Now batting for the Cincinnati Reds -- Derek Jeter!
To anyone who has followed baseball over the past 15 years, such a statement is nearly impossible to comprehend. Derek Jeter sporting anything but the iconic Yankee pinstripes seems ludicrous, an image akin to Mick Jagger fronting the Beatles.
But Jeter came perilously close to becoming a Redleg, and that's just one of many anecdotes explored in Ian O'Connor's sprawling biography, The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter. The exhaustively researched tome was written after the longtime New York City sports journalist interviewed hundreds of Jeter's friends, family members and former teammates (as well as Jeter himself, although the shortstop limited his participation to brief locker room chats).
The Reds had the fifth selection in the 1992 First-Year Player Draft, while the Yankees possessed the sixth. O'Connor recounts how Cincinnati's then-scouting director Julian Mock agonized between selecting the promising-but-raw Jeter (just 17 at the time) and highly developed collegiate slugger Chad Mottola. Mock went with the latter, of course, resulting in euphoria among the Yankees brass.
"A cheer immediately went up in the Yankee Draft room in Tampa, one loud enough to echo across the Bronx," O'Connor wrote. "Fists were pumped and backs were slapped. Somehow, some way, Derek Jeter had made it unscathed to the sixth pick."
It's tempting to then say "And the rest is history." After all, Jeter made his Major League debut less than three years after that momentous Draft and was a world champion (and unanimous Rookie of the Year) by 1996. Therefore, it's especially interesting to read that Jeter's success wasn't exactly a foregone conclusion. Chapter 3 of The Captain is tellingly titled, "E-6," a succinct summation of the struggles that awaited Jeter at the beginning of his still ongoing professional odyssey.
The Jeter who arrived at the Yankees' Minor League complex in June 1992 was far from the icy cool uber-pro who now exists in the public imagination. O'Connor characterizes him as "a scarecrow come to life," so scrawny that "his high-tops flapped about even when they were laced as tight as could be." Jeter was desperately homesick for his family and friends in Kalamazoo, Mich., crying himself to sleep each night and racking up massive phone bills from his hotel room.
He was equally overmatched on the field, flailing away on remote complex playing fields as a member of the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Yankees. When manager Gary Denbo removed him from the lineup in the final game of the season, it was simply to ensure his average would remain above the Mendoza line (Jeter finished at .202).
Jeter was promoted to the Class A Greensboro Hornets in 1993, taking the field daily at ancient War Memorial Stadium (built in 1926). While he ended the season with a .295 average, his fielding was disastrous. His friend and teammate R.D. Long remarked that Jeter looked "like a right fielder trying to play shortstop. He had gangly legs going in every which direction, gangly arms going in every which direction. If he picked it up, he threw it away. Every way you can make an error, he made it."
Indeed he did, and Jeter ended up in the record books for a most ignominious reason -- his 56 errors were the most committed in one season by any player in South Atlantic League history.
Still, the 1993 season wasn't without an upside. In addition to finding his hitting stroke as a professional, Jeter established himself as a steadying presence and clubhouse leader on an 85-56 Greensboro team that came within one out of winning the Sally League championship.
He worked tirelessly on his defense throughout the 1993-'94 offseason with coach Brian Butterfield and, in 1994, put together the kind of year that easily could be called "Jeter-esque."
At 20, Jeter began the season with Class A Advanced Tampa and ended it with Triple-A Columbus. All told, he hit .344 with 50 stolen bases over 138 games while reducing his errors to a far more respectable 25.
Jeter was now on the cusp, his Major League dreams tantalizingly close to reality, and they came true on the morning of May 28, 1995. Columbus manager Bill Evers knocked on his hotel room door at 6 a.m. and delivered the news: "Congratulations, you're going to the big leagues."
Of course, The Captain recounts Jeter's Major League career in minute detail -- the Rookie of the Year season, the stunning string of world championships, the years of frustration that followed, the made-for-the-tabloids relationship with A-Rod, 2009 redemption and much more.
But as Jeter closes in on 3,000 hits -- improving his already formidable standing within the pantheon of the Yankee legends -- it seems appropriate to be reminded that this all-time great wasn't always so great. The path to immortality was paved with long-distance phone bills, crippling self-doubt and dozens upon dozens of "E-6"s in the official scorecard.