Late in 2011, Derek Jeter returned to his hometown for the dedication of the field he once played on
By Alfred Santasiere III
Yankees Magazine |
It's the middle of the afternoon on Dec. 16, 2011, and Derek Jeter is in Kalamazoo, Mich., the town in which he spent the majority of his childhood.
Later in the day, Jeter's alma mater, Kalamazoo Central High School, is holding a ceremony in its auditorium to officially rename the baseball field.
The field will soon bear the name Derek Jeter Field.
Before the festivities begin, Jeter, who wore uniform No. 13 in high school, is scheduled to take a few minutes to pose for photographs.
At 3:13 in the afternoon -- two minutes ahead of schedule -- a black SUV pulls into the gravel parking lot on the third-base side of the baseball diamond. Donning a dark blue suit with a skinny blue tie and a light blue shirt, the Yankees captain steps out of the back passenger's side door and into the 20-degree air.
"Man, it's cold out here," Jeter said with a smile.
As Jeter is ushered toward a small fence along the third-base dugout, a few snow flurries begin to fall on the field.
Despite the presence of one of the game's most iconic players -- who only months earlier had notched the 3,000th hit of his career -- the scene epitomizes baseball at the grassroots level.
The maroon-colored dugouts are made of concrete cinder blocks. The wooden benches in each dugout are not painted or stained, but are instead carved up from years of wear.
A two-story structure that houses the press box sits behind home plate. There are three windows on the top half of the building that overlook the field. The back side of the concrete and wood building reads "KC Maroon Giants," and it faces the school.
There is an empty space to the right of the "KC" logo. That is the area in which a large sign featuring Jeter's photograph and the words "Welcome to Derek Jeter Field, Home of the Kalamazoo Central High School Maroon Giants" will be hung before the start of the 2012 baseball season.
The field itself is situated in front of an expansive lawn that is about 25 yards wide and extends from the left-field foul pole to the right-field foul pole. A row of about 30 pine trees stands behind a metal fence in the outfield and serves as a visual marker of where the promised land begins for home run balls.
The Grand Prairie Cemetery is located behind the grassy area in right field, and there are several houses that make up the backdrop from center field past where the fence bends toward left field.
As Jeter walks onto the infield and approaches the shortstop position, he points toward the houses off to the left.
"The house I grew up in is on the other side of that fence," Jeter said. "I used to jump the fence to come to school and to get to this field. I've been coming to this field since we moved to that house, which was when I was in seventh grade. I was over here all the time. In fact, I probably spent more time on this field playing baseball with my family than I did with my team."
That blue split-level home, which Jeter's family no longer owns, has become the most significant landmark on Cumberland Street and maybe in the entire town of 70,000, which is located 140 miles west of Detroit.
"Because I spent so much time here as a kid, I always referred to it as my field," Jeter said. "Now, I guess it really is my field. I was fortunate to grow up in a house that was only a few feet away from a baseball field. But if we lived farther away, I still would have been here all the time."
Before the chilly shortstop gets back into the SUV, he poses for a photo in front of the press box and describes what the atmosphere was like when he was one of the nation's most sought-after prospects.
"We didn't have a lot of fans in the seats during my first few years of high school," Jeter said. "That changed during my senior year because there were times when about 30 scouts were in the bleachers."
Following Jeter's visit to the field, the shortstop and his small entourage, which includes his sister, Sharlee, travel to a private reception in the school.
At the hourlong reception, Jeter reconnects with a handful of family friends as well as former teachers and coaches. One of those friends is the school's current principal, Von Washington Jr., whose wife, Beth, coached Sharlee in basketball and got to know the Jeter family. Washington was one of the driving forces behind the field dedication.
"Over the past few years, a couple of people have expressed their desire for the field to be named after Derek," Washington said. "Don Zomer, who was one of Derek's coaches at Kalamazoo Central, and I spoke to the superintendent of schools about this dedication. The superintendent helped us get the board to vote on it. Don and I began talking about this three years ago, but with anything like this, it takes time.
"We are honored that Derek is back here today and that this is happening," Washington continued. "Derek's legacy will assist students who come through Kalamazoo Central forever, because he does things the right way. What he has accomplished is remarkable, and his legacy has a strong impact on how we get students to understand the importance of education. When we can point to people like Derek, who worked hard in school and who live their lives the right way, that is as important as anything we do here."
Two of Jeter's high school teachers are also in attendance, and they shed light on what Jeter was like in the classroom.
"Derek was in my probability and statistics class and my trigonometry class during his senior year," said Sarah Baca. "He was very focused and a lot of fun to be around. Derek got a grade of 100 on the final exam in trigonometry, and he got A's in both of my classes. Some things came easy for him, and he worked hard at the things that didn't come easy. Either way, the results were the same."
"We had a tutoring program for freshmen who were not doing well academically," added Sally Padley, who taught Jeter during his junior and senior years. "After Derek got an A in my English literature class as a junior, I asked him to be a tutor. He was a great role model, a nice kid, and he was very smart, so it was a natural fit.
"Derek did well as a tutor because he was very laid-back," Padley continued. "Tutoring took place during the last hour of the day, and he never asked to leave early because of practice or a game. That was rare for student-athletes."
While Jeter, who graduated with a 3.82 grade-point average, remained focused on school, his aspirations were clear to everyone around him.
"When we studied the Middle Ages, I had my students create a coat of arms that they could design any way they wanted to," Padley said. "One side of Derek's shield showed him in his basketball uniform, and the other side showed him in a Yankees uniform, holding a baseball bat."
"He wore a gold chain with the Yankees emblem around his neck," Baca added. "His ultimate dream was to play shortstop for the Yankees, and everyone knew that."
The teachers also remark that while Jeter's status has changed considerably since his days at Kalamazoo Central, some of his most recognizable qualities were as apparent then as they are now.
"Derek's sense of confidence and calm demeanor have never changed," Baca said. "He has always been poised, and he always knew who he was."
On the baseball field, Jeter's ability stood out, but it was his drive that was most memorable.
"There were a lot of things that really stood out with Derek, but nothing more than his work ethic," Zomer said. "He really worked hard at the game of baseball. Derek is a lucky guy, but he made his breaks through hard work.
"After our practices came to an end, Derek would almost always ask me to hit more ground balls to him, and trust me when I tell you, it was hard to get him to go home," Zomer continued. "There were also several times when, after going home for dinner after practice, I would come back to the school for a meeting, and I'd see the whole Jeter family on the baseball field. [Derek's father] Charles would be throwing batting practice to Derek, and Sharlee and [Derek's mother] Dorothy would be in the outfield shagging fly balls."
Zomer also recalls a specific practice prior to the start of the 1992 season, Jeter's senior campaign.
"During an especially cold afternoon practice in March, there was one person in the bleachers watching us," Zomer said. "He was sitting there with a stocking cap on. After I was too tired to throw any more batting practice pitches, I introduced myself to him and asked if he was the parent of one of my players. He said, 'My name is Hal Newhouser.'"
Newhouser, a Detroit Tigers legend who won the AL MVP Award in 1944 and '45 and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, was the Michigan area scout for the Houston Astros in the early '90s.
After making the three-hour drive from his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., to Kalamazoo on several occasions to see Jeter play, Newhouser, who had been a scout for nearly four decades, strongly petitioned Astros brass to select Jeter with the No. 1 overall choice in the 1992 Draft.
Despite Newhouser's recommendation, Houston chose Phil Nevin out of Cal State Fullerton. Nevin went on to hit .270 in 12 Big League seasons.
Newhouser, 71 years old at the time, was devastated by the Astros' decision to pass on Jeter, who he predicted would someday be the foundation for championship teams. Newhouser felt that if he couldn't convince club officials to take Jeter, he would likely never get them to take any of his future recommendations, and so he retired from the game.
After the trip down memory lane, the field-naming ceremony begins. Following a brief introduction by Washington, Mike Hinga, who coached Jeter for three seasons in summer league baseball, opens the ceremony with a few words from the heart.
"Derek isn't just a great baseball player," Hinga said. "He is someone who makes the world a better place because he is a kind person. The field is being named for Derek today because he lives like we should all live. He is the role model that we should all have. He is well liked by his peers, and he treats people well. He personifies greatness through being nice.
"As a society on the whole, we all need to care about people who pass through our lives, and we need to show respect for others," Hinga continued. "We need to decide each day that we can be nice to the people we come into contact with. We need to be nice just like Derek."
Zomer follows Hinga to the mic, and he adds some humor to the evening. "In 1991, Derek had a .557 batting average, and he batted .508 in 1992," Zomer said. "And he struck out once."
"Do you remember that, Derek?" Zomer asked as the audience laughs. "I can tell you, it was a bad call."
After Zomer's speech, a group of young men and women who are part of Jeter's Turn 2 Foundation youth leadership program are introduced.
Jeter's Leaders, as the group is called, presents Washington with a $10,000 check on behalf of the Turn 2 Foundation, which creates and supports signature programs in New York, Kalamazoo and Tampa, Fla., that motivate young people to turn away from drugs and alcohol and turn to healthy lifestyles.
The donation is earmarked for the Kalamazoo Central Baseball Booster Club.
Finally, at the conclusion of the ceremony, the horizontal sign featuring the photo of Jeter with the field's new name is lowered from the rafters behind the stage.
Amid a standing ovation, Jeter walks to the podium.
"I want to thank everyone for their kind words, and I'm especially grateful to Principal Washington for putting this event together," Jeter said.
"When you think about having a field named after you, it's kind of bizarre," Jeter continued. "But it's one of the greatest honors of my life. It means a lot to me and to my family. My name is on the sign, but I consider this to be a family field because we spent so much time on that field as a family."
As the crowd disperses from the auditorium, so does Jeter.
The Yankees captain is on his way to Rave Theater in downtown Kalamazoo, where his foundation's Holiday Express party is set to take place. Prior to making a surprise visit to the 300 kids whom Jeter is treating to a private screening of Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, the shortstop speaks about the coach who praised him for his kindness.
"When I was 15 years old, Coach Hinga wanted me to play on his summer league team," Jeter said. "I was the youngest player on the team by at least two years, and I will never forget what that meant to my career. It gave me an opportunity to play every day in the summer, and with the weather during the baseball season being pretty bad, you don't play that many games for the high school team. Coach Hinga took a chance on me and gave me the opportunity to play with a higher age group at a younger age."
At the end of a prideful evening, as Jeter walks out of the movie theater and into the cold Kalamazoo night, he waxes poetic about the quaint Midwestern town.
"Being here brings back a lot of great memories from a very important time in my life," Jeter said. "I've always said that people really start to become who they are during the time they are in high school. I'm proud to have grown up here. It's a small town with a lot of good people, and I think it has kept me grounded."
Alfred Santasiere III is the editor-in-chief of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Derek Jeter Commemorative Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.