Scout convinced Yanks to sign Jeter in '92

Derek Jeter's 1992 rookie card with him pictured

Derek Jeter's 1992 rookie card with him pictured in his Kalamazoo (Mich.) High School uniform.

Who could have predicted this?

Who could have predicted that skinny kid from Michigan would grow up to be one of the all-time great Yankees? Who could have predicted that a kid from a cold-weather climate would become one of the best of all time? Who could have predicted that Derek Jeter, who grew up a Yankees fan, would become the first player to have 3,000 hits while wearing a Yankees uniform?

Dick Groch, that's who.

Groch, a veteran scout who now works for the Brewers, knew Jeter was something special the first time he set eyes on him. Groch was working for the Yankees and had gone to an all-star camp at Mount Morris High School in Michigan in 1991, Jeter's junior year in high school. Groch was standing next to a coach from Michigan State University, who remarked that he had to get this kid.

"I told him to save his postage," Groch said. "This kid was not going to college. I've seen a lot of kids, and watching Derek was like the difference between going to the Kentucky Derby and going to a race at the county fair."

Five years later, on Opening Day of the 1996 season, Jeter was the Yankees' starting shortstop. He would hit his first home run that day, go on to be voted Rookie of the Year and bat .361 in the postseason to help lead the Yankees to their first World Series title since 1978.

Yet for a player who seems to have lived a smooth and charmed life in the majors, Jeter's journey from the baseball fields of western Michigan to Yankee Stadium had more than its fair share of bumps, twists and turns.

 

Weighing college vs. pros

The first fork in the road for Jeter involved the University of Michigan. Despite what Groch said to that Michigan State scout, there was some cause for worry that Jeter might pick college over going straight to the pros. Jeter had given Michigan coach Bill Freehan his commitment, and his high school girlfriend also was headed to Michigan.

"With high school kids and girlfriends, you never know," Groch conceded. "But I had done my homework, and after watching this kid, I would have bet my mortgage that he wanted to be a professional baseball player and he wanted to be a Yankee."

For a good part of two years, Groch had followed Jeter all over western Michigan. He had hid behind trees and bushes near the outfield. He had watched from the seat of his car. He knew that Jeter was born in New Jersey and grew up a Yankees fan. But unlike other scouts who were constantly calling Jeter's high school coach, Groch didn't want Jeter to know how much he wanted him.

"I didn't want him to play differently because I was there," he said.

He also didn't want the other scouts to know how badly the Yankees wanted him. The Yankees had the No. 6 pick in the 1992 amateur draft, and a lot of things had to fall into place for them to get him.

The first thing was that Groch had to convince the Yankees to take Jeter. And so came the famous meeting several days before the draft.

Bill Livesey, then the Yankees' scouting director, expressed a concern about using a first-round pick on a kid who might not sign, saying, "I hear he's going to Michigan.''

"No," Groch responded. "This kid is going to Cooperstown.''

Initially, some observers thought the Astros, who had the No. 1 pick, might take Jeter. But they decided several days before the draft to take Cal State Fullerton third baseman Phil Nevin. The decision so upset veteran Houston scout Hal Newhouser, who had spent two years scouting Jeter, that he promptly retired. Five players -- Nevin, Paul Shuey, B.J. Wallace, Jeffrey Hammonds and Chad Mottola -- were drafted before Jeter. On June 28, 1992, two days after his 18th birthday, Jeter signed an $800,000 deal with the Yankees.

 

Rough time at Greensboro

Jeter certainly didn't look like a future Hall of Famer his first couple of years as a pro. In his first full season at Greensboro, N.C., in 1993, he committed 56 errors. He dropped balls. Booted them left and right. And completely misjudged hops. Back in New York, this did not go unnoticed. Then-general manager Gene Michael was dispatched to see what the problem was.

Michael, who had been a painfully thin shortstop himself, had committed exactly 56 errors his first year as a pro. He felt he had a unique understanding of what Jeter might be going through.

"When I made 56 errors my first year in the minors, I didn't even know they were counting them," he said with a laugh. "When I saw him making all the errors, it really wasn't much of a concern with me. I had watched him and he was really athletic and had really good hands. Sometimes he was erratic and he would hurry, but I wasn't worried."

Groch, however, was. On top of the problems Jeter was having on the field, Groch heard reports about how homesick he was. Jeter had spent a semester as a student at Michigan that fall, and Groch heard he was second-guessing his decision not to go to school.

"I was dying 100 deaths," Groch said. "There was talk about trading him, talk about moving him to centerfield. It was coming back at me."

Despite all of the errors, Jeter was hitting. And in 1994, he had a breakout season, batting .344 for Class A Tampa, Double-A Albany and Triple-A Columbus.

The Yankees might have projected Jeter as their starting shortstop for the 1995 season, but they signed Tony Fernandez to a two-year deal. Jeter was called up to the Yankees and made his debut on May 29, 1995, because Fernandez was on the disabled list. In 13 games he batted .234 and committed two errors.

In 1996, he got the starter's job, though Michael had to run some big-time interference to make sure he kept it. Yankees brass had agreed in winter to start Jeter, monitor his progress and not make any judgments or changes, if needed, until July. Owner George Steinbrenner, however, had second thoughts and called a meeting in spring training to re-evaluate that decision.

Michael couldn't believe the change of heart and told his boss he was making a mistake.

"I told them that I had played the position, and he was better than I ever was," he said. "We had made a promise not to be doing this. I think I pretty much ended any discussion about not starting him."

And so on April 2, 1996, Jeter was starting at shortstop for the Yankees in Cleveland. In his second at-bat, Jeter smashed a homer off veteran Dennis Martinez -- and he never looked back.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

advertisement | advertise on newsday