Michigan baseball fans set to say goodbye to native son Derek Jeter

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Detroit — In the summer of 1992, the Tigers, like every other organization, were intrigued by a skinny, 17-year-old shortstop from Kalamazoo.

His name was Derek Jeter. He hit better than .500 three straight seasons at Kalamazoo Central and was the nation’s consensus high school player of the year, winning the honor from three sources — American Baseball Coaches Association, Gatorade and USA Today.

Even though the Tigers had their shortstop of the future and the heir apparent to Alan Trammell in place in Travis Fryman, they invited this kid to Tiger Stadium for a workout before the June draft.

Among those in attendance: GM Joe McDonald, scouting director Joe Klein, team president Bo Schembechler and one of the first Tigers scouts to lay eyes on the kid, Bill Schudlich.

“You could not do anything but like him in some way,” said Schudlich, who spent 23 years scouting for the Tigers. “But you see a kid like that (a right-handed batter) who hit the ball to right field all the time, never pulled the ball, and you wonder, is he ever going to hit?

“Nobody could predict he was going to do what he did, that’s for sure.”

Tonight through Thursday, Jeter plays his final three regular-season games in Detroit. The Tigers will honor him in a pregame ceremony Wednesday.

The Tigers had the 16th pick in the first round of the 1992 draft. The odds of Jeter falling that far were remote, but even if he did, Schudlich still doubts they would have taken him.

“Truthfully, I don’t know that we’d have taken him No. 1,” he said. “We had a lot of guys on our board. He did a lot of things that were semi-impressive in his high-school play, but he did a lot of things that you kind of doubted.

“Is this kid ever going to be strong enough to hit with any power? Was he ever really going to be able to play shortstop? We definitely had him as a premier prospect, but if anyone says they were sure he was going to be a Hall of Famer, they’re crazy.”

Move ahead 23 years and Jeter, as sure a first-ballot Hall of Famer as there ever was, is retiring after this his 20th season, all with the Yankees.

‘A sure bet’

There was one scout — well, there were a few, actually — crazy enough in 1992 to believe Jeter was bound for greatness. Hal Newhouser, the Tigers Hall of Fame pitcher, was an area scout for the Astros, who held the first overall pick in the draft.

Told that Jeter had signed a letter-of-intent to play for Bill Freehan at Michigan, Newhouser famously replied, “This kid is not going to college. He’s going to Cooperstown.”

Much to Newhouser’s chagrin, though, the Astros disregarded his glowing reports on Jeter and drafted outfielder Phil Nevin. Newhouser, as the story goes, resigned in disgust.

But that tale brings a lot of eye-rolls from scouts who were around at the time.

“Hal was kind of an area scout in name; he wasn’t really around, he just saw a few players,” Schudlich said. “He saw Jeter and liked him like everybody else. But he only saw a few players in Michigan. He didn’t see the whole Midwest or the whole country. You throw a kid like Jeter on the board with prospects from across the country, then it’s a different scenario.

“But because he was Hal Newhouser and he told Houston the guy should be their pick — blah, blah, blah. Hal was a great player but he didn’t do that much scouting.”

As for resigning in protest of the pick, Newhouser was set to retire after that draft anyway, even if the Astros took Jeter.

The scout who is properly credited with scouting, stumping for and ultimately signing Jeter was Yankees scout Dick Groch, now a special adviser to Brewers general manager Doug Melvin. Groch, the longtime baseball coach at St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, was in on Jeter as early as 1991 and his belief in his talents never waned.

“Most scouts thought Jeter was a sure bet,” said Ken Madeja, a former Tigers scout who has been with the Mariners since 1988. “I didn’t think he was going to be a Hall of Famer, but you darn well knew he was going to be a pretty good big leaguer. Everybody thought that.”

Madeja and Schudlich both found out about Jeter from the same West Michigan-area bird dog — Keith Roberts.

“Keith called me up when Derek was in the ninth grade and told me this guy was going to be a first-round pick,” said Madeja, who began scouting him two years later. He saw the same attributes and concerns Schudlich and others had seen.

“He was a very good athlete, nice long, loose muscles. He could run, though his bat was a little more suspect than anything else at that time. All the physical tools were there. And the makeup was off the charts. I went and saw him play basketball the winter before his senior year and he was all over the court — just a natural athlete and leader.

“You couldn’t argue with anything about the kid.”

‘It’s really surreal’

For those who don’t put much stock into concepts like fate and destiny, this might rock your outlook a bit.

Jeter, who was born in New Jersey before moving to Kalamazoo when he was 4, had one expressed goal his entire life — to play shortstop for the Yankees. He wore a Yankees jacket when he was in junior high. He wrote papers about it for several classes.

“When he was 16, he had a gold ‘NY’ necklace,” said Mike Hinga, who coached Jeter on the Kalamazoo Maroons summer travel team when he was 15, 16 and 17. “You’d say, ‘What’s that, Derek?’ and he’d say, ‘I am going to play for the Yankees.’

“There is vision and purpose in life and his was so well-established in his head. And you think about all the things that had to fall into place for that to happen. It’s really surreal.”

How do five teams pass on Jeter? After the Astros took Nevin, the Indians took Paul Shuey, the Expos took B.J. Wallace, the Orioles took Jeffrey Hammond and the Reds took Chad Mottola. Shuey and Hammonds had OK careers, Mottola got 125 career at-bats and Wallace never made the majors.

The Tigers, by the way, took right-handed pitcher Rick Greene 16th overall. Greene had arm issues and never made it to the big leagues with the Tigers. After 10 years in the minors, he pitched in one game for the Reds.

Not only were the Yankees fortunate Jeter slid to the sixth pick, Hinga also found it serendipitous they never tried to move him. The Yankees were struggling in the early 1990s, yet they never used Jeter as trade bait for a package of major league-ready players?

“Teams trade prospects all the time,” Hinga said. “And he doesn’t go anywhere? You couldn’t write a movie script about it because they’d tell you it’s fiction.”

It wasn’t fiction. And one of the main reasons the organization held tight to Jeter was the inextinguishable faith that Bill Livesey, then the director of scouting and development for the Yankees, had in him.

‘It was all off the charts’

It’s almost inconceivable to think about now — what with Jeter’s 3,439 hits and five World Series rings — but there were those in the Yankees organization who early wanted to move him to center field.

“I remember I saw Bill Livesey down in Texas one day and he said, ‘I can’t believe it. All my coaches think he’ll never play shortstop. They think he needs to be an outfielder,’ ” Schudlich said. “Bill said, ‘Listen, he’s not moving off of shortstop; I don’t care if he makes 100 errors.’ ”

Jeter struggled so badly his first two seasons in the minors, he nearly went home. He made 21 errors in 57 games in rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League and at Low A Greensboro in 1992. He hit .202 in rookie ball and .243 at Greensboro. In 1993, still at Greensboro, he made 56 errors in 128 games, though his bat started coming around (.295).

“If it was eating him up, I didn’t see it,” said Livesey, now a special adviser for the Pirates. “That’s one of the things that would’ve bothered me, if he was a kid that would hang his head. But he never, never gave me any indication, or any of the other guys, that he was struggling.

“But, as he confided in people since, there was a lot of doubt in his mind.”

There was no doubt, however, in Livesey’s mind.

“I remember I had to do a conference call with some New York writers and they asked if we had any plans to move Derek to center field,” Livesey said. “I told them he has the same tools he had when we selected him. He has shown off-the-charts work ethic and everything. At this point, after one season, we see no reason to take him off shortstop. We have no plans to take him off shortstop.

“It was all there, it just hadn’t come together.”

The Yankees were well-stocked at center field at the time — Roberto Kelly, Bernie Williams, Gerald Williams, Carl Everett and Ruben Rivera were all in the organization.

But it wouldn’t have mattered to Livesey if the center field cupboard were bare.

Jeter was a shortstop.

“He constantly showed us all the physical stuff, but also the intangibles, the aptitude, the attitude — it was all off the charts,” Livesey said. “In my mind, there was nothing to be concerned about because we’ve seen kids grow before.

“It turns out, we never seen anyone grow like him.”

‘A winner’s winner’

Jeter rewarded Livesey’s faith in 1994. He started in Single A in Tampa and hit .329 with an .808 OPS. He was promoted to Double A Albany and torched it (.377, .962) and , finally, in the final month, he got to Triple A Columbus. More of the same. He hit .317, with an .816 OPS.

In all, he played 138 games and made 25 errors.

“It was a sight to behold,” Livesey said. “We never moved a guy like that. We just never done it. We were very conservative in our goals for minor leaguers. We wanted impact upon arrival (in the majors) and longevity.

“If we felt like you didn’t have a good enough base, we didn’t know if we could expect those things from you — especially in New York City where they don’t have a lot of patience.

“But this kid, it’s funny, nobody ever asked about moving him to center field again.”

Jeter would spend the 1995 season in Columbus (.317, .816) but the Yankees had penciled him in as the starting shortstop in 1996 — even though they gave veteran shortstop Tony Fernandez a two-year deal in 1995.

“They had me call Derek to tell him,” Livesey said. “I said, ‘Don’t be discouraged, this is only for one year. You are going to be the guy.’ And, of course Derek, this is the kind of kid he was, said, ‘I’m not worried about that. I am just trying to be the best I can be. When that happens and I am in the big leagues, that’ll be fine.’ ”

Twenty major-league seasons later, the skinny shortstop from Kalamazoo is sixth in career hits, has a career batting average of .310 and is the Yankees’ career leader in games, at-bats, hits, doubles and stolen bases. He has 14 All-Star appearances, five Gold Gloves, five Silver Slugger awards, two Henry Aaron awards and one Roberto Clemente award.

In the postseason he has played more games (158), delivered more hits (200), doubles (32) and stolen bases (18), and scored more runs (111) than any other Yankees player.

His No. 2 jersey will be retired, he will have a plaque in Monument Park and another eventually in Cooperstown.

“Every ceiling we thought he had, he exceeded,” Livesey said.

“He’s just a winner’s winner.”