FORT MYERS, Fla. — Nothing about the arrival of Jeter Downs in Red Sox camp Wednesday was normal.
He is a 21-year-old non-roster invitee with just 12 games of experience above Single A — the kind of profile that rarely garners notice, no matter how highly regarded a prospect is. Typically, players with his credentials in big-league camp are assigned a number in the 70s or 90s, set up on the fringes of the clubhouse among other minor leaguers, and speak in whispers on the rare occasions that anyone checks in with them.
That was not the experience for Downs on the morning of his first day in Red Sox camp, two days after the blockbuster trade that brought him over from the Dodgers as part of the return for Mookie Betts and David Price. His locker is near the middle of the Red Sox clubhouse, between J.D. Martinez and Mitch Moreland.
(The location between two veterans is something of a coincidence related to the most crowded Red Sox spring clubhouse in memory, with 65 players in camp. Downs was given one of the few open lockers, but could move if the team finalizes a deal with veteran outfielder Kevin Pillar.)
His jersey is No. 20 — a subtle nod to the No. 2 of Derek Jeter, the player after whom he was named. And as soon as Downs appeared in the clubhouse, he was swarmed by a throng of reporters.
For a player who earlier this week was preparing to fly from his South Florida home to Arizona for the start of spring training with the Dodgers, all of this easily could seem overwhelming. But Downs seemed at ease in his new surroundings — and amused by the now-familiar undertaking of explaining that, yes, he was named after the Yankees Hall of Famer.
“You get bombarded with this whole name thing,” he said. “It’s pretty cool. I guess my mom knew what she was doing when she named me Jeter. She just liked how he was, the way he played the game, so she gave me the name.
“I obviously have the name, so I kind of had to be a fan of his. I idolized him — the way he played, the way he went about the game, the things he did, how he was respected by every single team.”
Downs had a chance encounter with Jeter recently in South Florida. He was driving with his brother — Jerry Downs, a 26-year-old first baseman in the Red Sox system — when a Range Rover pulled up next to them.
“[Jerry] was like, ‘Oh my God, is that Jeter?’ He honks and I wave at him,” said Downs. “I’m doing training with [Dodgers special adviser and former Yankee] Raul Ibanez. I called Raul and said, ‘Tell Jeter that the kid I was waving at was Jeter.’ ”
Informed by Ibanez of the identity of the person he’d encountered, Derek Jeter was impressed.
According to Jerry Downs, Derek Jeter told Ibanez, “That’s crazy — I just saw a kid but I didn’t know it was him! Tell him I look forward to following his career. I’ll follow up.”
Days later, with the assistance of a friend in the Marlins system, Jeter Downs talked with Jeter via FaceTime. Now, he is excited about a trade that put him in an organization that is defined in no small part by its rivalry with his namesake’s former team.
“I was a Yankees fan,” said Downs, “but now I’m going to do everything in my power to win if the Yankees are on the other side, or whoever it is.”
Last year, at age 20, Downs hit .276/.362/.526 with 24 homers and 24 steals in 119 games, mostly in the High A California League before a late-season promotion to the Texas League. He’s been primarily a shortstop through the minors, though some evaluators expect him to move to second base.
Downs, taken with the No. 32 pick in the 2017 draft, already had been traded once, going from the Reds to the Dodgers before the 2019 season in a deal that sent four big leaguers (most notably Yasiel Puig) to Cincinnati. As such, he recognizes that neither reputation nor, in his case, a name will determine the Red Sox’ return for dealing Betts and Price.
“It’s cool to be traded for arguably a top-five player in the game,” said Downs, “but it doesn’t mean anything if I don’t go out and do my job. I still have to go out and perform, play well. Things could be talked about after.”
Ultimately, Downs and the Red Sox hope that it is what he does on the field that will shape the conversation about him moving forward.