Derek Jeter would have been a star anywhere. Dick Groch made sure that it was in New York.
By Jon Schwartz
Yankees Magazine |
Jon Niederer had been a California Angels scout for about five years when his job took him to Michigan's Kalamazoo Central High School in April 1992. He watched two games, his eyes lasered on the tall, slender shortstop. He made a note that the 17-year-old wearing No. 13 was "pointy shouldered" and that he had a good face. "Very young looking," he wrote, and in an attempt to summarize his target, he mentioned Barry Larkin as a comp.
The Angels were picking eighth in the 1992 Draft. With the prospect in the conversation for the Astros' first overall pick, Niederer couldn't have expected him to fall far enough to make his scouting report matter, but that didn't temper his enthusiasm at all. To close out his sketch, Niederer noted: "Would love to take with our first pick. Will be in the Big Leagues by the time he's 21."
After watching Derek Jeter fall off the board just two picks ahead of them, the Angels settled for Pete Janicki, a pitcher out of UCLA. Janicki spent six years in the Minors, never cracking the Big Leagues. Jeter debuted in the Majors on May 29, 1995, just 28 days shy of his 21st birthday.
But as the scouting community's predictions went, Niederer's accuracy couldn't even compare to what Dick Groch foretold.
"On a yearly basis, every time you're picking, you get, 'This guy could be the next Paul O'Neill,' 'This guy could be Jeter's replacement,'" said Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman. "I can't tell you how many times I've heard that. There's a credibility scale. When you hear someone say it a lot, they're going to be wrong most of the time. So they better pick and choose their spots."
In 1992, the Yankees were picking sixth, and while they had doubts that Jeter would be available at that point, Groch, who had spent a year tracking the shortstop, was trying to quash fears of another sort. Yankees scouting director Bill Livesey was doing his due diligence, checking off all the boxes on the potential draft pick. Jeter had committed to play ball for the University of Michigan. How certain could they be, Livesey wondered on a conference call with 30 to 40 other Yankees scouts and baseball operations staffers, that Jeter would sign with the team and forgo his time in Ann Arbor?
"He's not going to the University of Michigan," Groch announced. "The only place Derek Jeter is going is Cooperstown."
Twenty-three years later, all that's keeping Jeter out of the Hall of Fame is the five-year waiting period. The greatest shortstop in franchise history said farewell at the end of 2014, and for time everlasting there will be stories and recollections aplenty, a feast of good words for the Yankees captain.
Spare a few for the man who made it so.
You see a lot in 50 years. And your eyes get pretty well honed. Dick Groch began coaching in 1965. ("Got paid $300 for it," he recalled.) As the coach of St. Clair County Community College in Port Huron, Mich., he led his teams to 497 wins, and 56 of his players were selected in the MLB draft. He coached some international ball, too, guiding teams from the United States and Canada in the Pan American and Olympic games before transitioning to a life of scouting.
Two years with the Expos led to 20 with the Yankees, and so it was that Groch found himself at a talent identification camp in Mt. Morris, Mich., in 1991.
"At the time … shortstop was a profile position," said Groch, who now serves as a special assistant to Brewers General Manager Doug Melvin, focusing on pro scouting and player personnel. "A guy who could run and field and throw, those were prime characteristics. You didn't really have to hit."
The scouting report that Groch would fill out a year later demonstrated that fact. It doesn't read like a profile of a player who would reach 3,000 hits in the Majors. In fact, short of mentioning his quick bat and some power potential, the abilities section of the report is all about his throwing, his range and his speed on the basepaths. As for the weakness category?
"Anxious hitter, needs to learn to be more patient at the plate. Swing slightly long."
And yet Groch's assessment is clear as day. Using the scouting world's 20-80 scale, Groch scored Jeter's overall future potential a 64, meaning that he expected him to be somewhere between a star and a perennial All-Star.
He was hooked. Quickly. All the way back at that talent showcase, he saw many of the characteristics that would make Jeter a star for two decades in the Bronx.
"The live body, the acrobatics," Groch said. "I always thought that when you were looking at a shortstop, the highest compliment you could give him was that he was acrobatic.
"It was eye-catching. It was so exciting that it took me away from the rest of the camp. … I was standing next to the assistant baseball coach from Michigan State University. He said, 'Man, I need to get that kid's information, send him some stuff about Michigan State.' I was like, 'Are you kidding me? Save your postage!'"
Groch kept following Jeter for the rest of the year, but always from a distance, wary that his presence might throw the player off his rhythm. He also knew that Jeter was savvy enough to pick out all of the scouts; he wanted to be unseen. He wanted to see Jeter fail, to see how he reacted when a teammate failed, to see how he behaved when he didn't feel like he was under the spotlight. Groch never even introduced himself to Jeter's coach.
"I knew who he was, knew that he was the scout for the Yankees," Jeter recalled, "because I played with a guy on a summer team that was drafted by the Yankees, but hadn't signed. So he was following him around. But he left me alone. I never had a conversation with him."
The Yankees scout would watch from his car or hang out behind bushes and fences to catch inconspicuous peeks. The day before the 1992 Draft, Jeter's parents, Dorothy and Charles, remember showing up for a game, where they approached a small gate to the field. Right ahead of them was Groch, who opened it and waved them inside. It was the closest they came to a predraft conversation with the man who would make their son a Yankee.
"I think he introduced himself at the last minute, but we had no clue," Jeter's mother recalled. "We never really saw him, even though he was at many games."
To a large degree, scouting is really the art of confidence. What do you see, what can you project and -- most importantly -- how sure are you?
"You've got to be convincing with your reporting on the player and your selling of the player," said Melvin, a former scouting director with the Yankees. "Maybe a scout in one of the other cities [that drafted before the Yankees in 1992], Houston or whatever, that liked Jeter wasn't convincing enough or didn't evaluate him properly."
In the case of the Astros, Hal Newhouser, a Houston scout and Hall-of-Fame Tigers pitcher, was adamant that the club select Jeter first overall. But the club opted to go with college star Phil Nevin. Incredulous, Newhouser quit.
"Dick has got strong opinions," Cashman said. "When he sees something he likes, he's going to make sure you know it. He's not afraid to express that. That's a compliment -- a lot of people don't have the conviction necessary to do that job."
Four other teams then passed on the future-Hall-of-Fame shortstop. Groch made sure the Yankees didn't. He was convincing, and he was right. In its preview of the 2014 Draft, Baseball America looked back at the Yankees' decision to draft Jeter in 1992. On the cover, the magazine called it the best draft pick in franchise history.
"I think he sees athleticism differently than the normal person," said Hal Morris, the Angels' director of pro scouting. Groch signed Morris out of the University of Michigan to play for the Yankees, and he went on to bat .304 over a 13-year Big League career.
"He sees traits with hitters that other people are not going to see," Morris continued. "He is just able to make distinctions between certain players where he can rank them accordingly and separate the wheat from the chaff."
Even still, scouting success can be tough to measure. In decades as a scout, Groch saw 16 players that he signed reach the Majors, and that's including one year, 1986, when he signed three players from Michigan: Morris, Scott Kamieniecki and Casey Close, with the first two becoming Big Leaguers and the third a heavy-hitting agent who now represents, among others, Derek Jeter. In truth, the best way to judge a scout is based on the players he pushed for, not the guys he actually signed.
"Say you're scouting in a certain area," Morris said. "You might have everyone lined up perfectly and evaluated them right on the money, but you're dealing with 29 other teams. … I did amateur scouting for two years, and I didn't sign a player. But I felt very comfortable and confident in my evaluations."
Scouting is tracking players from one small field to another, building relationships with coaches and family members, remembering birthdays and interests and funny stories. It's knowing how to separate a 14-time All-Star such as Jeter from a pitcher with a 6.02 career ERA such as Jim Pittsley, the player the Yankees were eyeing in the event that Jeter wasn't available.
Mostly, though, it's a matter of filing confident and reasoned reports with the knowledge that none of it will matter if a player doesn't fall to you. Groch says that when he was watching Jeter play high school games, the only player he could even compare him to was Ken Griffey Jr. But all the enthusiasm in the world wouldn't have made a difference if the Astros had listened to Newhouser.
"It's like the French Foreign Legion when you're out there; it's a very lonely life," said Groch, now in his mid-70s with a wife, Nancy, three children and nine grandchildren. "You have cheers for every scout who has signed a player who has gotten to the Big Leagues. You get anything more than that, that's a bonus. A guy makes an All-Star team, he leads the league in hitting, he does those extra special things -- you cheer for those people. Because you know how hard it is.
"You don't always get the player that you want to get. There's a draft. I sat in Joey Votto's home. If the Reds didn't take him, we would have. But no one will tell you the story of Dick Groch seeing every game that Joey Votto played. Sometimes, you don't get them."
The attachment between a scout and a player usually extends long beyond the draft. CC Sabathia developed such a strong bond with the scouts and farm directors he dealt with as a young member of the Indians organization that he sought their counsel when he hit the free-agent market after the 2008 season -- despite the fact that the Indians had traded him just three months earlier. He spent a lot of time with Mark Shapiro, whom he had known as the farm director in the organization before Shapiro rose to the GM's office.
"The relationship was still there," Sabathia said. "I would call him and get his opinion and see what he thought about stuff."
That goes both ways. Groch maintains that he checked every box score for every player that he signed, each game a daily referendum on the scout's report. As for Jeter -- the guy Groch ticketed on a direct train to Cooperstown?
"If he doesn't get out of A-ball, I'm probably taking med school classes somewhere," Groch said. "You're held accountable for statements like that."
Maybe so, but Groch isn't going anywhere at this point. Morris speaks of how well respected he is, calling him a senior statesman in the field. More than 50 years after he started, he's still on the move, brushing off Melvin's demands that he take a few days off here or there. That's what winter's for, Groch replies. He wants to sleep until noon some days, but there's another ballpark to visit, another player to see. He never really developed any secondary hobbies.
"My wife travels," he said. "She's gone the last six, the last seven springs with Doug's wife and a couple of other ladies. They go to Rome; they go other places. That's a good time for them to go. They know we're busy.
"I'd go to Rome and say, 'There's the Colosseum. That's nice. Let's go.' I can't take in what happened with the lions and the Christians. What was the spread? Who won? Drive to the Grand Canyon? 'OK, looks great. Let's go home.'"
Groch's souvenirs are the result of a lifetime of players scouted, contracts prepared, miles traveled. He doesn't sound regretful.
Early in the 2014 season, when the Yankees visited Milwaukee, Groch was on hand to give Jeter a farewell gift on behalf of the Brewers organization. He followed the Yankees around during Jeter's pursuit of 3,000 hits in the summer of 2011. He pegged Jeter for Cooperstown as a 17-year-old, and he caught plenty of the journey in the more than two decades since.
Morris recalls only one instance in his front-office experience when a scout showered such love on a prospect.
"With the Angels, Greg Morhardt was the area scout who scouted Mike Trout," Morris said. "There's a box for a guy reading 'athleticism,' and I think Greg described Mike as the best in the world."
As for Jeter?
"That story is legend in the scouting community," Morris said.
"That statement has been made on other players, I'm sure," Melvin said. "But I can't imagine even a Greg Maddux, it probably wasn't said on him. … To say, 'Hey, I don't have any doubts this guy's got a chance to be a Hall-of-Fame player,' some scouts are afraid to say that. Dick was not afraid to make that statement."
Dick Groch made Derek Jeter a New York Yankee by pushing the right buttons and saying the right things, and when the dominoes fell just right, he got the ultimate feather in his cap. His prediction has come true. A few years from now, it will be cast in bronze and hung just right. Dick Groch has been many places. The only place Jeter has left to go is Cooperstown.
Jon Schwartz is the deputy editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Derek Jeter Commemorative Edition of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.