Tuesday’s election to take his well-deserved place in baseball’s Hall of Fame was just a formality for Derek Jeter. But also another reminder of just how far he came from the inauspicious start of his Yankees career as a skinny teenager from Michigan.
“That first summer I was in Tampa in 1992, I was just trying to make it to 1993," Jeter said Tuesday night. “I’m being honest with you. I remember staying at the Bay Harbor Inn and being out on the balcony crying at night because I thought I was completely, well, I was, I didn’t think, I was completely over-matched. And thought I had made a mistake signing a professional contract.
“At that point in time, (just) getting to the major leagues was a long ways away. Thinking about the Hall of Fame never even crossed my mind. Although it was a long time ago, it still feels like it was almost yesterday."
From that shaky start of hitting .202 in the Gulf Coast League, and a 56-error debacle the next year, Jeter turned into one of the game’s all-time best shortstops during a 20-year career in pinstripes, finishing with the sixth most hits of all time, winning five World Series championships and making 14 All-Star teams.
While Jeter was such an obvious candidate for election in his first year on the ballot that the only question was whether he would be voted in unanimously — he missed by one vote — Larry Walker’s path to join him in Cooperstown was much more dramatic.
A Canadian who gave up playing hockey and made himself a multi-talented outfielder who played 17 seasons for the Expos, Rockies and Cardinals, Walker was elected in his 10th and final year of eligibility, and by only six votes over the 75 percent needed.
After “religiously” following online voting updates over the last week, Walker on Tuesday afternoon tweeted what essentially was a concession speech, admitting “I believe I’m going to come up a little short” and thanking people for their support.
A few hours later, and a few even more agonizing minutes after he figured he would get the call if it was coming, Walker was never so happy to be wrong.
“That number popped up on the phone," Walker said. “I think I uttered the words 'Oh, s---.’ Then maybe, “Oh my God.” And whatever it was before I actually answered the phone, and said hello, and to hear them ask if they could speak to Larry Walker. And the rest was almost like in disbelief."
Walker’s election was noteworthy not only became he became the second Canadian in the Hall, joining Ferguson Jenkins, but also the first member of the Rockies, and thus overcoming bias about stats compiled in Colorado’s altitude.
“You’re either on this side of the fence with it or you’re on that side," said Walker, 53. “It’s such a weird subject to talk about."
Jeter, who retired to an estate-sized home in Tampa but now spends most of his time in South Florida as CEO of the Marlins, insisted he also was uneasy waiting for the news.
“Everyone told me it was a foregone conclusion," said Jeter, 45. “I didn’t buy it. So it was not a relaxing day. There was a lot of anxiety. I was nervous, sitting around waiting for a phone call for something that is completely out of your control.
“You get the phone call, I don’t know if I said anything for a while because it is the ultimate honor and it’s a very humbling experience. And to be elected to the baseball Hall of Fame is truly a dream come true."
Though there was much media focus on whether he would join former teammate Mariano Rivera as the only players elected unanimously, Jeter said he was not concerned about the one ballot out of 397 — to this point unidentified — that didn’t have his name checked.
“I look at all the votes that I got," Jeter said. “It takes a lot of votes to get elected to the Hall of Fame. Trying to get that many people to agree on something is pretty difficult to do. That’s not something that’s on my mind. I’m just extremely excited and honored to be elected."
With the elections coming as baseball overall is still dealing with fallout from the Astros cheating scandal, Jeter was asked if the game would benefit from a reminder of how he played the game the right way.
“I took a lot of pride in playing the game hard and doing my job every day and being consistent and caring about one particular thing, and that was trying to help our team win. That’s the bottom line," Jeter said.
“There’s situations the sport has gone through throughout its history and at times it can seem pretty ugly. I also understand that people make mistakes and unfortunately you have to pay for those mistakes. But I think the game is going to move on, obviously, and it’s going to be in a better place for it."
Curt Schilling, whose post-career political commentary and social media postings have drawn attention from his success on the mound, finished third in the voting, 20 votes short at 278, but up about 10 percent, which positions him well for election next year when the biggest name additions to the ballot will be Torii Hunter, Mark Buehrle and Tim Hudson.
That doesn’t seem as likely for Roger Clemens (242 votes, 61 percent) and Barry Bonds (241, 60.7), who made only slight gains as their candidacies are stained by allegations of PED use.
With ballot space cleared following the election of 20 players over the previous six years, some other candidates did make big gains, including Tampa’s Gary Sheffield, who more than doubled his vote total from 58 to 121 in getting 30.5 percent of the vote in his sixth year on the ballot. Also of note, shortstop Omar Vizquel improved from 42.8 to 52.6 percent and third baseman Scott Rolen from 17.2 to 35.3.
Former Rays Carlos Pena and Heath Bell, and Brandon High product Chone Figgins were among seven candidates who got no votes, and 16 who did not receive the required five percent of the vote to stay on the ballot.
Jeter is sure to be the star of the July ceremonies that also include the inductions of Ted Simmons and union leader Marvin Miller, and Walker is well aware.
“Remember those old 45s we used to listen to, and they had the song on the A-side and then the song on the B-side you really didn’t know about?” he joked on the MLB Network broadcast. “I’m the B-side."