The Greensboro Hornets were in the early stages of their 1993 season, still assessing the South Atlantic League’s competition, when Bill Wardle, the team’s radio announcer, approached team owner John Horshok with a prediction. Wardle had pitched at the University of North Carolina and knew how to spot a good prospect.
Yes, he thought Derek Jeter was a promising young player.
“This guy is the next Joe DiMaggio,” Wardle told the owner.
While the teenage Jeter unraveled at shortstop, Horshok pondered that thought. The Single-A Hornets played on a choppy, overused, dimly lit field at the run-down World War Memorial Stadium. When Horshok first noticed Jeter, the Yankees’ sixth-overall pick in the 1992 draft, he was committing a league-record 56 errors in 126 games.
“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.”
Jeter knew as a minor leaguer less than a year removed from his high school graduation in Kalamazoo, Michigan, that his success or failure was entirely dependent on him. Horshok first met Jeter the morning after the Wolverines’ famed Fab Five lost the ’93 national championship game to North Carolina. Horshok grew up near the University of Michigan, where Jeter had originally signed to play baseball.
Horshok said, “He was the first guy to report in the morning.” He was, of course. The owner and Jeter both expressed their sadness over Michigan’s loss. Then Jeter took to the field, taking one of the most significant steps on the long, winding road to Cooperstown, where he will be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame next week.
Jeter first demonstrated his ability to successfully impose his will on almost anything in Greensboro. As a baseball player, Greensboro was where Jeter matured from a boy to a man.
He had often cried himself to sleep while playing rookie ball in Tampa, lamenting his inability to make meaningful contact at the plate.
Jeter kept calling his parents in the middle of the night, telling them he’d made a huge mistake by not going to Michigan and that he wanted to return home. He was an 18-year-old bonus baby who weighed 160 pounds and was embarrassed that the Yankees had spent $800,000 on him. Steve Caruso, his agent at the time, said his client was “terrified to death.”
Jeter barely made it through that Gulf Coast League season, hitting.202, before finishing the year in Greensboro with a more encouraging 11-game stretch. In 1993, Jeter returned to the Hornets for a full season and was no longer afraid of the consequences of failure.
Many predicted his failure, at least as a shortstop. Some teammates suspected the Yankees drafted him because of his powerful arm and planned to use him as a pitcher. Some within the organization questioned whether Jeter should be moved to center field. Former big league infielder Tim Cullen, a Hornets official, told Yankees GM Gene Michael that Jeter is “the worst shortstop I’ve ever seen.”
R.D. Long, Jeter’s best teammate, said his friend looked like a right fielder trying to play shortstop.