The Greensboro Hornets were in the early hours of their 1993 season, still feeling out the competition in the South Atlantic League, when their radio voice, Bill Wardle, approached team owner John Horshok with a prediction. Wardle had pitched at the University of North Carolina, so he knew a pretty good prospect when he saw one.
And yes, he thought Derek Jeter was a pretty good prospect.
“This guy is the next Joe DiMaggio,” Wardle told the owner.
That thought stayed with Horshok while the teenage Jeter unraveled at shortstop. The Single-A Hornets played in the run-down World War Memorial Stadium, home to a choppy, overused, dimly lit field. The Yankees’ sixth-overall pick in the 1992 draft, Jeter was busy committing a league-record 56 errors in 126 games when Horshok was first struck by the kid’s poise.
“Our field was a bad piece of dirt, and Derek never complained about it,” Horshok recalled this week. “He never complained about the lights, or the official scorer, or a teammate, or throws to first that could have been caught. He never complained about anything.”
As a minor leaguer less than a year removed from his high school graduation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Jeter already understood that his success or failure was all on him. Horshok, who grew up near the University of Michigan, where Jeter had initially signed to play baseball, first met the shortstop the morning after the Wolverines’ famed Fab Five lost the ’93 national championship game to North Carolina.
“He was the first guy to report in the morning,” Horshok said. Of course he was. The owner and Jeter talked about how heartbroken they were over Michigan’s defeat. And then Jeter hit the field and took one of his most important steps on the long, winding road to Cooperstown and his induction next week into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Greensboro is where Jeter first proved he could successfully impose his will on almost anything. As a ballplayer, Greensboro is where Jeter made the transition from boyhood to manhood.
While playing rookie ball in Tampa, he had often cried himself to sleep over his failure to make meaningful contact at the plate. Jeter kept calling his parents in the small hours of night, telling them that he’d made a big mistake by not attending Michigan, and that he wanted to go home. He was a 160-pound, 18-year-old bonus baby who was embarrassed the Yankees had spent $800,000 on him. His agent at the time, Steve Caruso, said his client “was scared to death.”
Jeter barely survived that Gulf Coast League season, hitting .202, before finishing ’92 with a more encouraging 11-game stretch in Greensboro. Back with the Hornets for a full season in ’93, Jeter was no longer afraid of the consequences of failure.
And many thought he would fail, at least as a shortstop. Some teammates suspected the Yankees had drafted him for his explosive arm, and would ultimately make him a pitcher. Some organizational voices wondered if Jeter should be moved to center field. One Hornets official, former big league infielder Tim Cullen, told Yankees GM Gene Michael that Jeter “is the worst shortstop I’ve ever seen.”
Even Jeter’s best friend on the team, R.D. Long, said his buddy looked like a right fielder trying to play shortstop.
The errors kept piling up and piling up. Horshok recalled the other day that Wardle, the radio guy and huge Jeter supporter, would sometimes bark at the official scorer, Ogi Overman, that he was being too tough on the kid. One Yankees official called John Frey, the Greensboro GM, and screamed profanities while ordering Frey to tell his official scorer to start judging some of these balls bouncing past the shortstop as base hits.
Jeter could thrill the crowd with his athleticism, and make the jump throw in the hole that would become his signature play, and then three minutes later field a routine grounder and launch an inexplicably wayward throw. Sensing that his friend was destined to be moved to a different position, Long sat down Jeter in a diner and advised him to prepare for a switch to the outfield. Jeter shot him a look that would become familiar years later to anyone who doubted him or (God forbid) crossed him.
“I’m never moving from shortstop,” Jeter told Long. “It’s never going to happen. Never.”
Michael, the former Yankee shortstop who had committed more than 50 errors in each of his first three minor league seasons, tutored Jeter on finding a more consistent approach to ground balls. Meanwhile, the prospect was showing a serious work ethic — arriving for games nearly five hours before the first pitch — and some life in his bat. Word spread that he could become a special offensive player.
Mickey Mantle visited one day, and told Horshok he didn’t want to speak to the Hornets as a team. But when the owner asked Mantle if he wanted to meet Jeter, the Mick replied, “Oh, absolutely.” They spoke for a bit, with Mantle doing almost all of the talking. “The other guys on the team were not happy,” Horshok recalled, that Jeter was the only one deemed worthy of an audience with greatness.
The shortstop was never moved to another position, as he predicted, and ended up hitting .295 with five homers and 71 RBIs in leading the Hornets to a championship series they would lose to the Savannah Cardinals. The following season, after jumping from Single-A to Double-A to Triple-A, Jeter beat out Alex Rodriguez for Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award. At the ceremony, after receiving his honor, Horshok, now an athletics and marketing official at Gaston College, recalled that Jeter sat at the Greensboro table even though he had played that season in Tampa, Albany and Columbus.
“That meant a lot to us,” Horshok said.
Just as Greensboro meant a lot to the legend of Derek Jeter