THE FIRST THING to know about playing baseball in Michigan is, Michigan's really cold. At Kalamazoo Central, where I went to high school, we'd spend the first few weeks of the season indoors, taking batting practice from a pitching machine in the gym and fielding ground balls on a basketball court. When the season started in March, it would still be raining or sleeting or snowing. The most memorable game of my high school career was at the start of my senior season, one of those drizzly, 35° March days. I slipped on the slush and sprained my ankle as I rounded first base.
My family moved to Kalamazoo from New Jersey when I was about four, so that my father, Charles, could get his Ph.D. in psychology from Western Michigan. He had been a shortstop in college, at Fisk University in Tennessee, and he became a big Tigers fan when we moved. Me? I always idolized my dad, so I loved baseball too, but I spent my summers with my grandparents in West Milford, N.J., and I always rooted for the Yankees. (I eventually converted Dad.) Once or twice a year, when the Yankees came to Detroit, we would make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Tiger Stadium. On one of those trips, my father recalls, I promised him that I would play in that ballpark someday.
After my first season in the Yankees farm system, 1992, I wasn't so sure. I spent the year in Tampa and Greensboro, N.C., and I was homesick for Kalamazoo every day. I was struggling for the first time—I hit .210 that summer—and being away from my family and everything familiar to me was tough. I ran up $300-a-month phone bills, calling home after almost every game. That fall I enrolled at the University of Michigan, and things got much better. I went to every Wolverines football and basketball home game and became a huge fan. I still try to make it back for home football games, especially because my boss, Mr. Steinbrenner, is a big Ohio State guy. Every year we make a friendly bet on the game—dinner at Malio's in Tampa, maybe.
My first fall in Ann Arbor was the Fab Five's sophomore year, and they were a blast. I played basketball in high school, and I was a decent guard—my big moment came in my sophomore year, when I hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Portage Central. But I had played against Chris Webber and Jalen Rose in AAU games in eighth and ninth grades, and those weren't even close. I remember being totally overmatched.
I never got my degree from Michigan because my baseball career took off, but I'd like to return some day, like Rodney Dangerfield did in Back to School. I'm not sure if I could see myself sitting in classes when I'm 40 years old, though.
My parents have moved out of Kalamazoo, but I still get back there every year to do fundraisers and baseball clinics with my charity, the Turn 2 Foundation. And I do have the key to the city—I was presented with it after the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, in a ceremony on Derek Jeter Day at my high school. That was overwhelming, because I'd expected 20 or 30 people to show up and instead there were 3,000; my old teachers and coaches, my principal, classmates, basically everybody in the community. My sister, Sharlee, gave a speech that really moved me, about how proud she was of me and what I'd achieved, and how I'd always supported her in everything she did even though I was away while she was in school. I still keep a framed copy at my off-season home in Tampa.
I'm a New Yorker now, and believe me, there's no comparison between the Big Apple and Kalamazoo, no similarity at all. New York City's hectic, always in fast-forward, and Kalamazoo's more laid-back, smaller, slower. And did I mention, colder?
Five-time AL All-Star Derek Jeter was the 1992 national high school player of the year while at Kalamazoo Central High.