Derek Jeter's path from Kalamazoo to Cooperstown

Derek Jeter is at bat at Hyames Field

Derek Jeter is at bat at Hyames Field at Western Michigan University while he was still at student at Kalamazoo Central High School. (April 11, 1992) (Credit: Kalamazoo Gazette /Landov)

KALAMAZOO, Mich. - When Derek Jeter was in the fourth grade, he stood in front of his class at St. Augustine Cathedral School here and said he planned to play shortstop for the New York Yankees.

Some moments as a teacher, Shirley Garzelloni said, you just don't forget.

Garzelloni, recently stood in the basement classroom where, she remembered, the 9-year-old Jeter boldly announced his career ambitions as part of a class sharing exercise.

His back to the chalkboard, Jeter faced his two dozen classmates and spoke the words that stuck with the teacher for nearly 30 years.

"When I grow up, I'm going to be a shortstop for the New York Yankees."

"It was something you sort of just knew was going to happen," said Garzelloni, 76, who retired as a teacher in 1998 and has remained active at the school since. "When it happened, it almost wasn't a big surprise. It was something he was talking about forever."

This summer marked the 20th year of the Yankees using the sixth overall pick in the amateur draft to select Jeter, a 17-year-old shortstop from Kalamazoo's Central High School.

Jeter, 38, is preparing to embark on his 16th trip to the playoffs in 17 seasons as the starting shortstop for the Yankees. He has led the team to seven World Series, winning five championships. This season, he passed Willie Mays for 10th place on the all-time hits list. With 3,298 career hits, some are wondering if Jeter has a chance at 4,000.

It's a legacy few could have predicted when he arrived in the major leagues in 1995. And it's a legacy that has placed this Midwestern city on the national baseball map.

Kalamazoo County, with a population of about 250,000 and situated about halfway between Detroit and Chicago, is where Jeter spent the majority of his childhood. There are no signs saying, "Welcome to Where Derek Jeter Grew Up." But look closer and the depth of Jeter's roots are evident.

There's a high school trophy case that shows off his accomplishments, yearbooks in the public library that show a much younger, skinnier and baby-faced Yankee captain and a playground outside his old elementary school that his Turn 2 Foundation helped build, to name a few.

But the true evidence of Jeter's past resides with the people who knew him back in the day. And after all these years, their astonishment over just how the kid's oft-spoken goal became his reality hasn't worn off.

"I remember shagging fly balls in the outfield with him and guys were asking him which major league team he was hoping to play for," high school teammate Jim Gucma, 37, said. "It was like a joke for us, like it wasn't real. But shortly afterward he graduated, he was a Yankee and it became real.

"Just all very surreal."

 

Young Yankees fan

Born in Pequannock Township, N.J., Jeter says he had his Yankees passion instilled in him by his maternal grandmother, Dorothy Connors, who used to take him to Yankee Stadium to see players such as Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly and Ron Guidry.

Jeter's family moved to Kalamazoo when he was 4, but he continued to spend summers in New Jersey and attend Yankees games.

In the 1989 Kalamazoo Central yearbook, Jeter appears in the top row of a photo of student leaders while wearing a Yankees jacket, which people said was typical for him.

Yearbooks also show Jeter played varsity basketball, was a computer lab tutor and a member of the Latin club.

"You have to understand, he was always very determined to be a Yankee," said Sarah Baca, 62, who taught Jeter's math class during his senior year. "He not only wanted to play major league baseball. He wanted to do it for the Yankees."

Just a few years ago, as she was cleaning out some cabinets in her classroom after retiring as a teacher, Baca stumbled across Jeter's senior-year trigonometry final.

"He got 100," she said. (And, yes, she kept the test.)

Dan Carlson, 64, who taught math to Jeter as a sophomore and was the last of his teachers to remain active at the school, received a going-away surprise before retiring.

Two winters ago, just before Christmas, Carlson was teaching a class toward the end of the school day when the door opened. "And there was Derek Jeter and he walked right in my room and said, 'Hi, Mr. Carlson,' " he recalled.

Jeter had been in town for an event for his Turn 2 Foundation, which aims to motivate children to steer clear of drugs and alcohol. He often returns to Kalamazoo in the winter in order to attend, and he dropped by the high school with his sister, Sharlee.

"The kids, they were just foaming," Carlson said. "They sat there in a trance."

 

'This is my field'

Last December, Kalamazoo Central renamed its baseball field for Jeter, something his high school coach, Don Zomer, said he'd been pushing for more than a decade.

Jeter attended the ceremony, held in the school auditorium, and joked to the crowd, "I always looked at this as my field. Now I can actually say, 'This is my field.' "

Jeter's childhood home, a blue split-level on Cumberland Street that borders high school property, was sold again over the summer, this time to a pair of sisters who said they had no idea of its place in the Jeter saga when they made their offer.

"The home inspector asked me, 'So which room do you think was Derek's,' " said Jessica Rapelje, the home's new owner. "I was like, 'Who's Derek?' "

Once they learned the Jeter connection, Rapelje and her sister Amanda went on a phone-a-friend spree, letting everyone they could think of know their place in Jeter history.

 

A called third strike

Jeter's high school class held its 20-year reunion celebration this past summer in Kalamazoo.

Jeter couldn't attend. He was in Oakland that night.

The last time Jeter returned to Kalamazoo was for the baseball field-naming ceremony. And he showed that he still has a keen memory of his high school days.

With Jeter on the dais, coach Zomer, 69, read his senior year statistics aloud.

"I mentioned he had one strikeout and that was a bad call," Zomer said. "And then it was quiet and Derek said, 'And that's correct,' and everyone laughed."

One strikeout in nearly 100 trips to the plate. And Zomer still remembers the circumstances. Big game against rival Portage Central, he said. Bases loaded, two outs and the score was tied when Jeter came up carrying a batting average north of .500. The chances Kalamazoo would take the lead were good.

But with a full count, Zomer 69, says Jeter looked at a pitch that was low, thinking he had walked and forced in a run. Yet the umpire surprised Zomer, Jeter and perhaps everyone else by calling out, "Strike three!" and ending the rally. Kalamazoo Central went on to lose that game.

Sitting in the stands at Derek Jeter Field, Zomer says whenever he sees the umpire these days, he still reminds him that he blew that call.

"He still to this day swears he was right," Zomer said. But when Newsday contacted the umpire, Dick Bird, 58, he reversed course.

"I might have missed the pitch," the umpire said.

Jeter was asked the other day if he remembers.

"Yeah, it was a bad call," Jeter said. "I don't know the specifics. I remember it was a called third strike. That would be kind of sad if I remembered all that."

Bird said that Jeter immediately walked back to the dugout, not even glancing back with a dirty look, like many kids would. That memory stuck with him.

"I've never had the chance to talk with him after that, but I've always wanted to tell him in person that I might have missed the pitch," Bird said. "I figured he might get a laugh out of that."

"He knows he missed it," Jeter responded when told about Bird's comment. "I swing at everything. If it was close, I'm swinging at it. I've always been that way."

With David Lennon

 

THE YOUNG JETER

 

His uniform number in baseball and basketball: 13

His grade point average: 3.8

Won the Kalamazoo area's B'nai B'rith scholar-athlete award his senior year.

Signed a letter of intent to play baseball at University of Michigan before Yanks drafted him.

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