In May, Mike Trout played a homecoming game as a visitor. Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia is the closest major-league stadium to Trout’s hometown of Millville, N.J. As he approached the plate for his first at-bat, he received a prolonged standing ovation from Phillies fans, Angels fans and Millville residents whose sole allegiance was to No. 27 in grey.
It was a proper salute for the game’s best all-around player, a communal thank you to the 23-year-old phenom who has brought acclaim to their corner of the world.
Derek Jeter — five-time World Series champion, certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, all-time hits leader of the New York Yankees — has had the sort of career many envision for Trout. Jeter has played 72 big-league games in his home state of Michigan, including four in the playoffs, over the past two decades. Yet he’s never heard a cheer in Detroit like the one fans in Philadelphia lavished upon Trout.
In fact, Jeter has had the opposite experience. As legendary Detroit News columnist Jerry Green wrote earlier this year, "For some odd reason, Jeter is heavily, and disgracefully, booed at Comerica Park."
It’s a shame. Jeter, the 1992 Kalamazoo Central High School graduate who became the face of our national pastime, deserved better over the past two decades. Moreover, sports fans in Michigan spoiled their chance to forge a meaningful connection with one of the most accomplished figures in American sports history. But at least this week represents an opportunity to part on good terms, with Jeter scheduled to play his final series at Comerica Park beginning Tuesday night.
Trout’s reception in Philadelphia was one example of fans cheering a local player who never donned the home team’s uniform. There are others — Missouri natives Ryan Howard and Mark Buehrle were showered with cheers at the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis. Yet fans in Detroit never have shown much interest in celebrating Jeter as one of their own. And the Captain has noticed.
Jeter played a postseason game in Detroit for the first time during the 2006 American League Division Series. He was booed. According to the Detroit Free Press, when asked about it after Game 3, he said: "I’ve been booed here for 11 years."
Why the lack of affinity? As a Michigan native, I have a few theories:
1. The uniform: Jeter is a Yankee. Trout’s reception in Philly wouldn’t have been as warm if he had NEW YORK stitched across his jersey. The Yankees have won the most championships (27) of any franchise in major North American professional sports. Rational or not, fans of other teams see the Yankees’ success (and wealth) as grounds for a lifelong animus, regardless of a particular player’s virtue. That’s especially true in blue-collar Detroit, where fans are hard-wired to resent superstar-laden teams from large markets (e.g., the Bad Boys vs. Showtime). In many ways, Jeter would have had a better chance to be idolized in Michigan if the Houston Astros had taken him No. 1 in the ’92 draft. (The Yankees selected him with the sixth overall pick.)
2. Geography: Jeter didn’t grow up in Metro Detroit. He’s from Kalamazoo, in the southwest corner of the state, nearly equidistant from Detroit and Chicago. A decade ago, it was common for West Michigan newspapers to run baseball standings with the TIGERS, CUBS and maybe even the WHITE SOX in CAPS — as if to say, "We’re not really part of Detroit. Think of us as Chicago’s waaaaay east suburbs."
Southeast Michigan and West Michigan are quite different — culturally, politically, economically — to the extent that many Detroit fans may not view Jeter as a "local athlete" at all. A Cleveland crowd wouldn’t adopt a Cincinnati native as its own, or vice versa. A similar concept applies here.
3. His amateur career was away from the public eye: Jeter’s talent was well-known among Major League Baseball scouts, but he received less national press than other Michigan high school athletes of the same generation: Chris Webber, Shane Battier and Drew Henson (who briefly played with Jeter in New York).
Even more shocking: A search this week of the Michigan high school baseball record books, with assistance from Trenton High head coach Todd Szalka of the Michigan High School Baseball Coaches Association, revealed zero mentions of Jeter’s name among the all-time leaders in any offensive category. (However, he did participate in a statewide high school all-star game at Tiger Stadium.)
It’s possible Jeter actually should be listed in the record book, but that his numbers were not submitted or documented properly. Such things happen in high school sports record-keeping. But that only furthers the point: Fans in Michigan didn’t realize the prodigy in their midst until after he donned the pinstripes.
Jeter attended the University of Michigan for one semester but never suited up for a game, because by then, in the fall of 1992, he’d already signed his contract with the Yankees. So there was no signature moment or Big Ten championship to make Wolverines fans feel attached, even though Jeter occasionally worked out at the baseball stadium while he was on campus.
"He was really well-respected by everyone tied to that baseball program who had anything to do with him," said Matt Hyde, a fellow Michigan freshman in the fall of ’92 who now works as an area scout for the Yankees. "My first impression of him then was exactly what it would be today: He was very classy, handled himself professionally, very humble, just had a great way about him.
"He really embodied the value of what we call a ‘Michigan Man.’ Derek Jeter had all of that. And that’s pretty neat to have seen that, even though he never wore the Michigan uniform. He certainly has embodied that spirit playing for the Yankees. It’s kind of cool when you see both him and Tom Brady. There are some similarities there."
The Tigers have planned a formal ceremony to honor Jeter prior to Wednesday’s game, the latest in series of commemorations for him this season. The Tigers have asked fans to be in their seats early — 6:35 p.m. — for a program expected to include very specific references to Jeter’s Michigan ties.
Undoubtedly, many fans at Comerica Park will fully appreciate that chapter of Jeter’s story for the first time. For a while, at least, they won’t see him as part of the Evil Empire. He will be the future Hall of Famer with whom they share something in common. And eventually, they will stand for the most overdue ovation in a celebrated baseball life.