- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Sometimes your first love is the one you never forget about, the one your mind keeps going back to when times are tough.
For Derek Jeter, three months shy of his 39th birthday, trying to rehab an ankle held together by pins and screws, and surrounded in his own clubhouse by a lot of unfamiliar faces, that love may be the first New York Yankees team he was ever a regular part of.
Those 1996 Yankees bore little resemblance to many of the Yankees teams that followed, the bloated home-run machines that George Steinbrenner built in his attempt to duplicate that team's surprising success.
On Sunday, Jeter was detailing the progress of his rehab -- he still hopes to play in a game by March 10 but has yet to run the bases full-speed -- when the focus shifted to the upcoming season. He was asked if, in spite of all the personnel changes and the well-documented loss of power in the lineup, he felt good about this team.
"I do, I do,'' he said. "Yeah, we have a few different guys, but we have a lot of the same guys, too. Let's see, Kevin [Youkilis] is new. We know what he brings to the table. [Travis] Hafner, I played against him for years. But we got a lot of guys coming back, a lot of familiar faces as well.''
The talk then turned to the guys who did not return, like Nick Swisher and Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez, guys who accounted for a good chunk of the Yankees' league-leading 245 home runs last season.
"Yeah, but we didn't win with the home runs,'' he said. "I think it would be different if we won, and you'd be like, 'How are we gonna win again?' It's time to try something different.''
After the group interview, Jeter circled back to talk some more about the 1996 Yanks, a team that won 92 games in the regular season but rallied from the brink of disaster -- down 2-0 at home and trailing late in Game 4 -- to take four straight from the favored Atlanta Braves to win their first World Series in 18 years.
"I don't think we had one guy on that team that hit 40 home runs,'' he said.
Reminded that the 1996 Yankees didn't even have a guy who hit 30 home runs -- Bernie Williams was the team leader with 29 -- Jeter's eyes lit up.
"You see, that's what I'm saying,'' he said. "You don't need home runs to win. We tried it with the home run last year and it didn't work.''
To his credit, Jeter is not hiding behind the latest Yankee refuge, the "we won 95 games last year so we must have been a good team'' mantra that sweeps so many of that team's flaws under the rug.
When he says the 2012 Yankees didn't win, he means they didn't win the only games that used to matter to the Yankees, and clearly, the only games that still matter to Derek Jeter, which are the ones in October.
And even accounting for Jeter's eternal optimism, it certainly sounds as if he sees elements of the 1996 Yankees in the 2013 Yankees.
Clearly, there was almost no resemblance last year. The difference in home runs was striking -- the '96 team hit just 162 home runs, 12th in the league -- but so was the difference in runs. Last year, the high-powered Yankees scored 804 runs; the "puny" 1996 team scored 871.
And the reason is obvious: The 1996 team hit in the clutch and the 2012 Yankees did not. Even without breaking down individual performances, all you need to know is this: In 1996, the Yankees batted .293 with runners in scoring position and .299 with the bases loaded; last year, the numbers were .240 and .247. And that was with some second-half improvement.
Last year's Yankees, built to win by the home run, lost despite hitting more than any other team in the league.
By contrast, although the 1996 team benefited from some unforgettable home runs -- Jim Leyritz's three-run bomb in Game 4 of the World Series, and Jeter's home run that was caught by fan Jeffrey Maier in the ALCS -- that team basically won with small ball.
This Yankees team will have to, as well.
"I have no problem with that,'' Jeter said. "We've done that throughout the years. When I first came up we won a lot, but we didn't hit a lot of home runs. I know home runs are exciting, but you face good pitching, you're not going to hit a lot of home runs. You have to find other ways to win games. I always liked that part of it.''
This year, the important names are likely to be Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano and Jeter, of course, and if the Yankees wind up at the top of the standings but near the bottom of the home run rankings, no one will complain.
Least of all Derek Jeter, who somehow has been able to turn back his own personal clock. The way he looks at it, the 2013 Yankees should be able to do it, too.
3hTony Lee, Special to ESPN.com
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