On Opening Day in a miserably cold mist at Shea Stadium, Mets
rookie shortstop Rey Ordonez went to his knees and brought a lot
of New York baseball fans with him. In the seventh inning of a
game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ordonez scooped up a low
throw from leftfielder Bernard Gilkey and relayed it 150 feet to
the plate from his knees, cutting down speedy Cardinals
shortstop Royce Clayton and leaving eyewitnesses pleading for a
Most New Yorkers come out of the womb convinced that they have
seen it all, but Ordonez, a 23-year-old Cuban defector making
his major league debut, left them as wide-eyed and giddy as
Canadian tourists in Times Square. It was much more than a
spectacular play--it was an original, a wonderfully instinctive
move that stood out even in this age of ESPN plays of the
The Mets went on to beat the Cardinals 7-6 that day, and the
great Ozzie Smith, who had witnessed Ordonez's throw from his
place in the visitors' dugout, said, "It's safe to say that he's
the second coming of me."
Across the Triborough Bridge the Yankees believe that they too
have found themselves a purebred shortstop. On Opening Day in
Cleveland, 21-year-old Derek Jeter was in the Yankees' starting
lineup, the 11th shortstop to start the opener in pinstripes
since 1981 and the first rookie to do so since 1962, when Tom
Tresh subbed for Tony Kubek, who was in the military. Jeter hit
a home run in his second at bat and made a pretty nifty
defensive play himself, pulling down an over-the-shoulder fly in
short centerfield to save a run.
May 5, 1996
Four weeks into his rookie season Jeter was hitting .265 with a
.390 on-base percentage. Ordonez, a weak hitter in the minors
who was batting a surprising .342 through Sunday, may be the
next Ozzie in the field, but the Yankees are hoping Jeter is a
young Ripken or Larkin, an all-around shortstop with a sizzling
bat to match his solid glove. "I think patience is the key,"
says Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs. "But we're in New York.
Patience and New York don't always go together."
It has been years since New York has had a shortstop who got
people excited, years since Kubek (1957-65) and Bud Harrelson
('65-77) were hits on Broadway for the Yankees and the Mets,
respectively. Now the city has two potential stars at shortstop.
Now comes the fun part. Now we see if two promising rookies can
survive in a baseball town that often eats its young.
Beyond their pinstripes and their position, Ordonez and Jeter
have about as much in common as Havana, Cuba, and Kalamazoo,
Mich., their respective hometowns. Jeter is long and lean (6'3",
185 pounds), with the body of an NBA two-guard and the raw
athletic ability to play any position. He just happened to
choose shortstop. Ordonez, at 5'9" and 159 pounds, looks like a
middleweight fighter, with a compact muscular frame that doesn't
carry an ounce of fat. The shortstop position was invented with
Rey Ordonez in mind.
Jeter is friendly and outgoing, and the only time he ducks a
question is when he is asked to praise himself. He was proud to
get number 2 because all the other single digits (except 6,
which belongs to his manager, Joe Torre) were worn by Yankee
legends and have been retired. Jeter can match the names of
those legends to their retired numbers, a remarkable feat for a
big league rookie in this day and age.
Ordonez is reticent and zealously private, wary of even his
colleagues in the Mets' organization. Last year, while traveling
with Triple A Norfolk, he was held up at the Canadian border by
questions about his immigration status, which didn't help to
allay his fear of authority. "Like a lot of Cubans, he's still
wary of authority figures," says Mets assistant general manager
Steve Phillips. "We're still trying to convince him that we're
all in this together: coaches, managers, players, front office."
For now, Rafael Landestoy, a minor league manager in the Mets'
organization, is serving as Ordonez's interpreter. Ordonez will
speak some English to teammates but not to reporters. Phillips
says the team is trying to "structure things to make success
more likely" for Ordonez.
"I told him that he has to learn the language," says Landestoy,
a native of the Dominican Republic. "I told him that all the
sportswriters are going to want to talk to him all the time. But
he's afraid. He doesn't want to say the wrong thing."
In a 20-minute interview in mid-April, Ordonez sat on a stool in
front of his locker and looked down at the floor. He didn't say
the wrong thing or much of anything. "You have to remember where
he's coming from," says Phillips. "There was not a lot of trust
involved with the Cuban national team."
Jeter is the all-American boy, born in New Jersey and raised in
Kalamazoo. As a kid he would return to Jersey in the summers to
visit relatives and root for the Yankees. He wore Yankees caps
and T-shirts and idolized Dave Winfield. He was a basketball and
baseball star in high school and spent one semester at Michigan.
He says all the credit for his success belongs to his parents,
Dorothy, an accountant, and Charles, a drug-and-alcohol-abuse
counselor with a Ph.D. Dorothy is white, Charles is black, and
Derek announces proudly, "No one knows what I am, so I can
relate to everyone. I've got all kinds of friends: black, white
He is a one-man melting pot, fittingly taking a lead role in New
York. As he left Yankee Stadium after a game recently, he
stopped on his way to the parking lot and signed autographs for
a crowd of kids. Jeter is prepared for the onslaught of
autograph gnats and collectibles pests who swarm to highly
touted rookies, but he is determined not to let them ruin his
days. He recently took an apartment in Manhattan, a rare move
for any New York athlete, let alone someone so young. He plans
to live alone, even though it makes his mother nervous. In his
first season in the city he intends to see more than just his
living room and his locker.
Jeter says he has received advice and support from many of his
teammates, including one Yankees veteran who knows all too well
what it's like to be young and beloved in New York. Dwight
Gooden, who broke in with the Mets in 1984 at the age of 19, was
twice suspended from baseball for violating his drug aftercare
program. Now Gooden is hoping to salvage his career with the
Yankees and help Jeter avoid some of the mistakes he made. "The
first thing I told him is that this is the place to be," says
Gooden. "There's nothing wrong with New York. Just be yourself,
try to have fun, and this can be a great place to play. I tell
Derek that the important thing is to be in front of your locker
after every game, good or bad, win or lose. You've got to take
the questions head-on. I really think he's ready. He's got the
mental toughness. He's a very special breed."
Ordonez is also a special breed. On July 12, 1993, while
competing in the World University Games in Buffalo, Ordonez made
the most memorable move of his baseball career, leaping over a
fence and ducking into a red Cadillac. A Cuban radio executive
from Miami drove Ordonez to the airport, and they flew first
class to Miami, drinking champagne along the way. Three months
later the Mets won his rights in a special lottery for Cuban
Ordonez left his father, two sisters and five brothers in Cuba.
He also left his wife, Lisa Maria, and son, Rey Jr., who is now
3 1/2 years old. Since coming to the U.S., Ordonez has
remarried, and he and his wife, Gloryanne, have a nine-month-old
daughter named Sonia.
Ordonez occasionally talks to his father and brothers on the
telephone. He says his father, also named Rey, was a better
shortstop than he is (he makes about $6 per month working in
construction). When asked why he is reluctant to talk about life
in Cuba, Ordonez once said, "The Cuban government reads
everything." What does he enjoy the most about life in America?
"I just like to go anywhere I want and do what I want," he says.
Has he been disappointed by anything in the first few weeks of
his big league career? "I just want to know where all the fans
are," he says, noting the low turnout for the Mets' first two
home stands. "I thought there would be more people in the stands."
In New York, shortstops come and go faster than classic-rock
stations and Thai restaurants. After watching Ordonez and Jeter
on Opening Day, the fans and the media were quick to recall the
days when the Yankees had Phil Rizzuto and the Brooklyn Dodgers
had Pee Wee Reese, and New Yorkers lined up behind one shortstop
or the other, as if they were following them into battle. That
was in the 1940s and '50s. Sometimes it seems New York has been
holding shortstop tryouts ever since.
Rizzuto was succeeded by Kubek, a three-time All-Star and the
Yankees' last standout at the position. Bucky Dent made the
All-Star team as a Yankee in 1980 and '81, but he hit .247 for
his career. Jeter was a 1992 first-round draft choice who got a
$700,000 signing bonus, and if he hits .247 in New York, not
even the panhandlers will go near him. Ordonez is expected to
perform miracles in the field, but Jeter's job might be even
tougher. He has to excel on both offense and defense.
Jeter hit .317 at Triple A Columbus last season, but he made 29
errors. It was a vast improvement over the 56 errors he made at
Class A Greensboro in 1993 but still is a concern in the
Yankees' organization. What if he starts booting balls all over
the Stadium? How long will it take before Torre is ordered by
George Steinbrenner to sit the kid down or even send him back to
Columbus? While Jeter was struggling during spring training,
Steinbrenner said, "We'll be patient with him. Every year you
look for Derek Jeter to stumble, and he just doesn't. He
dominated rookie ball, so we moved him to [Class] A, and he
dominated there. We sent him to Double A, and he dominated
there. At Columbus it was the same thing. I'm telling you, he
could be one of the special ones."
The Mets also believe their long search for a shortstop is over.
Harrelson was a defensive stalwart in his 13 seasons with the
Mets. Kevin Elster was superb defensively for a couple of
seasons in the late '80s before an arm injury led to his
departure from the club in 1992. Last season, shortstop Jose
Vizcaino was voted the team's MVP, but no one was surprised when
he was moved to second base to make room for Ordonez this
spring. The next Ozzie Smith doesn't wait on the bench. "He's
got great feet, a great arm," manager Dallas Green says of
Ordonez. "His instincts are tremendous."
Ordonez hit just .214 in Triple A last season, but he bounced
back in the Puerto Rican winter league, hitting .351 and losing
the batting title to Roberto Alomar by three points. "I have
confidence in my hitting," says Ordonez. "I only had one bad
year, and that was last year. I will get better."
Of course, talking to Ordonez about hitting is like talking to
Cecil Fielder about stealing bases. What's the point? Ordonez
could hold the bat from the wrong end and make sandcastles in
the batter's box four times a game, and he would still earn his
paycheck with his glove.
"You ask six people to name the best play they ever saw him
make, and you'll get six different answers," says Phillips. "A
lot of people think that throw from his knees was the best, but
one time in the minors he swatted a grounder to first with his
glove. Never touched his throwing hand. Another time he grabbed
a ground ball behind second and did a pop-up slide on the bag to
force the runner. It was the only way he could get his foot on
With his surprisingly strong arm and graceful footwork, Ordonez
seems to have taken the act of turning a double play to a new
level. He glides across the bag as if he were on ice skates and
flicks the ball to first as if he were throwing seeds onto the
soil. "He does everything so loosely and so spontaneously," says
Mets catcher Brent Mayne. "He just feels the flow of the game.
Other people stop and think, but the game is too fast to think.
You have to just feel it and react, and that's what Rey does."
Mayne has played with Ordonez for a few weeks now, and he
believes Ordonez could be as good as advertised. "In New York
they were calling him the best shortstop ever before he even
played a game," says Mayne. "But maybe that's not just a New
York thing. Maybe they're right."
Maybe New York finally has a shortstop. Maybe even two.