By Anthony McCarron
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Saturday, March 6th 2010, 11:29 AM
The kid was so skinny his uniform was baggier than a teenager's blue jeans. This guy, with ankles flopping around in the unorthodox high-top spikes he brought from home, was the Yankees' heralded top draft choice? A kid so shy he didn't say five words when his new manager picked him up at the hotel?
"Is he really going to be any good?" Andy Pettitte recalls thinking 18 years ago. "That was my first impression."
But that feeling was gone when Pettitte saw the then-159-pound Derek Jeter play, saw him slam a home run, dash behind second base to snare a ground ball. Talent was there, yes, obvious even all those years ago in Greensboro, N.C, Jeter's second pro stop.
But this? That bony kid one day listed among other no-last-name-needed Yankees such as Babe and Mickey? The all-time Yankee hit leader? Five-time world champ? Yankee captain? A future Hall of Famer, doubtless member of the 3,000-hit club and potentially the game's all-time hit leader, too?
"No chance," Pettitte says now. "There's no way. I'd be lying if I said you could see all that."
Now, though, Derek Jeter is all those things and likely will have even more on his glittery resume by the time he retires - which could be in five years or more if he plays as long as he desires.
Jeter, 35, has carved a remarkable career out of baseball gifts, an appetite for hard work perhaps extraordinary even among professional athletes, flair in the face of blinding postseason glare and a feel for handling the nuances of New York. Once scrawny, he fills out pinstripes and bespoke suits with equal aplomb as player, pitchman and, as the game's commissioner calls him, "The Face of Baseball."
"He could go down as 'The Greatest Yankee,'" says former teammate Tino Martinez. "It's like the stone heads on Mount Rushmore. For the Yankees, he's in that group."
Jeter was born in Pequannock, N.J., on June 26, 1974, and, after the family moved to Kalamazoo, Mich., four years later, returned to Jersey every summer to visit his grandparents. It is there where his link to the Yankees grew - he watched games on television, fell for the team and one of its stars, Dave Winfield.
At Kalamazoo Central High, Jeter was "like he is now," says his coach, Don Zomer. "Not a kid who got into trouble, was dedicated to school and athletics, particularly to baseball. He worked at those things. He seemed to be able to block out other things when they had to be. When he was playing ball, he was playing ball, but he had a 3.82 GPA in college-prep classes."
On the day he was drafted - June 1, 1992 - Jeter's life could have veered away from the Bronx, though. Houston had the first pick and their scout, former two-time MVP winner Hal Newhouser, pitched hard for Jeter. If not for Houston's decision to pick Phil Nevin instead, Jeter might be known as "The Greatest Astro" now.
Asked recently how different his career would be had the Astros listened to Newhouser — who resigned after Houston spurned his advice - Jeter says, "You got me. This is the only organization I've ever played for, so part of who I am is defined by where I'm playing. I can't answer that.
"No question it would have been different. How it would have been different, I have no idea. Fortunately for me, I've never had to find out."
Jeter fell to the Yankees at No. 6. He had been thoroughly scouted by Dick Groch, who felt the same way Newhouser did, that Jeter could one day be a vital cog of a winning team. "He enjoyed playing," Groch recalls. "That emanated from him."
Nearly four weeks after the draft, Jeter fulfilled a dream by signing a Yankee contract. But he soon found out that the game was not as easy as it had been on even the coldest days in Kalamazoo.
Nov. 4, 2009: Jeter hoists the hardware as the Bombers win the Fall Classic in their first year at the new Stadium.
Raw players, even those bursting with talent, can sometimes look on a baseball field like newborn giraffes figuring out how their long legs work. Jeter could run, hit and throw, but badly needed polish. He hit .202 in rookie ball in 1992 and made 56 errors in Class A in '93. Pettitte recalls Jeter bungling two grounders in his '92 debut - a game Pettitte started.
But even then, through phone calls home that ended in tears because he was unsure he could play pro ball, Jeter relied on his steely work ethic. When he met Pettitte and Jorge Posada, two players who he'll be forever linked to, in Greensboro in '92 after a late-season promotion from rookie ball, he impressed the older players by showing up early every day for extra work, blousy uniform and all.
He used a six-week stint in instructional league to make himself into a better shortstop. Even as a teenager, he was adept at forgetting about his mistakes to concentrate on improving.
"Tenacious is the first word I'd think of," says Trey Hillman, the Royals manager who managed Jeter in the minors. "Probably the other thing that stuck out was how quickly his teammates took to him. He had an infectious personality. Guys wanted to hang with him, but if you heard loud voices in the clubhouse, his wasn't the first one you'd hear from the manager's office."
Jeter made his home base the home base of the Yanks' minor-league system Tampa so he "could develop as quickly as possible," Hillman says. "He made a commitment."
Jeter says his capacity for hard work comes from his parents, Charles and Dorothy Jeter. "Our whole thing growing up was to put a lot of work in," he says. "They said, 'There will always be somebody more talented than you, but don't ever let anybody out-work you.' That's the philosophy I still use today."
As Jeter learned, he began to soar through the Yankees' system. He tore through three levels of the minors in 1994 and started 1995 at Triple-A Columbus, where he became pals with Posada. The two were called up in September and lived at the same New Jersey hotel, but played sparingly because the Yanks were in a playoff race.
"We rented one car and went everywhere together," Posada recalls. "We drove to the park together, went out to eat together."
In 1996, Jeter was the favorite to be the Yanks' starting shortstop, but struggled in spring training. Some voices in the organization were unsure Jeter was ready and there was talk of trading Mariano Rivera - gulp! – for Seattle shortstop Felix Fermin.
1996: Jeter wraps up his rookie campaign with 183 hits and a .314 average - nabbing Rookie of the Year honors after the season...but, more importantly, the Captain gets his first shot at postseason glory as the Bombers win 92 games and finish first in the AL East.
But Rivera stayed and Jeter played, winning Rookie of the Year after hitting .314 for a World Series winner, the Yanks' first championship since 1978. A star shortstop was born.
So was a postseason star. Jeter hit .412 in the division series, .417 in the AL Championship Series and .250 against the Braves in the World Series. In the ALCS against the Orioles, he hit his first career postseason homer, the 12-year-old-boy-aided drive to right snatched out of the air by Jeffrey Maier. Baltimoreans - and replay enthusiasts - say that without the Yanks' angel-beyond-the-outfield, right fielder Tony Tarasco would have had an easy catch. Instead, the play is part of Yankee lore.
There are many other Jeter-tinged moments in Yankee postseason history. He was the shortstop on a championship team four times in his first five years and he's missed October only once (2008) in his career. After a nine-year title drought, Jeter and the Yankees won it all again in 2009.
In 2000, Jeter was the World Series MVP, which made him the first player in history to win that award and the All-Star Game MVP in the same season. After the Mets had won Game 3 of the World Series to cut the Yankee lead to two games to one, Jeter led off Game 4 with a homer, stunting Met momentum. He finished that Fall Classic with a .409 average and 19 total bases, a record for a five-game series.
In 2001, the Yankees faced elimination in the first round when Jeter authored one of his signature moments - The Flip Play. The Yankees held a 1-0 lead in Game 3 when Terrence Long doubled to right with Jeremy Giambi on first against Mike Mussina. Shane Spencer made a wild throw that missed Martinez, the cutoff man, and it seemed a cinch Giambi would score. But Jeter sprinted toward the first-base line, grabbed the ball and flipped it to Posada. Giambi did not slide and Posada tagged him, preserving the lead. The Yanks held on to win the game and won the next two, too, to take the series.
Later that postseason, with World Series games pushed into November because the season was interrupted by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jeter whacked an after-midnight, game-winning homer in the 10th inning to win Game 4 against the Diamondbacks.
"In the 10th, he came in (to the dugout) and says, 'This game is over,'" Martinez recalls. "That's all he said. I'm not sure he meant he'd hit a home run or that he'd get on base and make something happen, but he hit that home run. I remember we jumped at the dugout fence to watch the ball. We were just like 12-year-old kids, jumping for joy."
Not surprisingly, Jeter counts the Yankees' five championships as the biggest thrills of his career. "I don't think you can rank them," he says. "I don't have any kids, but I would assume it would be like trying to say which kid you like the most. They're all different, but they're all special."
Nov. 21, 1996: By now, Jeter's a household name, and the Yankee shortstop makes an appearance on Seinfeld with teammate Bernie Williams. From the episode "The Abstinence":
George: Guys, hitting is not about muscle. It's simple physics. Calculate the velocity, v, in relation to the trajectory, t, in which g, gravity, of course remains a constant. It's not complicated.
Jeter: Now who are you again?
George: George Costanza, assistant to the traveling secretary.
Williams: Are you the guy who put us in that Ramada in Milwaukee?
George: Do you wanna talk about hotels, or do you wanna win some ball games?
Jeter: We won the World Series.
George: In six games.
The biggest disappointment? "When you lose," Jeter says. "When you play a team sport and put in a whole year of work, going home is the ultimate disappointment. There are years when we've been closer like Game 7 in Arizona, but I don't think you can rank losses. No loss is tougher than another. It was tough when we didn't go to the playoffs."
Personally, Jeter cherishes breaking Lou Gehrig's Yankee hit record last season. He snapped Gehrig's mark of 2,721 hits with a third-inning single to right off Baltimore's Chris Tillman. This year, he'll probably overtake Ken Griffey Jr. as the active leader in hits (he's 17 behind) and in 2011, he'll probably reach 3,000 hits.
On June 3, 2003, he was named Yankee captain, an honor he calls "pretty special. I always talk about how I dreamed about playing shortstop for this organization, but being captain was never part of it. I don't think you dream of being captain. That was an honor given to me by The Boss (George Steinbrenner), and knowing our relationship and how much pride he takes in that title, it meant a lot."
Jeter does not like talking about personal accomplishments, so he never brings up his 10 All-Star Game selections, four Gold Gloves or other hardware. The Gehrig record, however, is special.
"I know a lot about the history of the organization and how special that history is to our fans," he says. "To get a chance to share that with them at home was very special to me."
While blooming into a star on the field, Jeter became one off it, too. He can inspire Beatles-like swooning among women, admiration from men and big-money deals from advertisers.
His handsome face has graced numerous magazine covers, including Sports Illustrated when he was named the mag's Sportsman of the Year this year. He later said his parents should've been on the cover with him because of how much they've meant to him.
Jeter has endorsement deals with companies ranging from Nike to Gatorade to Ford. He's even got his own fragrance, the aptly-named "Driven." He's glib enough to pull off hosting "Saturday Night Live," where he dressed in drag for a skit and got laughs by delivering the line, "That Tino Martinez is super-foxy." When he was presented with the Hank Aaron Award as the AL's top offensive player during last fall's World Series, Jeter thanked everyone for coming and slyly joked that the sponsor, Sharp Electronics, had agreed to outfit his new house in Tampa with high-end televisions, cracking up the room.
Even as a 22-year-old rookie in 1996, Jeter was observant enough to see how jittery Jason Zillo, now the team's media relations director but then a 22-year-old intern, was whenever he was around the players. Jeter called Zillo over to his locker, asked his name, and talked to him every day. "If anyone asks me what he's like, I tell them that story," Zillo says. "Maybe it's not that powerful a story, but it was to me."
After Sept. 11, Zillo showed Jeter a letter from Brielle Saracini, the daughter of one of the pilots whose plane was crashed into the World Trade Center, and Jeter suggested calling the family and inviting them to the ballpark. Jeter, Joe Torre and other Yankees spent time with Brielle and her sister, Kirsten.
"They came back to games and still do every once in a while and they're in college now," Zillo says. "A relationship developed with the whole organization. It wasn't just Derek, but he did so much more than what most would expect a professional athlete or anyone to do in that situation. He really brought a sense of happiness, at least for a few hours."
July 11, 2000: Derek grabs All-Star Game MVP honors at Turner Field going 3-for-3 and driving in a pair of runs in a 6-3 AL victory.
Jeter's ascension into perhaps the biggest sports star in New York has also meant that he's been fodder for the gossip pages, too, mostly about his love life. "I try not to read it," he says. "You try, but you hear a lot of things. It's all I've known. I've pretty much grown up with it. It can be tough on family and friends."
He guards his privacy fiercely. Asked what people don't know about him, he says, "If there's anything people don't know, it's because I don't want them to know. And I'm definitely not going to tell them. There's a lot people don't know about me."
Still, he's not whining about his outsize celebrity, though Posada notes that Jeter spends at least some of his time at restaurants gauging who in the room is going to interrupt him mid-forkful to ask for an autograph. "I don't have any complaints and I don't think anyone wants to hear them if I do," Jeter says.
"I'm doing what I love to do in the place where I want to play."
Jeter is even deft enough to turn personal controversy to his advantage. After Steinbrenner once was critical of his lifestyle in an interview with the Daily News, mischaracterizing Jeter as a rampant partier, Jeter and The Boss morphed the flap into an ad campaign after their spat had cooled.
Later in his career, Jeter's defense became a point of concern as he faced mounting criticism over a loss of range at short. Jeter turned that to his advantage, too. Before the 2008 season, Jeter revamped his offseason workouts. The Yankees paid for a new trainer, Jason Riley, whose program concentrated on Jeter regaining his range at short. It worked. In 2009, he was one of the game's best defensive shortstops.
He's faced other controversies, too. In 1999, he had an odd confrontation with teammate Chad Curtis after Curtis chastised him in front of an open clubhouse for chatting amiably with Alex Rodriguez while the benches cleared in a fight between the Yankees and Seattle. Two years later, A-Rod dissed Jeter in an interview with Esquire, bringing a freeze to what had been a close friendship.
But Jeter has generally thrived in what, for some, can be a difficult place to play.
"He has upheld himself in this fishbowl, in New York, as well as anybody you can possibly imagine," Pettitte says.
"He's a guy who really understands New York, probably better than anybody I know," adds Posada. "He hangs out with the right people. He's got a nice little group of friends; they're the same ones around him since I've known him - his mom, dad, sister, friends from high school. He hasn't changed a bit. He really thinks about everything and he doesn't get away from his thought process."
Sept. 11, 2009: Jeter's single to right center in the third inning against the Orioles on a rain-soaked night in the Bronx breaks Gehrig's Yankees team record for most career hits.
Being in New York has given him a useful platform to further another one of his goals - charitable work. He started his Turn 2 Foundation, which he created while sharing a pizza with his father in a Detroit hotel room in 1996, to promote healthy lifestyles for kids. Turn 2 has awarded more than $10 million in grants, according to its Web site, and Jeter's seventh annual celebrity golf tournament raised $800,000 in January.
"I was always taught, if you have a little, give a little, and if you have a lot, give a lot," says Jeter, who was inspired to create a foundation because Winfield had one. "Giving back has always been very important to my family. I always wanted to start a foundation when I was younger, so to get an opportunity to do that and live that part of the dream because of what I do here is great."
He'll at least be doing it for a few more years. The 10-year, $189-million contract he signed before the 2001 season expires after this season, but it is inconceivable he's not a Yankee for life and the team and the player most likely will come to a deal after the season.
His legacy certainly seems secure, Pettitte says. "This generation of fans will look at him like we look at Mickey (Mantle) and Joe (DiMaggio)." Says Jeter: "To me, just being known as a Yankee is good enough."
As for what happens when he retires, Posada doesn't expect to see Jeter hanging around a clubhouse anymore. A board room, however, could be in the offing.
"Immediately after I retire, I'm not doing anything," Jeter says. "After a while, I'd like to own a team. I'd get to call all the shots, which is appealing to me."