By Bryan Hoch
NEW YORK -- The lanky, homesick teenager arrived in Florida, having just swapped his Kalamazoo Central High School uniform for a first set of Yankees pinstripes, and 18-year-old Derek Jeter started his search for anything that reminded him of the life he had left behind in Michigan.
It didn't take long: Jeter picked up a black Louisville Slugger P72, thinking that the weight seemed comparable to the aluminum bats that he was familiar with.
"It just felt comfortable," Jeter said. "I think at one time in the offseason, I may have swung a different one in a cage, but I have never had an at-bat with a different model bat."
That choice of lumber has been paying dividends ever since. Jeter's model is a 34-inch, 32-ounce bat crafted out of northern white ash, owning a medium-sized barrel, thin handle and balanced weight distribution.
Jeter ordered a 33-1/2 inch, 31-ounce version until 1997, when he switched to the slightly longer and heavier model that he will carry to the plate for his final big league at-bat.
"I think a lot of it just speaks to his character and the person he is," said Rick Redman, VP of Corporate Communication at Hillerich & Bradsby. "He's one of those guys who's just extremely loyal."
On Wednesday, Louisville Slugger renamed the P72 in honor of Jeter, the first time in the company's 130-year history that they've done that for any player (Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron were among those under contract with Louisville Slugger in the past).
From the Gulf Coast League to more than 3,460 big league hits, Jeter said he is still fine-tuning his craft; always seeing room for improvement, even with only a handful of games remaining.
"I'm still trying to get it to take. It still ain't taking," Jeter said with a smirk during a recent slump. "It takes time to get used to a wooden bat, period. It was a little different, but the feel of it was fine. I never was tempted to change."
Other players have found one bat model and stayed with it, but many like to experiment. For example, Mark Teixeira guesses that he has mixed and matched with 10 different brands, swapping out his choices depending on his opinion of the most recent shipment.
"Each company from year to year, the quality of wood varies," Teixeira said. "And so you'll have a run of a couple years where the wood is really good with one company, and then you get a batch of wood that's no good, and so you have to switch."
Through Yankees equipment manager Rob Cucuzza, Jeter typically placed orders for one or two dozen bats at a time, depending on the time of the season. One plus: Jeter can tear open the cardboard box and get to work without thinking much about the contents.
Jeter is not as fanatical about his bats as, say, Ichiro Suzuki, who carries his best choices in a mini-trunk that looks like a guitar case and doubles as a dehumidifier. But since Jeter defines himself as "a creature of habit," that extends to some of his other equipment as well.
"See these, man?" Jeter says, yanking his uniform pants above his knee, revealing a well-worn white Velcro strap that hugs the top of his sock. "I've had the same pretty much everything. These things, I've had since the first game.
"We used to have a rule in the Minor Leagues that you had to show four inches of blue on your stirrups, so these things kept your pants up. If you see any old Minor League pictures, you'll always see guys, their pants had to be like this, showing four inches of blue."
Today, Jeter wears his pant legs covering most of the sock, but the straps remain hidden underneath -- a reminder of the long journey. In fact, several pieces of the toolkit have been constants, including his fielding glove, a black Rawlings model that now bears his initials and number: DJPRO2.
"I switched models of gloves after my first full year. I struggled," Jeter said. "I made a lot of errors in Greensboro and my glove was a little bigger, so I switched to a smaller glove. I've been using that since '93, Instructional League, so the '94 season."
Obviously, the P72 did not start with Jeter. It was first crafted in 1954 for Les Pinkham, a Minor League player from Elizabethtown, Ky., who never made it to the big leagues. Pinkman was the 72nd player with a last name that begins with 'P' to order a bat, thus the model number.
Cal Ripken Jr. often used a P72 during his Hall of Fame career with the Orioles, and it is still currently in service with two other big league players: Lyle Overbay and Kelly Johnson, both of whom have spent time in the Bronx in recent seasons.
Brett Gardner said that he will sometimes see Jeter's bat leaning against the batting cage and give it a practice cut or two; the barrel feels a little smaller than the Mizuno model that Gardner regularly uses, but he isn't completely adverse to change.
"It's just how consistent he is. His whole game has been very consistent his whole career," Gardner said. "Sometimes I joke with him about picking it up and seeing if I can get some hits with his bat, but I never have. I should try it."
Hey, why not? 3,461 hits can't be wrong.
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