By Steve Kornacki
DETROIT, Mich. -- The black stretch limousine headed south on State Street in Ann Arbor amid the postgame celebration of Michigan's 2003 win over Ohio State. Wolverines fans holding a block M banner with a rose embroidered on it danced for joy across the street from the outdoor football practice field. And the group became fascinated with just who might be behind the tinted windows of the limo.
One young man in the group remembered seeing that Derek Jeter had been at the 35-21 victory that propelled Michigan to its 16thoutright Big Ten championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl. Might that be Jeter inside the limo stuck in the postgame traffic quagmire? They decided to chant his name in an effort to find out.
"Jeter! Jeter! Jeter!" they shouted in unison.
The window was rolled down and lo and behold, it was "The Captain" of the New York Yankees. He couldn't believe he'd been found and was chuckling heartily along with catcher Jorge Posada, his longtime teammate who was accompanying him.
"What's up, boys?" Jeter asked the fans.
They laughed at their good fortune and shouted, "Go Blue!" That's what was up that day for all Wolverines fans, and there just might not be a bigger one than Jeter.
Eleven years prior, as a baseball star at Kalamazoo Central High, Jeter had signed a National Letter of Intent to play for his beloved Wolverines. I remember sitting in the office of Michigan coach Bill Freehan in the spring of 1992 discussing that point. However, Freehan thought it would be delusional to believe Jeter would ever end up playing for him at Fisher Stadium.
Freehan, the former All-Star catcher of the Detroit Tigers and a two-sport star for the Wolverines who also was a football tight end, knew Jeter was one of the most treasured schoolboy players in the country. He would be drafted high, for sure.
"Coach Freehan and me, we had a great relationship," Jeter said before Tuesday night's (Aug. 26) game with the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. "He and (assistant coach) Ace Adams. I wanted to come to the University of Michigan and that was a real possibility."
And then the Yankees, Jeter's favorite pro team because of summer time spent in his native New Jersey, made him the No. 6 overall pick in the first round.
"That was the team I always wanted to play for," said Jeter, who had dreamed of being the Yankee shortstop as a young boy. "... I think I made the right decision."
Still, signing with the Yankees wasn't the slam-dunk Freehan believed it would be.
Jeter had a strong desire to play for Michigan and Freehan, and Jeter did not believe a large enough offer to convince him to go pro would be produced.
Agent Steve Caruso, whom Jeter and his parents stuck with after selecting despite overtures from high-profile agent Scott Boras, faxed a first offer of $550,000 to the Yankees, according to Ian O'Connor in his book, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter."
"I was a big University of Michigan fan and I still am today."
-- Derek Jeter
Phone calls and faxes were exchanged by both parties, and Jeter leaned on Freehan for counsel. Now, Freehan had a vested interest, to be sure. Jeter was expected to do what another shortstop, Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, had done a decade earlier and lead Michigan to glory on the diamond.
But Freehan would shoot straight with Jeter, offering his honest and objective thoughts as Caruso kept getting the Yankees to raise the ante.
"Mr. Freehan, what should I do?" Jeter asked him.
"You've got to sign," Freehan finally told him, according to O'Connor. "You're crazy if you don't."
Adams was shocked and said, "I don't think many college coaches would've ever said that, but Bill was such a classy guy."
Jeter listened to Freehan, and signed an $800,000 deal with the Yankees that included a $700,000 bonus and enough to cover the full ride to Michigan that Jeter was giving up.
His deal was more than those received by four of the five players drafted ahead of him. Jeter was the first high school player selected that year, when future Tiger Phil Nevin was the No. 1 overall pick out of Cal State Fullerton.
Three years later, Jeter was called up by the Yankees and on his way to Cooperstown for a 20-year career that concludes with his retirement after this season.
But his connection to the Wolverines never waned.
"I was a big University of Michigan fan and I still am today," Jeter said. "When I really fell in love with Michigan was on my recruiting trip."
Jeter also visited Notre Dame and the Miami Hurricanes, but picked the Wolverines.
"My mom was pretty upset," said Jeter. "She was a big Notre Dame fan."
He took classes at Michigan in the fall semester of 1992 after playing in the minors for the Yankees, and registered again for the next fall. However, when the Yankees asked Jeter to play in the Instructional League in 1993, he withdrew from classes and didn't return to college.
Jeter is non-committal on what the future holds, but did note that he'd like to be part of a Major League Baseball ownership group and take part in franchise decision-making.
What about resuming pursuit of his degree?
"You've seen that movie, 'Back to School,' with Rodney Dangerfield?" Jeter asked. "You never know."
He smiled as reporters chuckled.
Then he stepped out into the corridor between an interview room and the Yankees clubhouse to accept a framed Michigan home uniform top with his iconic No. 2 on it from Wolverines head coach Erik Bakich, pitching coach Sean Kenny, catching coach Aaron Etchison, recruiting coordinator Nick Schnabel and director of operations Wayne Welton.
Jeter beamed while looking at it, and then spoke with the Michigan coaching staff.
After several minutes, Jeter picked up the framed uniform, grinned and told the coaches, "Thanks so much. I'll be around. I've got some time on my hands."
Bakich said, "We all kind of thought of this idea, giving him the Michigan jersey with his number on it. We wanted to do something to recognize an incredible career."
And so, 22 years after signing with the Wolverines, Jeter finally got a Michigan baseball jersey. It was the Wolverines' alternate uniform top with pinstripes.
Welton said, "Just thought it was kind of appropriate for Derek."
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