“As the story goes, the Reds finally got Jeter.”
That’s the way Tom Nichols, the Dayton Dragons director of media relations and broadcasting, put it the other afternoon as he stood near home plate at Fifth Third Field and watched Jeter Downs, the team’s new shortstop, being photographed a few yards away.
It was 26 years ago that the Cincinnati Reds had a chance to sign Derek Jeter with the fifth overall pick in the 1992 draft. Instead they chose Chad Mattola, an outfielder from the University of Central Florida.
With the next pick, the New York Yankees chose Jeter.
While Mattola would go on to become a baseball journeyman – playing for seven different organizations in a career that included 59 Major League games and 1,801 in the minors – Jeter became one of the best players of his generation.
In 20 big league seasons with New York, he was a 14-time All Star, won five World Series rings, set numerous Yankee records and was the captain of the team for 11 years. His No. 2 was retired and in 2020 he will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection for sure.
Just as Jeter was beginning his rise to fame, Lucila Mitchell Downs was living on the tiny Caribbean island of San Andres — which is off the coast of Nicaragua, but considered part of Colombia — pregnant with her second child. Her husband, Jerry, was pitcher in the Colombian Professional Baseball League.
The couple had named their first son Jerry Jr.
“When the sonogram told us we were having another boy, I wanted to keep the names with J and started thinking of baseball names,” Lucila said Thursday evening from her home in the Little Havana section of Miami. “My husband is just a real fanatic of baseball. He loves it.
“Back then I had started watching the Yankees and I admired Derek Jeter, the young boy. I liked how he played baseball with that love and how he pushed himself. I loved the name … and those pretty eyes. And that’s when it came to me.
“I said, ‘Let’s call (our boy) Jeter!’
“My husband agreed and everybody else seemed to like it.”
Their son was born July 27, 1998.
Just 20 days earlier Derek Jeter, in his third full season in the big leagues, had played in his first All Star game. He would end the year hitting .324 with a league-leading 127 runs and hit .353 in the World Series as New York swept San Diego in four games.
Saturday night, 19-year-old Jeter Downs, a supplemental first round pick of the Reds last year, will start at shortstop in the Dragons home opener against Bowling Green.
“It’s kind of crazy how it all worked out,” he said. “When you think of it, (Derek Jeter) was just beginning his career when I was born and wasn’t that special yet. But my mom fell in love with everything about him and he ended up this huge thing.
“And now I’m playing shortstop, too, and if it’s God’s plan, I can have a great career, too.”
A baseball family
Jerry Downs Sr. was born in Nicaragua, but during the country’s civil war his family fled to San Andres. He met Lucila there while he was playing baseball.
“When we got married, the next day he was travelling for baseball,” Lucila said with a laugh. “We went to three different cities where his team played. Can you believe it? That was our honeymoon.”
The family moved to the United States when Jerry Jr. was nine and Jeter was five. They first lived in the Miami Gardens section of the city and later moved to Little Havana, just a few blocks from the Miami Marlins stadium.
“Baseball was just in my blood,” Jeter said. “I was two or three when my brother started playing and I’d go to the fields with him and run around. And our dad worked with us and gave us that love.”
At 6-foot-2 and 185-pounds, Jerry Jr. starred at St. Thomas University, an NAIA school in Miami, and in 2015 was drafted in the 15th round by the Boston Red Sox.
After playing in the Gulf Coast League and with the Greenville Drive and Lowell Spinners, he opened this season at first base for the Salem (Va.) Red Sox.
Jeter – who’s 5-foot-11 and 180 – became an All American at Monsignor Pace High in Miami and accepted a scholarship to the University of Miami. But ranked No. 76 among all prospects by Baseball America before the 2017 draft, he became a first round compensation pick of the Reds, who gave him close to a $1.83 million signing bonus.
Assigned to Billings in the rookie Pioneer League last season, he hiit.267 in 50 games and had six home runs and 29 RBI. In his first minor league season, Derek Jeter hit .244 in 58 games with four home runs and 29 RBI.
A year into his pro career, Jeter Downs seems to be wearing his name well.
“Really his full name is Jeter Deion Downs,” his mom laughed. “I loved Deion Sanders with the Atlanta Braves then, too. So made him Jeter Deion.
“But he doesn’t like his middle name that much.”
Looking up to The Captain
“We’ve got two games going now,” Lucila said Thursday evening. One was on the TV, the other on the computer.
While Jerry went 1-for-3 in a 4-3 victory over the Buies Creek Astros, Jeter had an up and down night in the Dragons’ season opener at Bowling Green. The lead-off hitter, he opened the game with a single, but also was plagued by two errors, the second one coming in the ninth inning. That base runner eventually scored, giving the Hot Rods a 5-4 victory.
But for big picture reference, Jeter Downs need only look to his namesake.
Derek Jeter, a winner of five Gold Gloves as the Yanks shortstop, opened the 2007 season with three errors in his first two games. He ended up with just 18 in 155 games that season, hit. 322 and was selected to his eighth All Star Game.
The Dragons shortstop is eager to follow that lead and hopes one day to meet the baseball legend.
Going back to junior high, he used to slip over to Marlins Park and would buy a $10 ticket to sit in the upper reaches and dream of one day being a big leaguer himself.
“I saw Derek Jeter play there once,” he beamed.
And there’s a good chance he could see him there again.
Jeter retired following the Yankees 2014 season and is now the CEO and part owner of the Marlins.
While Lucila admits there was “pressure” on her son when he stepped onto the ball diamond with that name, she thinks he’s been living up to it.
And her son appreciates the connection to the Yankees’ great:
“I like the way he went about his business on and off the field. All across baseball they called him The Captain. That was pretty cool. He carried himself well and was never in trouble. Every single place he played fans respected him. He’s a good example of how to be.”
But what if Jeter Downs hadn’t been a good ballplayer in his own right?
He thought about the question and then grinned:
“If I had sucked as a baseball? Well, I’d still have a really cool name.”