By Steven Marcus
Yankees first-round draft pick Derek Jeter, left, compares gloves with Yankees’ Jim Leyritz, center, and Mike Gallego prior to their game against the Kansas City Royals at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 12, 1992.
Early in his pro career, Derek Jeter apparently faced the possibility of being moved from shortstop to the outfield.
“There were rumors,” Jeter recently said of his early years in the minors.
Jeter’s 1993 season for Class A Greensboro (North Carolina) turned into a defensive nightmare as the second-year pro made a South Atlantic League-record 56 errors at short. “A first-round pick making that many errors,” then-teammate R.D. Long said. “I remember talking to him about switching to rightfield.”
Jeter’s errors did not go unnoticed. Gene Michael, the Yankees’ general manager at the time, had a conversation with Greensboro part-owner Tim Cullen, a former infielder with the Washington Senators. “He said, ‘Stick, where the heck did you get this guy?’ ” Michael said. ” ‘This is the worst infielder I’ve seen in a long time.’ He said, ‘He makes errors on easy plays, he makes errors all over the place, he can’t play.’ ”
Five Gold Gloves and a Hall of Fame-worthy career by Jeter later, Cullen chided himself, saying, “If I had been a good evaluator of baseball talent, I probably would have gone in that direction, but I wasn’t. I used to sit up in the stands and watch him play every night. During the course of the year, he almost hit me about 15 times with throws. He was not having a good year. He was horrible. One of the few things I could do as a major-league player was catch the ball and throw the ball. He couldn’t find first base. In my own mind back then, it was, ‘This kid’s got a long way to go if he’s going to be a shortstop.’ ”
Michael said the idea of switching Jeter to the outfield may have been broached. “I heard someone say it had been discussed somewhere,” he said. “I don’t know where, though. Sometimes George [Steinbrenner] was afraid to bring things up to me.”
Michael visited Jeter in Greensboro to reassure him. “I can relate. In my first year , I made 56 errors at Grand Forks, North Dakota,” said Michael, a former big-league shortstop.
“The next year I cut it down to 51,” he added with a laugh.
Jeter, with winter instructional league help from Brian Butterfield, made 25 errors the following season.
“That showed right there that the guy’s a player,” Michael said.
Michael would not have been an advocate of sending Jeter to the outfield. “He wouldn’t have been the player he became,” he said. “He would have been a good centerfielder, but any time you can play shortstop and put up those numbers, it’s better than playing anywhere else. He would have been an above-average centerfielder, but he wouldn’t have gotten the acclaim. He played the right position.”
The Reds considered drafting Jeter and, with Barry Larkin established at short, might have put Jeter in centerfield, scout Gene Bennett said this summer. “I’m telling you he looked like Willie Mays going after the ball,” he said. “Derek could have been a Hall of Famer in centerfield.”
Jeter said he never gave another position much thought even when he was error-prone. “At the time, they always had confidence in me,” he said.
At a WFAN event in 2011, general manager Brian Cashman speculated about the possibility of an aging Jeter playing in the outfield but later pulled back, saying, “He’s our shortstop. Period.”