Derek Jeter’s path from Kalamazoo to MLB legend

Sports

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Only 15 of all Major League Baseball players drafted in the first round have been inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. On Wednesday, Kalamazoo’s Derek Jeter will become no. 16.

The New York Yankees drafted Jeter sixth overall in 1992. He spent his entire career with the program.

Before that, as a teen, Jeter played for the Kalamazoo Maroons travel team under coach Mike Hinga.

“He was a colt,” Hinga recalled. “Long arms, long legs, probably a buck-55 on a good day.”

Jeter clearly had potential and Hinga had dreams that he might make it to the big leagues one day.

“The usual question is more like, ‘Did you see that (an MLB career)?’ And the answer is no, I didn’t see it. Dream it? Now that’s a whole different perspective.”

But it’s difficult for anyone to make it to the MLB, and the dream seemed especially far-fetched when Jeter committed 56 errors in rookie ball.

“I asked him what it was, how they fixed that, when I met him at a later point in time. And he said that he was a flipper. Like he wasn’t ready to receive the ball, so the ball came at the last second (and) he’d just flip his hands open. And they got rid of that and went from maybe on record for the most years at a rookie ball level to go glove,” Hinga said.

At spring training the following season, Jeter was open with News 8 about how miserable he was that first season away from Kalamazoo.

“I hated last year,” he said back then. “Last year was terrible for me. Rookie league was terrible. I was homesick. I wasn’t playing good. It was just as bad as it could get.”

But he proved a quick study. He made the jump to the majors less than three years after the Yankees drafted him and promptly won rookie of the year honors.

He took pride in staying at shortstop his entire career.

“I fell in love with the position because my dad was a shortstop. …My dad coached me a couple years in little league so he had me play second base and third base, as well, so that’s probably the only other time I didn’t play shortstop was when I was playing for my dad,” Jeter said. “But I just wanted to be like him when I was younger.”

He was a smart player and a leader, prompting then-Yankees owner George Steinbrenner to name him captain.

“It meant a lot because I know it’s a title that’s not thrown around too lightly in our organization,” Jeter said. “The one thing he told me, he said, ‘Listen, I don’t want you to change anything. I want you to continue to do and handle yourself how you’ve handled yourself up until this point. That’s why I’m naming you the captain.'”

Jeter became a Yankee legend, earning the titles Captain Clutch and Mister November. He finished his career with more hits than anyone in the franchise’s history — more than Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.

He retired in 2014.

“Made my debut when I was 20 and played my last game when I was 40, all in a Yankees uniform,” he said. “I’m very proud of that.”

Hinga, his old coach, was so impressed he had the Yankee and Jeter’s jersey number 2 — tattooed on his leg.

“You always dream that some kid’s going to hit it and hit it big,” Hinga said. “He certainly was as good or better than those around him, but I don’t think you could have looked at what was there and said, ‘For sure.'”

Fans made their way to Cooperstown, New York to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, some for the very first time.

“Since I was young, I wanted to come to the Hall of Fame induction — never did, never thought I would. All of a sudden, my grandson said, ‘That would be great to see Derek Jeter. As a Yankees fan, I agreed, so we’re here,” Roger Collins said.

Jon Paul Morosi, a baseball writer with FOX Sports, said it goes back to the stats.

“He played in 2,700 games for the Yankees. Only four of them happened when his team was knocked out of the playoffs. Think about that. Only four of the 2,700. He is one of the great winners in baseball history,” Morosi said.

Another fan, Tom Nealis, took time off work to salute number 2.

“Jeter came on board and the Yankees started winning championships again, so it was awesome. During that time, I became a dad and I kind of modeled myself a little bit after Jeter’s dad… after the way his parents parented Jeter. So yeah, he seems to have done everything right,” Nealis said.  

Yankees fan Matt Levine sported his Jeter jersey.

“As a kid, he’s always meant so much to me. He made me love baseball,” Levine said.

The empty plaque on the wall in the Hall of Fame on Wednesday will adorn Jeter’s likeness, just like those of many other Yankee greats.

“Most games played for a Yankee, most hits for any Yankee, most seasons played for any Yankee. You think about that enduring quality. He was on our television sets every single October,” Morosi said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled Mike Hinga’s name. We regret the error and it has been fixed.

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