Dick Groch appreciates a good story, and the scout found one in the site of the first game of Derek Jeter's final season. Once upon a time, the high school shortstop out of Kalamazoo, Mich., could have been bigger than NASA in Houston.
"How ironic," Groch said over the phone, "that the guy the Astros should've taken No. 1 in the 1992 draft will be the guy in the other dugout on the first night of his last year in a first-ballot Hall of Fame career. Only Derek Jeter can script something like that."
Of course, Jeter had no more control over Houston's decision to pass on the Kalamazoo Kid in favor of a college star, Phil Nevin, than he did on baseball's decision to unwittingly book the beginning of his New York Yankees end in Minute Maid Park, the strange scene of Mariano Rivera's official goodbye.
Only Groch, the scout who signed Jeter, wasn't retreating from a point made often by those who have watched and chronicled a career that even the pragmatic captain describes in storybook terms.
"On his 3,000th hit," Groch said, "Derek had nothing to do with hitting the ball out of the ballpark, other than swinging the bat and making contact. But it did go out of the ballpark."
Yes, it did, and for Groch, who has been scouting and coaching players for half a century, that magical 5-for-5 afternoon in 2011 is another piece of circumstantial evidence that the Yankees' retiring shortstop will be the Jeter of old, and not an old Jeter, between Tuesday night in Houston and one more postseason berth for the road.
Now a special assistant with the Milwaukee Brewers, Groch will go ahead and picture Jeter maintaining the good health that eluded him in what the captain called a "nightmare" season, a 17-game 2013 ruined by a series of leg injuries that started with the fractured ankle in the playoffs the previous fall. He is Derek Jeter, after all, the kind of charmed figure farewell tours were made for.
And with that health allowing Jeter to potentially compete in 140-150 games, Groch made the following predictions about the best player he ever signed, a player who will turn 40 in June:
"He's going to hit .302. He's going to give you 12 home runs, and he'll score 85 runs. He's going to get 175 hits, and his on-base percentage will be .349. I don't expect anything but the Derek Jeter norm."
Groch isn't in the habit of playing Nostradamus with the numbers in a game so fickle and cruel, and he was too busy in Arizona this winter to observe Jeter in Tampa, Fla., where the captain struggled to rediscover his timing while batting .137. But as the scout who followed the high school all-American as he played on a bad ankle in a lousy climate before the '92 draft, and who still forecasted greatness for him, Groch's is the most credible voice on what to expect from Jeter when the at-bats begin to count.
Way back when, Groch wrote in his report to the Yankees that the teenager with a scholarship waiting for him at Michigan had a "long, lean sinewy body" with "live 'electric' movements." The scout called Jeter "Blue Chip" and "a Yankee" and "a Five-tool player." Groch described Jeter's habits, aptitude and coachability as "good," his physical maturity as "fair" and his dedication, agility and emotional maturity as "excel," or excellent. He said the shortstop, "Will be a ML Star!"
Asked later by his boss, Bill Livesey, if he was afraid Jeter would end up going to Michigan, Groch famously said, "The only place this kid's going is Cooperstown."
The Yankees were picking sixth, five long spots in the order after the Astros batted leadoff. Houston scout Hal Newhouser, a wartime pitcher with Detroit about to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, told his wife Beryl that Jeter had "the most wonderful pair of hands I've ever seen." Newhouser predicted a 20-year big league career for Jeter as a shortstop or center fielder, and he quit the game in protest after Houston gambled on Nevin instead, in part because owner John McMullen wanted an older, surer thing.
Picking fifth and deciding between Jeter (the slam-dunk preference of his scouts) and college outfielder Chad Mottola, a Cincinnati Reds executive named Julian Mock decided that Barry Larkin's presence at short and Mottola's club-friendly asking price ($400,000, or half of what Jeter would get from the Yankees) were good enough reasons to enrage his scouts.
The Yankees couldn't believe their good fortune. "He was a kid from New Jersey who moved to Michigan and always wanted to be the shortstop for the Yankees, and that takes a load off your shoulders," Groch said. "I knew I could sign him. I knew I could get it done."
Jeter became everything the reports said he would be, and then some. Groch? He didn't want to evaluate young shortstops anymore, if only because he'd be measuring them against the kid he first spotted at a camp in Mount Morris, Mich., a kid whose grace reminded him of Fred Astaire's.
"I was spoiled," Groch said. "I'd seen the best of the best. If I'd signed Sandy Koufax, it would be tough for me to go out and look at other left-handed pitchers."
In 2012, 20 years after landing Jeter, Groch did make an exception for Jean Segura. The Brewers asked their special assistant for his opinion on a prospective deal that would send Zack Greinke to the Angels for a package including Segura, and Groch voted in favor of the trade.
He saw some Jeter characteristics in the young shortstop (the foot speed, the live bat, the commitment to playing hard 24/7), and Segura honored his faith by making the All-Star team in his first full season in the bigs. Groch said he planned to get Segura and Jeter together when the Yankees play in Milwaukee in May.
Meanwhile, as much as the 73-year-old scout would love to see Jeter play forever, he's not unhappy that this is it for the captain. Before the retirement announcement in February, Groch had sent an email to Jeter's agent, Casey Close, whom the scout had also signed as an outfielder out of Michigan. Groch was thinking of how Jeter was carried out of the 2012 playoffs when he asked Close to make sure his client ended his career the right way.
"I told [Close], 'Don't let him go out 9-1-1,'" Groch said. "To have him come off the field to a 9-1-1 call would be unfair to what Derek's given to the game. ... The last time he went down, his teammates were looking like, 'What do we do now? We don't have our captain.' You could feel a tremendous energy sapped from one of the strongest organizations in all of sports, and you don't want to see all that energy pulling in that direction a second time."
But chances are, the captain of the Yankees will remain upright through this opening series in Houston, the city that could've been his, and through the regular season and postseason, too. Dick Groch is putting his money on that scenario, anyway.
"Every time someone says he doesn't have it anymore," the scout said, "Derek Jeter comes back as Derek Jeter. I think that's what you'll see in his final season."
Groch was right when he predicted greatness in 1992. If you're a right-minded baseball fan of any kind, in any corner of the globe, you're probably hoping the old scout nails it one last time.