Henning: Hall of Famer Derek Jeter’s greatness shined early in Kalamazoo

Detroit News

What was it like, Todd Jones was asked last week, pitching to a someday-Hall of Famer?

What was it like during their 14 seasons of common big-league years, eight of which Jones spent with the Tigers, squaring off against a Yankees shortstop and right-handed swinger named Derek Jeter?

Jones preferred to respond in an email. There was too much to condense, too much to explain. He wanted this testimony to be as close to the mark as possible.

“The challenge when facing Jeter was if there was a runner in scoring position,” Jones wrote, detailing how he attacked Jeter, whether it was during eight seasons Jones worked for the Tigers, or elsewhere.

“He had places you could go to get him out in the (strike) zone. But here was the issue: Derek would foul and foul things off until you made a mistake — then he would bust you.

“The scouting report for Derek Jeter is like taking a black-and-white pic of the Sistine Chapel. It’s not gonna tell you the whole story.”

The “whole story” in Jeter’s case is not, as Jones knows, concisely written. But a macro-tribute to his 20 years in the big leagues, 3,465 hits, and fairly steady consensus as baseball’s most popular everyday star, comes Wednesday when Jeter’s Hall of Fame plaque is unveiled during a COVID-delayed ceremony at Cooperstown, New York.

He will be joined by outfielder Larry Walker, and by Southfield High and University of Michigan alum Ted Simmons, who from 1968-88 was a catcher of deep distinction for the Cardinals, Brewers, and Braves. And also by Marvin Miller, the labor icon who made the MLB players’ union the strongest of any professional sport.

Jeter will be considered the day’s headline celebrity, all because that was his role during his Yankees years. Jeter was the player former Commissioner Bud Selig described in 2003 as the “face of baseball.”

That a New Jersey-born man and New York City celebrity has Michigan heritage is sometimes minimized. Unless, of course, you are from the Kalamazoo area where Jeter moved when he was four and remained until the Yankees made him the sixth-overall pick in 1992’s MLB Draft.

Jeter’s imprint on Kalamazoo is deep. And it remains so 29 years after he wrapped up his days at Kalamazoo Central High.

Jeter’s old K-Central coach, Don Zomer, will tell you in detail. So will his manager during Jeter’s summers playing for the Kalamazoo Maroons, a traveling band of talented baseball adolescents who were overseen by Mike Hinga.

But back to what matters most leading into Wednesday’s formalities: Jeter the big-leaguer, Jeter the slashing hitter, Jeter the jump-play artist who would sprint into the hole at short to grab a ground ball, apply brakes, and leap into the air like Nureyev, all while simultaneously turning to first and launching a throw that so many times clipped a runner.

Jones had much to say and write about Jeter last week. Not only did he pitch against Jeter during all those seasons, he teamed with him, on the United States team that played in the World Baseball Classic in 2006.

“When I played with him, you saw the whole picture of who he was,” Jones wrote. “As far as being a teammate, he made sure to just try and be one of the guys. He starts out reserved, he just wants to hang. When he gets comfortable, he opens up and really lets down his guard.

“His ‘guard’ is there for a reason,” Jones continued. “He’s an empire. If you show him you just want to hang and be a regular guy, he can do that. If you ask him, he’ll drop what he’s doing and go say hello to your family or sign a ball for your kids or your friends.

“And if you want to get in the trenches with him and compete, he’s all about that. He’s not a fluff guy. He’s a gamer — a ferocious competitor. All he wants to do is win. He works and grinds like crazy. And that’s what makes him great.”

Jones added a post-script:

“Please don’t take the word ‘great’ lightly when thinking about Derek,” he said. “Who he is on a getaway day in Kansas City in April when it’s freezing cold is who he is intensity-wise in Game 6 of the World Series. That’s his secret trait. Each game is the same, and you never mail it in.

“That’s why he’s Derek Jeter.”

In a performance sense, anyway. Jones would be the first to say there is much about Jeter that explains his overall and overwhelming scope as a player and person, who now is part-owner and chief executive officer of the Miami Marlins.

Return to Kalamazoo for more clues there.

Early visions of pinstripes

Jeter had announced as a fourth-grader at St. Augustine Cathedral School that as his adult job he intended to play shortstop for the Yankees. His teachers remembered it years later; his classmates and teammates always knew of his Yankees fixation. Jeter’s focus, like his dream, never accounted for any other possibility.

His family ties and New Jersey birthplace were the catalyst for his Yankees passion. Jeter’s dad had been a college shortstop at Fisk University (Nashville, Tennessee) and the Yankees were his team, always, even as a boy growing up in Kalamazoo, with its dual affections for Detroit and Chicago teams.

By the time he got to K-Central, he was an athlete (cross country, basketball, baseball) who was also becoming quite the star, academically: 3.8 grade-point, member of the Latin club, a computer-lab tutor, and winner of the Kalamazoo B’nai B’rith’s award as the community’s scholar-athlete.

But baseball was going to be his ticket, whether Jeter opted for the University of Michigan offer from Wolverines head coach Bill Freehan (who died Aug. 19), or, true to his fourth-grade vow, for a MLB invitation that Jeter always believed could, and must, be from the Yankees.

Zomer, now 78, remembers Jeter had a reputation even before he first saw him, as head coach at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix.

“We’d heard of him, even in Little League,” said Zomer, who moved from Loy Norrix to K-Central as baseball coach just in time for Jeter’s senior season. “He was outstanding wherever he was — particularly with his strong arm.

“He always had a strong arm. We didn’t pitch him — we wanted to preserve his arm for later, hoping there would be something later. We couldn’t tell what it was going to be, college or the pros, but we always assumed there would be something additional for Derek.”

MLB scouts had decided there indeed would be something waiting for Jeter — a first-round contract if he would bypass that Michigan offer.

One of those scouts was a man working for the Houston Astros. His name was Hal Newhouser. He had been a Hall of Fame pitcher for the Tigers from 1939-53.

More: Niyo: Area scout foresaw Derek Jeter’s Cooperstown destiny

Jeter’s travel-team coach, Hinga, remembers sitting in the stands during a K-Central game in the spring of 1992.

“I was sitting with Newhouser, watching one of Derek’s high school games,” Hinga recalled last week. “And I can remember Hal saying, ‘I don’t know if he’s going to be a shortstop, but he’ll be in the majors for 20 years.’

“How any scout could have looked and said that — as a statement of fact,” Hinga continued, emphasizing how astounding he had found Newhouser’s words. “I mean, he didn’t say, ‘I think he will be,’ but ‘he will be.’

“And yet Derek did it — everything and more.”

It should also be noted that Jeter was a death knell for Newhouser’s scouting days with Houston.

The Astros had the first-overall draft pick in 1992. Newhouser had filed one gushing report after another about Jeter. He had pressed the Astros front office, hard, to not blunder and seize another player who in Newhouser’s mind would never approach Jeter.

The Astros instead opted for a Cal State-Fullerton third baseman named Phil Nevin.

Newhouser promptly quit, even if four more teams also bypassed Jeter before the Yankees made good on a kid’s fourth-grade vow and snagged Jeter with the sixth overall pick.

‘Better person than a ballplayer’

Jeter is yet tethered to Kalamazoo, in a variety of ways. Heavy there is his Turn 2 Foundation, which inspires young people nationally to shun drugs and alcohol and opt for healthier choices. It has promised $3.2 million to renovate baseball and softball fields at K-Central.

“There’s no question about him,” Zomer said. “He’s a better person than a ballplayer.”

But it really is all about his baseball deeds, Wednesday’s induction. Three times during his 20 years as a Yankees fixture he was a Top 3 vote-getter for American League Most Valuable Player. Fourteen times he was an All-Star. He won five Gold Gloves and five Silver Sluggers. Only five players in 120-plus years of big-league baseball have more hits than his 3,465.

Jones had a final salute to Jeter included in last week’s emails:

“Facing Derek Jeter was cool,” Jones wrote. “Facing him in New York was great. And playing with him for those three weeks in the WBC in 2006 was epic.”

Hall of Famer, Jones repeated. Hall of Famer in any manner Cooperstown’s very best are defined.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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