Not long after the New York Yankees selected a pencil-thin shortstop named Derek Jeter in the first round of the 1992 draft, the team’s scouting staff convened at the House That Ruth Built in the South Bronx. One of the men at the meeting expressed concern that Jeter would eschew the Yankees’ contract offer and accept a scholarship to play baseball for the University of Michigan. The prospect of Jeter wearing the maize and blue had the man feeling blue.
“Jeter?” the scout inquired. “Isn’t he going to Michigan?” After a moment of silence, Dick Groch, the guy who lobbied like heck for the Yankees to draft Jeter, replied: “No, he’s going to Cooperstown.”
Talk about hitting one out of the park. Groch’s prediction will come true in five years. That’s when Jeter, who shares a birthday with Cooperstown native and mythical baseball inventor Abner Doubleday, will become eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. As the curtain comes down on one of sport’s legendary careers this Sunday at Boston’s venerable Fenway Park, it’s interesting to look back at how close Jeter came to not realizing his lifelong dream of donning the pinstripes. The “what ifs” are quite intriguing.
Five teams selected ahead of the Yankees in that draft, and no one was more bullish on Jeter than Houston Astros scout Hal Newhouser. “Prince Hal,” as he was known, was a two-time American League most valuable player and a member of the Hall of Fame, so he knew a thing or two about baseball talent. After watching Jeter bat .508 during his senior year of high school in Kalamazoo, Mich., Newhouser told his bosses: “No one’s worth $1 million. But if one kid is worth that, it’s this kid.” But when draft day rolled around that June, the Astros opted to use the No. 1 overall pick on Phil Nevin, a third baseman from the University of California-Fullerton. Newhouser was so fed up with the Astros’ decision that he abruptly quit, thereby ending a 53-year career in the game.
We all know what Jeter has gone on to accomplish: more than 3,400 hits, five World Series championships, numerous indelible moments in the regular and post-seasons, the adulation of millions. Nevin, meanwhile, spent 12 seasons in the bigs and experienced a decent but unspectacular career, batting .270 with 208 home runs. Thanks to Jeter, Nevin and the four other players drafted in front of the Yankees’ shortstop have become answers to a trivia question. For the record, the other draftees were: Paul Shuey by the Cleveland Indians; B.J. Wallace by the Montreal Expos; Jeffrey Hammonds by the Baltimore Orioles; and Chad Mattola by the Cincinnati Reds. Imagine how the course of Yankees history as well as the history of those other teams would have been altered had Jeter been tapped earlier.
Jeter’s journey from Kalamazoo to the Bronx Zoo was not without its potholes. He batted just .210 during his first season in the minors and after committing 56 errors his second season, he considered quitting professional baseball. Fortunately, he stuck with it, and became the Yankees’ starting shortstop on Opening Day in 1996. He would man the position every season since, with the exception of 2013, when he missed all but 17 games due to an ankle injury.
Ex-Yankees manager Joe Torre believed the precocious Jeter would be able to handle the enormous pressure of playing shortstop for them as a 22-year-old. Bombastic Bombers owner George Steinbrenner disagreed, which led to another monumental “what if” moment. Boss George was so uncertain about the young man’s ability to get the job done in 1996 that he told his personnel people to trade for Seattle Mariners veteran shortstop Felix Fermin. The impetuous Steinbrenner was ready to part with a promising young pitcher named Mariano Rivera in exchange for Fermin. Fortunately for the Yankees, Torre, general manager Bob Watson and scouting director Gene Michael were able to talk him out of consummating the deal.
“Some of the best trades,” Michael told me before Torre’s recent induction into the Hall of Fame, “are the ones you don’t make.” Envision the Yankees without the greatest closer in the history of baseball. “As everyone knows, George was a pretty impatient guy, and he also could be pretty stubborn,” Michael said. “We kept pleading our case and were able to convince him not to pull the trigger. Not only did that allow us to keep Rivera; it enabled Derek to play right off the bat. He may have been only 22, but he definitely was ready.”
Yes, he was. Jeter hit 10 home runs, drove in 78 runs and batted .314 to win American League Rookie of the Year honors as the Yankees won their first championship in 18 years.
And now, as Sinatra sang, the end is near. Jeter clearly has established himself as one of baseball’s greatest players and ambassadors. Unlike so many big-name athletes, he has led an exemplary career—one that’s been scandal-free. Not an easy thing to do, especially during these graceless times, where society seems infatuated with gossipy, TMZ, gotcha moments that instantly go viral.
I’ve followed the Yankees since 1961 and my extensive writings about them included a book about their old ballpark, which became the most famous sports edifice in the world. So where does Jeter rank in the team’s pantheon of heroes? Based on his impact as a player and a cultural icon, I would put him sixth in my lineup, behind only Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Yogi Berra.
And, just think, if one of those five teams had drafted him that early June day 22 years ago or if Boss George had acted on his impulse, the shortstop who shares a birthday with Doubleday and was born in Jersey just 30 miles from Yankee Stadium never would have realized his lifelong dream. History would have been dramatically altered.
You can listen to award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 95.7 FM, AM 950 or on-line at www.espnrochester.com. You can also watch him discuss the Buffalo Bills on WROC-TV 8 Sunday mornings at 10:30 and after games.
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