Charles Jeter answered the phone and handed it to his son. “Derek, you’re going to be a Yankee,” said the voice on the other end. Derek could not believe it.” Neither could the rest of the baseball world. Derek quickly called Michigan Baseball Head Coach Bill Freehan, a former 11 time All-Star catcher with the Detroit Tigers, told him the particulars, and said four words, “What should I do?” Freehan answered with four words of his own, “You’ve got to sign.” Derek Jeter signed a New York Yankee contract on June 28, 1992, just two days after his 18th birthday. The amount was for $800,000. Jeter had become the first high school player selected in the 1992 Major League draft. It would become the pick of a lifetime. So, sit back, relax, put your feet up, and let me tell you the incredible story of how Derek Jeter became a Yankee.
Derek Sanderson Jeter was born June 26, 1974, with good genes. In the late 1960’s, his dad, Charles, an African-American from Alabama, had played shortstop and second base at Fisk University located in Nashville, Tennessee. After Fisk, Charles moved to New Jersey were he met his future bride-to-be. She was of Irish descent, white, and her name was Dorothy. They moved their family to Kalamazoo, Michigan, when Derek was four. Charles Jeter taught his son many things, but through it all, Derek Jeter was better then everyone else the first day he played at anything.
He was tall, and very skinny; some said he had to run around in the shower just to get wet. Derek was the leader of his team at shortstop. He was quiet, respectful, and said “yes sir” and “no sir.” When others were heading to the mall, he was going to the baseball diamond to play catch. Derek Jeter hit over .500 and only struck out once in 23 games, his senior year of high school. His hands were educated and soft like cotton candy. His footwork labeled him as a tap dancer, a Gregory Hines at shortstop. He played basketball in high school to stay in shape for baseball, and he predicted two things: “When I grow up, I’m going to play for the New York Yankees and marry Mariah Carey.”
The University of Michigan, Notre Dame, and The University of Miami all offered him a scholarship to continue his education, while playing baseball for them. Dot Jeter wanted her son to go to Notre Dame, while Derek leaned towards Miami, but then he met Bill Freehan of Michigan and changed his mind. Michigan was coming off of probation and the program was down.
But lying like a snake in the grass was New York Yankee scout Dick Groch. One story had Groch telling a Michigan State recruiter who was adding Jeter’s name to a mailing list, “You’d better save your postage; that kid’s not going to school, he’s going to Cooperstown.” Groch later said that Ken Griffey Jr. had been the best he had ever seen in high school until he saw Jeter. Now, he placed them right there together. There was only one problem, the New York Yankees picked sixth in the draft. No one in their wildest dreams thought Jeter would be there when it came time for the Bombers to pick.
Here’s how the June 1, 1992, draft would commence. The Houston Astros owned the first pick. They also knew there were some issues with their starting third baseman, Ken Caminiti, and the use of steroids. Infielder Phil Nevin from Cal State Fullerton had been named the College Player of the Year. Houston Scouting Director, Dan O’Brian, liked both Nevin and Jeter and felt that their scout Hal Newhouser was right about Jeter. Bob Watson, Houston’s Assistant General Manager, leaned toward Nevin, a college kid versus a high school kid. The Astros felt that Jeter would be easier to sign, but owner John McMullen wanted someone who would move through their system more quickly. They called Jeter’s advisor, Steve Caruso and asked what it would take to sign Jeter. The answer: $750,000 to $800,000, not a bad price for the Number One pick. The Astros made their choice.
Former pitcher and now Astros scout, Hal Newhouser, took the call from his boss, Dan O’Brian, upstairs. “Well, I’m through,” he said to his wife when he came down the stairs. “They picked Nevin.” Newhouser never spent another day in baseball after that, except when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame later that same summer. He was beside himself with the Astros’ decision. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen,” said Newhouser. Hal never used a radar gun. He didn’t need a gun to tell him that Jeter threw fast. Other scouts with radar guns said he topped out at 90 mph from shortstop to first base. Turns out Hal didn’t need stat sheets or box scores either. The Houston Astros had lost 97 games during the 1991 season, and that’s one of the reasons Newhouser had been hired to scout for their team. Hal had made the long round trip from Bloomfield to Kalamazoo to see young Derek Jeter play in high school numerous times, all with joy. “I don’t know if Derek will play shortstop or end up in centerfield. Either way, he’s going to play in the Majors for 20 years,” exclaimed Newhouser.
The second pick was owned by the Cleveland Indians. In 1989, the Tribe had just signed Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez, and they were in dire need of pitching. A big hard-throwing right-hander named Paul Shuey, a pitcher from the University of North Carolina, was right there for the choosing. They took Shuey.
The third pick belonged to the Montreal Expos who also needed pitching. They liked left-hander B. J. Wallace of Mississippi State University. Wallace went north to Canada with the Expos.
The fourth pick rested with the Baltimore Orioles. With Cal Ripken Jr. at shortstop the O’s grabbed up power-hitting outfielder, Jeffery Hammonds, of Stanford University.
Pick number five fell to the Cincinnati Reds. They wanted Jeter but future Hall-of-Fame shortstop Barry Larkin was in the way. They chose the next best player in outfielder Chad Mottola, from the University of Central Florida.
George Steinbrenner had been banned for life from day-to-day operations of the Yankees by Commissioner Fay Vincent, for paying Howie Spira $40,000 to spy on Derek Jeter’s idol, Dave Winfield. Nevertheless, George made it clear that he still owned the team and he approved Jeter as their pick if he fell that far. The Yankees were in need of some luck as they had not been in the playoffs since 1981. “Captain Luck” was staring them right in the face with the sixth pick. Anthony Robbins once said, “You see, in life, lots of people know what to do; but few people actually do what they know. Knowing isn’t enough. You must take action.”
And so it began with the sixth pick of the 1992 draft. Kevin Elfering, the Assistant Scouting Coordinator, and Director of Minor League Operations for the New York Yankees had never seen Derek Jeter play. All he was required to do was say, “Derek Sanderson Jeter of Kalamazoo Central,” and he was a Yankee. Unbelievably, the best baseball player in the land fell to the New York Yankees.
In about 40 days, Derek Jeter will begin his 19th season in pinstripes. He has collected 3,304 hits, five Gold Gloves, and five World Series rings, all while playing in 12 All-Star Games. To think, he could have been a Houston Astro. All they had to do was say his name into the telephone. What a difference it might have made, especially since Houston will now play in the American League.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, email@example.com.