Kalamazoo Kid The Yankees shortstop still carries a torch for--and a key to--his home city

February 09, 2004

The first thing to know about playing baseball in Michigan is,
Michigan's really cold. At Kalamazoo Central, where I went to
high school, we'd spend the first few weeks of the season
indoors, taking batting practice from a pitching machine in the
gym and fielding ground balls on a basketball court. When the
season started in March, it would still be raining or sleeting or
snowing. The most memorable game of my high school career was at
the start of my senior season, one of those drizzly, 35° March
days. I slipped on the slush and sprained my ankle as I rounded
first base. ¶ My family moved to Kalamazoo from New Jersey when I
was about four, so that my father, Charles, could get his Ph.D.
in psychology from Western Michigan. He had been a shortstop in
college, at Fisk University in Tennessee, and he became a big
Tigers fan when we moved. Me? I always idolized my dad, so I
loved baseball too, but I spent my summers with my grandparents
in West Milford, N.J., and I always rooted for the Yankees. (I
eventually converted Dad.) Once or twice a year, when the
Yankees came to Detroit, we would make the two-and-a-half-hour
drive to Tiger Stadium. On one of those trips, my father
recalls, I promised him that I would play in that ballpark
someday.

After my first season in the Yankees farm system, 1992, I wasn't
so sure. I spent the year in Tampa and Greensboro, N.C., and I
was homesick for Kalamazoo every day. I was struggling for the
first time--I hit .210 that summer--and being away from my family
and everything familiar to me was tough. I ran up $300-a-month
phone bills, calling home after almost every game. That fall I
enrolled at the University of Michigan, and things got much
better. I went to every Wolverines football and basketball home
game and became a huge fan. I still try to make it back for home
football games, especially because my boss, Mr. Steinbrenner, is
a big Ohio State guy. Every year we make a friendly bet on the
game--dinner at Malio's in Tampa, maybe.

My first fall in Ann Arbor was the Fab Five's sophomore year, and
they were a blast. I played basketball in high school, and I was
a decent guard--my big moment came in my sophomore year, when I
hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Portage Central. But I
had played against Chris Webber and Jalen Rose in AAU games in
eighth and ninth grades, and those weren't even close. I remember
being totally overmatched.

I never got my degree from Michigan because my baseball career
took off, but I'd like to return some day, like Rodney
Dangerfield did in Back to School. I'm not sure if I could see
myself sitting in classes when I'm 40 years old, though.

My parents have moved out of Kalamazoo, but I still get back
there every year to do fund-raisers and baseball clinics with my
charity, the Turn 2 Foundation. And I do have the key to the
city--I was presented with it after the Yankees won the World
Series in 1996, in a ceremony on Derek Jeter Day at my high
school. That was overwhelming, because I'd expected 20 or 30
people to show up and instead there were 3,000; my old teachers
and coaches, my principal, classmates, basically everybody in the
community. My sister, Sharlee, gave a speech that really moved
me, about how proud she was of me and what I'd achieved, and how
I'd always supported her in everything she did even though I was
away while she was in school. I still keep a framed copy at my
off-season home in Tampa.

I'm a New Yorker now, and believe me, there's no comparison
between the Big Apple and Kalamazoo, no similarity at all. New
York City's hectic, always in fast-forward, and Kalamazoo's more
laid-back, smaller, slower. And did I mention, colder?

Five-time AL All-Star Derek Jeter was the 1992 national high
school player of the year while at Kalamazoo Central High.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
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Bogey (+1)
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