The assignment in May 1992 took me to Kalamazoo Loy Norrix to see the next Earvin (Magic) Johnson.
The Magic Man is the gold standard when it comes to high school athletes in this state, no matter the sport, and in this case it was supposed to be the best high school baseball player in the country.
Kalamazoo Central was playing at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix that day, and Central had a shortstop named Derek Jeter who drew scouts — and directors of scouting — from across the country.
The hype for this kid was off the charts. He was slated to be the first high school player drafted and I was a bit apprehensive. Was he the real deal or something less?
It turned out he was so much more, but back then I don’t think anyone projected that Jeter would wind up becoming one of the New York Yankees’ all-time greats and a sure first-ballot Hall of Famer five years after he retires, which he announced last week will occur at the conclusion of this season.
Jeter had a severely sprained ankle that spring and it hindered his running the bases, but it didn’t seem to affect his range, which was amazing.
He also managed to hit .508 that spring, but there were two other aspects of his game that knocked me out. The first was his arm. I had never seen a shortstop throw with such velocity and accuracy, not even Barry Larkin, whom I frequently covered when he played at Michigan.
The other was his eye at the plate. He struck out once in each of his last two high school seasons, both called third strikes. “Let me tell you,” Central coach Don Zomer told me in 1992, “the one this year was a bad call.”
During the game I spoke to his parents — Dot and Charles — and I learned that if he signed a pro contract after the draft, it would not be the first contract he had signed.
Each fall the Jeters made Derek and his younger sister, Sharlee, sign a contract with them, detailing what was expected of them during the coming school year.
“First of all, we want them to do well academically,” their father told me. “He’s a serious student and we’re serious about his education. And we want them to be involved in things. The contract outlines study hours, curfew and participation in school activities.”
Jeter certainly was active. He earned a 3.82 grade-point average, was a member of the National Honor Society, was president of the Latin Club and was an outstanding basketball player — good enough to be considered a Division I prospect as a shooting guard or small forward.
So I was pretty much sold on Jeter as I followed to team bus back to Central, but I was over the moon for the kid as we sat on the school steps and talked.
We laughed at the 1981 Datsun he drove — it had 127,000 miles on it and enough rust marks to match — and how much of a signing bonus he might command.
But Jeter was mature well beyond his years and not consumed by the prospect of becoming a millionaire, which he has done several times over since then.
“I want to play in the major leagues. I don’t want to make $7-million,” he said. “I mean, the money crosses your mind, but I just want to play.”
Jeter’s dream since early childhood was to be a Major League baseball player, and it was crucial that his parents never discouraged him.
“At first, people would laugh,” Jeter said. “Then they’d tell my parents: ‘You shouldn’t put those ideas in your son’s head.’ “
His parents thought those ideas were exactly where they belonged, encouraged him to excel and told him to compare himself only with other serious ball players.
“I always wanted to be one of the best,” Jeter said that day. “My mom said I could be if I kept working. I guess she was right.”
She was more right than anyone could have imagined.