From Skinny Kid to future HOFer

* He went from The Skinny Kid, to The Shortstop and eventually The Captain ... and soon Cooperstown will come calling. Portrait by Alex Merritt. (For inquiries about sports art or graphic design please contact Alex at: .... 2014 Canadians in the Minors Canadians in College 2015 Canadian draft list Letters of Intent

By Bob Elliott

He was simply referred to as “The Skinny Kid,” by Don Mattingly when he arrived at spring training from high school.

When he made 56 errors at class-A Greensboro in 1993 there were discussions about making The Kid an outfielder.

And when given the job as the starting shortstop (Tony Fernandez had broke an elbow) New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner didn’t think The Rookie could handle it on an every day basis.

So, the Yanks talked trade with the Seattle Mariners attempting to obtain Felix Fermin as a back-up in case The Kid didn’t work out. The cost was going to be a struggling starter. His name was Mariano Rivera. Obviously that didn’t come to fruition, but can you imagine if George Steinbrenner had made that deal?

“The Skinny Kid,” was a “little bigger the next spring, then started to look like something,” Mattingly, the Los Angeles Dodger manager said. “Then he’s a star. Someone must have known what they saw.”

Yankee scout Dick (The Legend) Groch knew what he saw from the time he walked into an evaluation camp in Mount Morris, Mich. The Shortstop was in grade 11 and about the third ground ball Groch remembered it like yesterday Saturday driving I-75 north through Michigan ...

“He went into the hole, did that jump step and the ball sizzled to first,” said Groch, who said aloud ‘I thought this camp was supposed to be kids. That was a big-league play.’ Then, he ran a 4.0 to first -- hey there’s the Mount Morris exit.”

Before the draft Groch asked The Shortstop some question about his hitting style, “his approach was always to inside-out the ball.” So the scout asked the prospect we went to right centre so often?

“That’s my choice,” The Shortstop told Groch, “my dad spent a lot of time teaching me to go where the ball is pitched.” And that was the right answer

“You saw the bat when he got that high fastball he could extend his arm,” Groch said. “He could pull the ball down the left field line -- the shortest distance in our park -- and he could hit the ball to right centre -- the second shortest distance in our park.”

The Shortstop hit 25 homers in 1999, 23 in 2004, 21 in 2001 and 19 in 1998 and 2005. He hit 18 in 2002, 2009, 2000 and 2012 ... 259 and counting.

* * * Groch admits The Shortstop looked like a skinny underdeveloped player. He was at 6-foot-1, 159 pounds. The first five drafted in the 1992 players were collegians:

1. Astros, 3B Phil Nevin, California State Fullerton

2. Indians RHP Paul Shuey North Carolina at Chapel Hill

3. Expos LHP B.J. Wallace, Mississippi State

4. Orioles OF Jeffrey Hammonds, Stanford

5. Reds OF Chad Mottola, Central Florida

“At that time a shortstop did not have to hit, if you could run, field and throw you were headed to the big leagues like Eddie Brickman, Ray Oyler and Mark Belanger,” Groch said.


* * * And at Greensboro he turned 57 double plays, had 56 clanks and an .889 fielding percentage.

“Some people thought he was not a prototypical shortstop because his legs were too long, but most of his errors were throwing,” said Groch, now Milwaukee Brewers general manager Doug Melvin’s top scout.

Former Tigers scout Bill Schudlich remembers bumping into Yankees executive Bill Livesey in Texas one day.

Livesey told Schudlich: “I can’t believe it. All my coaches think he’ll never play shortstop. They think he needs to be an outfielder. Listen, he’s not moving off of shortstop; I don’t care if he makes 100 errors.’ ”

The Shortstop broke in May 29, 1995, was in the opening day lineup the next year and has been there since, save for injury. The worst was when he broke his left ankle in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers.

“That was the first time there was a dent in his armor, he showed he was infallible like every one else,” Groch said. “Players were looking at each other: what do we do now? The Captain is down. It permeated from the dugout to the stands. The next day you could have dropped a penny at Yankee Stadium and hear it bounce in downtown Manhattan.”

Legendary scout Eddie Bane, who drafted Mike Trout and a ton of other  Anaheim Angels blue chippers once said that the shortstop “is 90% of scouts’ favorite player. Guys appreciate the way he plays the game every day all the time.”

The other night in Pittsburgh scout Jax Robertson leaned forward and told Groch that the shortstop “might be the greatest sign ever.” No one is sending The Shortstop an ice cream sandwich as a Seattle Mariners scout did to Jesus Montero this week at a minor-league game.

“I didn’t sign an all-star, I signed a franchise player,” Groch said. “They paid him a lot of money but he made the New York Yankees a lot of money.

“I give his parents -- Dorothy and Dr. Charles -- a lot of credit. They were as consistent and grounded as the way he handled this going back to when he was drafted.”

* * * Plenty knock The Shortstop’s lack of range, arm and offensive numbers.

“There are different standards for different positions,” Groch said. “Take the batting avaerge, on-base, OPS and toss it. What he did will never be duplicated in our lifetime. Mike Trout may make the Hall of Fame, but he won’t win five World Series.

“The Shortstop’s total value to the franchise because of the intangibles were immeasurable. Forget the baseball end of it. There are more of his jerseys than any other player, All those kids want to be like him, not only as a player but as human being.”

Both in Milwaukee when the Yankees made their final visit and again in Detroit, Groch has the chance to talk to The Shortstop. He told him how with the Brewers in the hunt he might not make the Yankees final game -- there are possible Brewers opponents to scout for October.

He told The Shortstop how many people wanted to be like him, how he gave the Yankees their image, gave them the energy, had the chance to affect 1,000s of lives.

“Forget the rest, just look at all those kids in the t-shirts, you gave the fans a super hero,” Groch told The Shortstop.

He told him how he appreciated the way The Shortstop always had the “same smile, always looked you in the eye, his eyes are riveted on the person he was talking to ... making you feel like you were the most important person in the world.” And how some guys would be “looking to see if their shoes are tied or to see whatever scouts were there. That’s class.”

Groch said The Shortstop answered with “thank you very much, I appreciate your comments, you make me a Yankee.”

* * * Groch took his son Brian to see Mickey Mantle’s last name at Tiger Stadium in 1968.

And Groch took his grandson Ronin to see Derek Jeter’s final game at Comerica Park on Thursday.

“Like I told George King (New York Post) the other day, I wanted my family to see the final games in Detroit of two great Yankees,” said Groch. “It was a memorable thing.”

And like in Detroit, grandpas took their grand kids to see Jeter’s final game at the Rogers Centre Sunday afternoon.

* * * Groch said he’s been outside Yankee Stadium and spotting a father with two young boys wearing Jeter jersies.

“Going in to watch the Yankees?” Groch asked, like any scout -- he knew the answer to the question before he asked it.

“No, we’re going inside to watch Derek Jeter,” the father answered.