Niyo: Area scout foresaw Derek Jeter's Cooperstown destiny

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Derek Jeter was the pride of the Yankees over a remarkable 20-year career, one that puts him the company of names like Ruth and Gehrig and DiMaggio. And one that’ll earn Jeter his sport’s highest honor today when the Baseball Hall of Fame announces its 2020 class of inductees.

But when he’s officially enshrined in Cooperstown this summer, Jeter also will carry with him the pride of those here in Michigan who watched the legend grow from the very beginning. Chief among them, Dick Groch, the longtime area scout who staked his reputation on a skinny teenager from Kalamazoo, convincing the Yankees and owner George Steinbrenner to draft a high school shortstop with the sixth overall pick in the 1992 draft.

Kalamazoo's Derek Jeter is among 18 newcomers on the 2020 Hall of Fame ballot. On Tuesday, the Baseball Writers' Association of America will announce the results of its 2020 Hall of Fame balloting.

“I knew he was gonna be successful,” Groch, 79, laughed Monday, speaking from his home in St. Clair on the eve of Jeter’s crowning achievement. “But this definition of success needs to be rewritten.”

Does it, though? Because Groch, now a special assistant to the general manager with the Milwaukee Brewers, didn’t just call his shot nearly 30 years ago. He put it in writing, after months of scouting Jeter, from a baseball camp at Mount Morris High School to his Kalamazoo Maroons summer-league team through the end of his All-State career at Kalamazoo Central.

Jeter caught a glimpse of Groch “in his dark sunglasses and his Yankees shirt” on that first visit and “I just remember saying, ‘Oh, man, that’s the Yankees scout!’” But Groch always kept his distance, watching games from the parking lot or behind trees in foul territory and rarely phoning his coaches, not wanting to call attention to the Yankees’ interest or alter Jeter’s approach.

Which, if you talk to his former coaches, might have been his greatest strength.

“He was always the one who was out taking ground balls after everyone went home — not showing off, just working,” said Mike Hinga, 70, who has coached the Maroons for 40 years. “And I think that’s what set him apart at an early age.”

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Jeter was born in New Jersey, and though he moved to Michigan when he was 4, he grew up in pinstripes, in part because of summers spent back in West Milford, New Jersey, where Jeter’s maternal grandmother was a Yankees diehard. He remembers going to a Yankees game at old Tiger Stadium in 1985 — a few days before his 11th birthday — and getting an autographed ball from his favorite player, Dave Winfield, afterward. Then announcing to his parents on the way home that one day they’d be coming to Tiger Stadium to watch him play.

Several years later, Groch would make a similar prediction. The original scouting report he filed in April of 1992 — a document that sold for $102,000 at an auction a few years ago and is up for sale again — listed Jeter as a “64” on baseball’s traditional 20-80 scouting scale, projecting him as a future MLB All-Star. Among the notes Groch included were comments like “five-tool player” and “A Yankee!” the latter an important point about both his mental makeup and his childhood dreams.

“He had a Yankees gold necklace that he wore,” Hinga said, “and if anyone ever asked about it, he would tell you point-blank, ‘I’m gonna be the Yankees shortstop.’”

Which way to go?

Groch knews Steinbrenner wasn’t a big believer in investing heavily in high school prospects, however, so it would take some convincing to sell the owner on selecting Jeter. And with Jeter holding a scholarship offer to play for coach Bill Freehan at the University of Michigan, there was no guarantee he’d sign a contract, either.

“I’d never seen a player better than this in my life,” Groch said, recalling the pre-draft conference call during which Bill Livesey, the Yankees’ scouting director at the time, voiced that very concern. “But the question was, ‘Is this kid going to Michigan?’ And I said, ‘No, the only place he’s going is Cooperstown.’ I said, ‘I can’t be any more definitive than that.’”

He couldn’t have been any more correct, as it turned out. And after the first five picks in the ’92 draft were all college players, the Yankees — surprised that both Houston (No. 1) and Cincinnati (No. 5) had passed on a shortstop their scouts also loved — went ahead and put their trust in Jeter’s talent and Groch’s intuition, ultimately signing him with an $800,000 bonus the day after his 18th birthday.

Derek Jeter is likely to be an overwhelming choice to join former Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera in Cooperstown after the reliever last year became the first unanimous pick by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

The rest is history, of course, though it wasn’t all as easy it looks in hindsight.

Groch points to some of Jeter’s early struggles as a homesick teenager in Tampa in rookie ball and a second-year pro who made 56 errors in 126 games at single-A Greensboro, and notes, “Who thought he’d be a Hall of Famer at that point?” But those same qualities his coaches saw in Kalamazoo — the work ethic, the even-keel approach and the way a youngster handled failure and made adjustments — were the ones that carried him through.

“He was pretty unflappable,” Hinga said. “He didn’t doubt himself.”

And while that sentiment certainly wasn’t unanimous back then, it might be today, when Cooperstown’s Class of 2020 is announced at 6 p.m. ET on MLB Network.

A year ago, Jeter’s longtime teammate, Mariano Rivera, baseball’s all-time saves leader as a dominant closer, became the first player elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame unanimously, appearing on all 425 ballots cast by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Jeter could join him in that rare honor with a similar landslide vote expected.

There’s a chance he might be the only player to reach the 75-percent threshold for election this year, too, though there’s a strong sentiment for Larry Walker in his 10th and final year on the ballot. And with voters breaking up the logjam of Hall-worthy players in recent years, Curt Schilling, Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen and others have a better shot now alongside the Steroid Era conundrums like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

Got the numbers

Jeter’s credentials, meanwhile, are undeniable. A five-time World Series champion with the Yankees, he ranks sixth on baseball’s career list in hits (3,465) — that’s more than any other infielder in MLB history — and was named to 14 All-Star teams over his 20-year career. He went to the playoffs in each of his first 13 MLB seasons and became both the captain of baseball’s last dynasty and an iconic figure in the game. And while he never won a league MVP award, Jeter finished in the top 10 eight times.

Derek Jeter starred at Kalamazoo Central.

Critics will point to his poor defensive metrics, and they’re not wrong. He won five Gold Glove awards, but most would agree the Yankees should’ve moved Jeter to third base late in his career. Still, sage scouts like Groch will note the intangibles he saw at an early age and then talk about what he called “the money player” we all saw, year in and year out.

“The guy who’d turn it up in late August and September,” Groch said. “Regardless of what he’d done that year, he’d dial it up and give you that extra.”

The career statistics bear that out: Jeter’s highest monthly slugging percentage came in August, his best OPS in September and October. But so do all the highlights from a player who holds several seemingly unbreakable postseason records, including games played (158) and hits (200).

There was that first-pitch homer in Game 1 of the Subway Series against the Mets in 2000 when Captain Clutch went on to win World Series MVP. But there was also “The Flip” in Game 3 of the AL Divisional Series against Oakland, a signature backhand relay throw to nab the A’s Jeremy Giambi at home plate and spark the Yankees’ rally to win the series. And there were countless more, because throughout his career, Jeter had a flair for the dramatic.

Groch had a front-row seat when the Yankees star collected his 3,000th career hit in 2011. Before the game, he’d told Yankees third-base coach Rob Thomson, one of Groch’s former players from his days as a coach at St. Clair Community College, that the milestone hit would be a home run. Sure enough, in third inning, Jeter belted a full-count breaking ball from David Price some 420 feet into the left-field seats at Yankee Stadium.

Groch was right behind the Yankees dugout, and as Jeter rounded the bases, Thomson turned around to look at the scout who’d been right once more.

“He held his hands out, like, ‘What did you expect?’” laughed Groch, who brought his grandson, Ronin, to meet Jeter when he made his final trip to Detroit in August 2014. “I mean, who else can do it like that?”

Nowhere else could it have meant as much as it did in New York, right up to that final time he heard the voice of the Yankees’ late public-address announcer, Bob Sheppard, say, “Now batting for the Yankees, No. 2, Derek Jeter. No. 2.” In the last home game of his career, with his parents in the front row and a sellout crowd chanting his name in the bottom of the ninth inning, Jeter hit a walk-off single to right field to beat the Baltimore Orioles, using that same inside-out swing that gave other scouts pause.

Back when Jeter was just starting his career, if you asked Groch what to expect from his prized prospect, he’d shrug and say, “I’ll tell you when you’ll really know, is when he plays in front of 55,000 people in Yankee Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. You’re talking about the most difficult evaluators in all of baseball right there in the Bronx.”

Ask him about it now, and he’ll tell you he saw the same thing the fans did. Only he just saw it before most others did.

“Give Derek Jeter credit: Everything didn’t happen automatically,” said Groch, now in his 55th year in baseball and his 40th in the major leagues. “I mean, he had to go through the process of making himself Derek Jeter, Hall of Famer. That was all in his hands, with his glove and his bat.”

Hall of Fame announcement

When: Tuesday

TV: MLB Network coverage begins at 3 p.m. The inductees elected by BBWAA vote are expected to be announced during the 6 p.m. hour.

Already in: Catcher Ted Simmons and former MLB Players Association director Marvin Miller already have been elected by the Modern Era committee vote.