* Rob Thomson (Corunna, Ont.), shown here congratulating Derek Jeter on a home run, has seen up close the professionalism with which the future Hall-of-Fame shortstop carries himself -- both on and of the field. .... 2014 Canadians in College Letters of Intent 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors 2015 Canadian draft list
By Bob Elliott
DUNEDIN -- When the time came, Robbie Thomson couldn’t find Derek Jeter.
Jeter had spent the start of the 1993 spring training at major-league camp with the New York Yankee millionaires at Fort Lauderdale. He was then sent to minor-league camp.
A minor-league coach in the Yankees system, Thomson went to watch class-A Greensboro for a look at the No. 1 pick from the June before.
“He blended in, here he was 19 working out with 22, 23, 24-year-olds,” said Thomson, the Corunna native who now lives in Stratford with his wife, two daughters and five World Series rings.
“I couldn’t find him during stretching and couldn’t spot him during batting practice,” said Thomson. “I had to look at my roster sheet to find his number and then go and find him. I don’t recall his number, but it wasn’t No. 2.”
The 5,533 fans at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium Sunday afternoon couldn’t find No. 2 either.
Jeter had played six innings Saturday against the Philadelphia Phillies in Tampa.
The infield in Dunedin has improved since 1987 when someone asked St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog if Ozzie Smith had made the trip from St. Pete’s?
“What? asked Herzog. “You think I’d bring my all-star, future Hall of Fame shortstop to field ground balls on this rock pile?”
When Thomson found Jeter 22 springs ago, he saw a tall gangly kid, who had spent the previous season with the Gulf Coast League rookie-class Yankees and then Greensboro for 11 games.
The next year, Thomson was coaching at double-A Albany and due to a coaching shuffle at the all-star break he moved to Greensboro. There, playing for manager Bill Evers, Thomson found future major leaguers Shane Spencer, Tom Wilson, Matt Luke, Mike Buddie, Ramiro Mendoza, a starter named Mariano Rivera and Jeter, on his way to his 57-error season (.889 fielding mark).
“When I got there he had about 40 errors,” said Thomson. “If it bothered him, he didn’t show it. Not one bit. He went about his business like a veteran.”
Yankee scout Dick (The Legend) Groch, who signed both Jeter and Thomson, would call often to check on his first-round selection. “Dick called about all his guys, that’s the way he is,” ” said Thomson.
Even at Greensboro, Thomson said Jeter was making back-hand plays, leaping into the air and throwing strikes to first.
“He had one goal even then: to be the shortstop of the New York Yankees,” said Thomson, who moved on to hold various titles in the organization: third base coach at Triple-A Columbus, special assignment instructor, field coordinator, director of player development and vice president of minor league development.
Jeter was more than the Yankees' every day shortstop. He broke in on May 29, 1995, collecting his first hit the next night -- a single off Tim Belcher -- in a 7-3 loss to the Seattle Mariners.
In all, on his way to becoming the Yankee captain and assuring himself a spot both in Cooperstown and a spot in left centre of Yankee Stadium’s Monument Park, Jeter heads into this season with 3,316 career hits.
Thomson joined the major-league staff in 2004 and is now in his 24th year with the Yankees.
“Derek Jeter is the most prepared, competitive player and the best leader I have ever been around,” said Thomson.
Jeter makes life easier for Thomson as a coach. A player will throw a mini-tantrum, toss a bat or do something dopey.
“I’ll start towards a guy to talk to him, he’ll say “I got it.’ He takes care of a lot of things,” said Thomson. “It either happens in a back room or over dinner, but he gets the message across: ‘that’s not the way we do things here.’ No one is embarrassed. Derek has taught that.”
Over the years, catchers have told us about Jeter’s sense of humour. Like the first time Josh Thole squatted behind the plate wearing a New York Mets uniform at Yankee Stadium in 2011.
“The first pitch is inside, the second pitch is up and in, he gets out of the way just in time,” Thole said. “He gets back into the box, jabs the barrel of the bat into my chest lightly and says ‘cut that out, I’m too old for that.’”
Thomson says having fun is one thing, screwing around is something else, and “Derek has fun, he knows the difference.”
When he’s retired, what will Thomson tell his grandkids -- the Thomsons have two daughters, Jacquie, 24, and Christina, 19 -- bouncing on his knee sitting in a rocking chair as Jeter highlights come on TV?
“The greatest thing about Derek Jeter is that he is the same guy now as he was as a teenager,” said Thomson. “He treats his teammates, coaches, umpires, fans and media with respect. That’s the greatest compliment you can give a player.”