Perhaps it was appropriate that Rizzuto was behind the microphone when Jeter hit his first Major League home run on Opening Day 1996 off Cleveland's Dennis Martinez, a shot to left field that, in retrospect, represented the intersection of the careers of two great Yankees shortstops -- Jeter, beginning his rise, and Rizzuto, completing a four-decade run on the air.

"I'm sure that's probably part of the reason he went out of his way and took me under his wing," Jeter said. "I'm very familiar with the tradition of the Yankees and he's as popular and as good of a player as we've had."

Jeter admits he isn't much of a memorabilia collector. At the All-Star Game in San Francisco, as his teammates rushed about the clubhouse to swap jerseys and baseballs, Jeter opted to leave town empty-handed, not having much use for the signatures of his American League counterparts.

He has a different story with Rizzuto-related items, though. One of the few pieces Jeter keeps in his home is a large, framed print depicting Rizzuto and Jeter, walking off the field side-by-side after a ceremonial first pitch. The Scooter personally inscribed the photograph with a message to the captain.

"You always remember how people treat you, especially when you're young and coming up," Jeter said. "He always went out of his way."

It was appropriate, then, that Rizzuto paid homage to Jeter before a 2001 postseason game at Yankee Stadium, turning forward his own version of Jeter's storied flip-toss to home plate against the Oakland Athletics just a few days prior. Shuffling off toward the first-base dugout, Rizzuto reenacted Jeter's backhand toss to Jorge Posada, a wide grin spreading his cheeks.

Phil Rizzuto: Sept. 25, 1917 - Aug. 14, 2007

"He did it on his own," Jeter said. "I didn't see him right after that, but he was laughing about it. I remember that. That's the type of person he was -- he always had a sense of humor."

Even as a fresh-faced 20-year-old, Jeter was cognizant of Rizzuto's place in history, but he kept his distance. Rizzuto had been the voice a young Jeter heard from his grandmother's television set during summers spent in New Milford, N.J., but he didn't take the initiative to introduce himself to the longtime broadcaster.

Jeter didn't need to. Rizzuto sought him out first, quickly going out of his way to strike up a rapport with the up-and-coming infielder. The relationship only developed as Jeter quickly won four World Series titles in his first five years, closing in on Rizzuto's seven Fall Classic titles. Jeter said he appreciated Rizzuto's warm praise and easy conversation style, but he was always struck by the 5-foot-6 Rizzuto's diminutive stature.

"The thing with him that I found amazing was how small he was," Jeter said. "I used to joke with him a little bit. It just goes to show that you don't have to be big, size-wise, in order to be successful."

That didn't necessarily stop Jeter from poking a few jibes at Rizzuto's frame, but it was always taken in good fun -- just the way Rizzuto liked to live his life.

"He'd just laugh; 'Holy Cow,'" Jeter said. "He was fun to be around. He was always positive. ... He played with a lot of heart, he exemplified what it means to be a Yankee and I always will remember the relationship we had."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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