Anthony McCarron, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Seems crazy, all these years later, with Cooperstown so close and a career full of magic and grit in the record books, right alongside five World Series championships.
But there was a time when Derek Jeter was a lonely teenager getting slammed by failure, wondering how the heck he'd make it in his chosen profession. He was away from home for the first time and errors were piling up. So was doubt.
There were late-night phone calls home or to the scout who signed him for the Yankees in 1992, Dick Groch, or others. "He didn't think he really belonged," Groch recalled Monday.
"We tried to convince him it was a new thing -- he'd never been through it," Groch added. "The whole organization was there for him. I told him, 'I'm here, give me a call.' I'd call his parents. In his contract, we made it possible at the Yankees expense to send his mother, father and sister to Tampa for the last couple of weeks of the (first) season. That makes a difference -- he was with his family and could relax. He's a human being."
But, Groch added, "every situation that was a test for Derek Jeter, he jumped the hurdle. He made the adjustments. He made giant steps overcoming situations where we were starting to question whether he'd make it.
"It wasn't an easy trip. But he made it because he's Derek Jeter. Give credit to him."
And that, to Groch, is a big part of Jeter's greatness. The grinder's mentality, the work ethic -- as well as wonderful talent -- all add up to why Jeter figures to be a unanimous choice or nearly so Tuesday when the Baseball Hall of Fame's Class of 2020 is announced.
"He should be unanimous," said Groch, who now works for the Brewers as a special assistant to the general manager for player personnel and pro scouting. "Lots of reasons."
He added: "That flip play, the dive into the stands, hitting a homer for his 3,000th hit. Those were the types of things he created. He was the extra turn of the knob toward success."
Obviously, Tuesday will be an enormous day in Jeter's career. But it's big for Groch, too. Taking Jeter sixth overall in the 1992 draft was a coup for the Yankees and for the scout who bird-dogged the lanky shortstop from Kalamazoo (Mich.) Central High School.
And a Hall call for Jeter might be a relief of sorts for Groch. In a famous story, Yankee bigwigs asked the scout whether Jeter might refuse to sign and play baseball at the University of Michigan instead. Cooperstown, Groch replied, was the only place Jeter was headed.
"I felt very relieved it's going to be a reality," Groch said, chuckling.
Groch can still remember making the phone call to tell Jeter he'd been picked: "He was surprised. You could hear the celebration at the Jeter house, even over the phone. Charles (Jeter's father) answered and I asked him, 'Is Derek ready to go to the Yankees?'
"He said 'Derek, the Yankees are on the line.' Big yell. I think he was hyperventilating when he got on the phone, as much as I was. It was a very exciting day for the evaluator, too."
At one point during the process, Jeter said to Groch: "I didn't think you liked me. I didn't see you that much" at his games. That's because Groch watched from his car sometimes. Or even the bushes.
"I was hiding in different places," Groch recalled. "I didn't want him to see me. I wanted to see how he did when there was no one to perform for."
Asked for his favorite Jeter story, Groch divulges a nugget he's been saving. He's gained notoriety in baseball circles for signing the man who was the face of the Yankees for years, so he's done his share of interviews about The Captain, but he says he's rarely told this anecdote.
"I'm probably telling this to people for the first time this year," Groch said.
A few weeks after the draft, the Yankees were negotiating Jeter's bonus. Though the contract was eventually settled for around $800,000 plus a full college scholarship to Michigan, talks hit a lull at one point, until the 18-year-old Jeter spoke up.
"Derek says we can get it done if we can do one thing," Groch said. "I'm thinking, 'Here comes the Mercedes or whatever.' But he said, 'I'd like to have a $50,000 donation in athletic equipment from the Yankees to my high school, my summer leagues and the rec programs for the city of Kalamazoo.'
"I remember thinking, 'This is a kid doing this.' It wasn't the Mercedes. He wanted them to have access to this equipment.
"People have asked me for favorite stories. There's a bundle of them, but this was probably the most illuminating. And it was at a time when we were putting our stamp on this player, wanting him to be part of the Yankee organization. Those are the characteristics you really look for."
Groch has kept in touch regularly with Jeter over the years. He was a guest of the Yankees in 2011 when Jeter got his 3,000th hit. He sent Jeter an email of congratulations when Jeter became one of the owners of the Marlins. When the Hall of Fame ballot came out, Groch sent another note.
The scout would love to be in Cooperstown this July 26 when Jeter gets inducted into the Hall of Fame, 28 years after Groch signed him.
"That's the place you want to be," Groch said. "It started in 1992 and I'd like to be there for the closing, too."