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Long On Shortstops

Feb. 24, 1997
Feb. 24, 1997

Table of Contents
Feb. 24, 1997

Faces In The Crowd
Baseball
Photo Credits: Walter Iooss Jr. For Sports Illustrated

Long On Shortstops

The Yankees' Derek Jeter is part of a rich crop of young players who are redefining the position

Measuring Derek Jeter, the 1996 American League Rookie of the
Year, against Alex Rodriguez, the league's batting champion, is
as unavoidable for the foreseeable future as it is on this
February night inside the steamy cinder block gymnasium at the
Boys Club of Miami. "Let's see what you've got," Rodriguez says
to Jeter, his friend and foil. Dressed in jeans and leaning on
the bleachers, Jeter is reluctant to take the court. He came
here only to watch Rodriguez in one of his regular pickup
basketball games, which ended abruptly in its second hour after
a hard foul ignited three fistfights, none of which involved the
Seattle Mariners shortstop.

This is an article from the Feb. 24, 1997 issue Original Layout

Jeter cannot resist the challenge. "All right, Al," he says. The
shortstop of the world champion New York Yankees grabs a ball
and starts draining jump shots. Within a minute or two,
Rodriguez and Jeter are battling each other in a slam-dunk
version of H-O-R-S-E. The 6'3", 185-pound Jeter stands
flat-footed about four feet from the basket, takes two short
steps and easily power slams the basketball--blue jeans be
damned. Rodriguez, 6'3" and 205 pounds, matches that move, but
he gets less height on his jump than Jeter does. Rodriguez then
stands at the foul line, throws the ball down so that it bounces
off the floor and then the backboard, before he catches it and
jams it in one vicious swoop. On his first two attempts Jeter
fails to get the proper bounce. His third try is only slightly
better, and he is left too far from the rim to throw the ball
down. "I've got to go," Jeter says, mindful of his flight home
to Tampa.

"C'mon with me to New York, DJ," Rodriguez says. He has been
trying all evening to persuade Jeter to fly with him the next
morning to an awards show, having failed at dinner with his A
material: "Cindy's going to be there. Cindy Crawford!"

Jeter insists on leaving, but before he does, he walks to the
corner of the court, placing his heels where the sideline meets
the baseline. He heaves a 25-foot jumper. It goes in.

There are many nights on which Rodriguez and Jeter--playing in
sold-out ultramodern ballparks around the country--demonstrate
why they are state-of-the-art shortstops, possessing an
unprecedented combination of size, speed, power and agility at
what historically has been a little man's position. In front of
about six people at the Boys Club of Miami, this, too, is one of
those nights.

With Cal Ripken Jr. pushed to third base and Ozzie Smith and
Alan Trammell to retirement, there remains only one active
shortstop who has started an All-Star Game: Barry Larkin of the
Cincinnati Reds, and he turns 33 in April. Fear not for the most
crucial position in baseball, though. The best crop of young
shortstops to come along in 56 years--and the most multitalented
group ever--already is redefining the position and putting a
fresh face on the game.

This week, as most players report to spring training, at least
nine teams plan to start a shortstop who is either no older than
23 or has no more than one full season of major league
experience. Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Batista, a pair of
23-year-olds who battered Triple A pitching last season before
being promoted to the majors, are expected to replace veterans
as starters for the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland A's,
respectively. Benji Gil, 24, a sparkling fielder who missed
virtually all of last year because of a back injury, returns as
the Texas Rangers' shortstop. Mark Grudzielanek, a late bloomer
who turns 27 in June, has a hold on the Montreal Expos' job
after his breakout .306 season last year.

At the head of the class are five others who are already setting
standards at the position: Rey Ordonez, 24, of the New York
Mets, an acrobat in spikes; Edgar Renteria, 21, of the Florida
Marlins, a .309 hitter last season with more range than Cecilia
Bartoli; Alex Gonzalez, 23, of the Toronto Blue Jays, who hit 14
home runs and successfully handled more fielding chances per
nine innings than any other regular shortstop in '96; and
Rodriguez, 21, and Jeter, 22, the only shortstops who started
140 games and hit .300 or better with at least 10 home runs last
season. Those two are the prototypes of the new generation of
shortstops. "I'd love to make an All-Star team," Gonzalez says,
"but with these two guys around, it's going to be real hard over
the next 10 or 15 years."

Not since 1941 have so many young shortstops arrived with this
much potential. Of the 16 regular shortstops that year, 10 were
entering their first or second full season, including three
future Hall of Famers: Lou Boudreau, Pee Wee Reese and Phil
Rizzuto. They epitomized the classic shortstop--short, slick
fielders with limited pop at the plate. The average size of the
18 shortstops in the Hall of Fame is 5'10" and 167 pounds.

From 1942 through '73 only two shortstops debuted who would have
Hall of Fame careers: Luis Aparicio and Ernie Banks. No
shortstop who broke in between Banks (1956) and Robin Yount
('74) is likely to make the Hall of Fame. It was a
pitcher-dominated era in which defensive-oriented shortstops
such as the Baltimore Orioles' Mark Belanger, a lifetime .228
hitter, carved out long careers.

"In 1966 I was one of five or six shortstops in the [Triple A]
International League who were considered future stars," says
Yankees scout Gene Michael, a former shortstop. "Mark Belanger,
Bud Harrelson, Bobby Murcer and Gil Garrido were there, too.
They called it the year of the shortstop. The only one with pop
was Murcer, and he wound up in the outfield. It didn't used to
matter if you could hit much."

Yount began a renaissance at the position that was carried on by
Trammell (1977), Smith ('78) and the 6'4" Ripken, who in 1982
became the tallest every-day shortstop in history when he was
installed there by offensive-minded Baltimore manager Earl
Weaver. "Cal Ripken broke the mold," Toronto general manager
Gord Ash says.

Rodriguez, who grew up in Miami with a life-sized poster of
Ripken in his bedroom, represents the next level of evolution.
He is Ripken with speed, not to mention more power and the
ability to hit for a higher average. Try to picture Pee Wee and
the Scooter staging a slam-dunk competition, and you can
understand how far the position has come since 1941. Moreover,
most of the top young shortstops today might not even have
received the opportunity to play major league ball in '41, six
years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.
Rodriguez's parents are Dominican. Jeter's father is black, his
mother is white. Ordonez was born in Cuba, which is also the
homeland of Gonzalez's father. Renteria is one of only four
players born in Colombia to have reached the majors.

In 1993, 10 shortstops were playing in their first or second
full season in the majors: Mike Bordick, Andujur Cedeno, Royce
Clayton, Wil Cordero, Gary DiSarcina, Ricky Gutierrez, Pat
Listach, Pat Meares, Jose Offerman and John Valentin. Four years
later only three remain at the position with the same club:
Valentin (Boston, where he is being pressed by Garciaparra),
DiSarcina (Anaheim Angels) and Meares (Minnesota Twins).
"There's a big difference this time," Michael says. "That group
didn't have the same kind of talent this one does."

"It's cyclical," says Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick
about the influx of young shortstops. "Sometimes good players at
a position just come in bunches. Shortstop still places a
premium on defense. We got Bordick [a free-agent pickup in
December] for his defense. But more and more of these young
players are turning it into an offensive position."

Rodriguez is bigger than third baseman Mike Schmidt (6'2", 195
pounds) or centerfielder Willie Mays (5'11", 187) were in their
prime. Rodriguez's first full season was the best ever by a
shortstop. No one who has played the position had more hits
(215), more extra-base hits (91), more doubles (54), more total
bases (379), more runs (141) or a better slugging percentage
(.631) than he did in 1996. Rodriguez blasted 36 home runs, two
less than Rizzuto hit in his career, and stole 15 bases, only
seven fewer than the Scooter's single-season high. Rodriguez
even committed five fewer errors (15) than Cleveland Indians
shortstop Omar Vizquel, but was runner-up to Vizquel in the Gold
Glove award voting. Imagine if Rodriguez had been healthy all
year--he missed 15 days early in the season with a hamstring
injury that never fully healed. "I played almost the whole year
at about 85 percent," he says. "I expect to steal more bases
this year."

Like Rodriguez, Jeter has transfixing green eyes, a tight fade
haircut and physical attributes that send baseball scouts and
teenage girls swooning. When Jeter allowed a 14-year-old girl to
pose on his lap for a picture at a Yankees fan festival in
January, the overwhelmed teen broke into a crying fit.

"We get mistaken for each other all the time," Rodriguez says.
The two shortstops talk at least twice a week during the season
and share each other's apartments whenever their teams meet. One
difference: Jeter is a morning person, Rodriguez is not. One
Saturday night last August when Seattle played in New York,
Rodriguez told Jeter to wake him the next morning so he could be
at Yankee Stadium for a 9:30 workout. Jeter, whose team had no
early hitting practice that day, dutifully walked into
Rodriguez's room, smacked him on the hip and said, "C'mon, boy.
It's time to get your butt to the ballpark."

"Now that's a friend," Rodriguez says. "That's how much I trust
him."

Says Jeter, "I'm Alex's biggest fan. I brag on him so much that
my teammates are sick of me talking about him. Last year we
talked all the time, especially early in the season. We both
knew if we didn't get off to a good start, we might be shipped
out."

Actually, Jeter almost didn't make it to Opening Day. With one
week left in spring training Yankees owner George Steinbrenner,
acting on the advice of his "baseball people," wondered aloud if
Jeter was ready and whether the club should trade for an
established shortstop. Manager Joe Torre thought it was too late
to make such a move. The Yankees stayed with Jeter, who rewarded
them by hitting .314, including .350 after the All-Star break.
Jeter is not polished defensively--he needs to improve his range
moving to his left--but his 22 errors last year represented a
huge improvement over the 56 he made in Class A in 1993 and was
much better than the 47 charged to Reese in '41. "He weighed 158
pounds when we signed him," Michael says of Jeter, "and he's
continued to get bigger and better every year."

Gonzalez is another friend of Rodriguez's--they played high
school ball in Miami and in the off-season go out together in
search of sailfish--who brings sock to shortstop. The 6-foot
Gonzalez hit the weight room after last season and added nine
pounds, bulking up to 195. "My goal this year is to double my
numbers in home runs and stolen bases [16]," he says.

The 6'1" Renteria added 10 pounds over the winter and is now
185, though he sheepishly admits to "the McDonald's diet."
According to Marlins Latin American scouting director Al Avila,
"Renteria is the type of guy who's going to hit .300 year-in and
year-out while getting to the point where he should hit 10 to 15
home runs a year." On defense Renteria is so smooth that he
makes difficult plays look routine. Only Gonzalez, Bordick and
Milwaukee's Jose Valentin gobbled more balls per nine innings
last year. "Back home I am like Michael Jordan is here," says
Renteria, who was runner-up to the Los Angeles Dodgers' Todd
Hollandsworth for National League Rookie of the Year. "The only
games on television in Colombia are Marlins games."

The smallish Ordonez (5'9", 159 pounds), who defected from Cuba
in 1993, may not be a hero in his homeland, but he's a favorite
of highlight-tape editors across America's television newsrooms.
His best glovework is equal to that of Ozzie Smith's. Trouble
is, Ordonez also made 27 errors last year and had a lowly .289
on-base percentage. "Rey has an awful lot to learn about
offensive play," says Mets manager Bobby Valentine. "He
definitely made too many errors, but most of them came from not
being aware of the situation, like the speed of the runner. If
it were tennis, he'd have a lot of unforced errors."

Rodriguez, meanwhile, plays the position as if he studied his
whole life for it. He is part of America's cable-ready
generation, a satellite-fired society bombarded with games.
Since he was 11 years old, Rodriguez has watched hundreds of
baseball games with a critical eye, absorbing tendencies and
habits of players. "When I got to the big leagues," he says, "no
one had to tell me that Cal Ripken was a pull hitter or what
Darryl Strawberry did with two strikes. My knowledge shortened
the learning curve for me, big time."

The next great baseball hero is so young that he cannot remember
Ripken playing in the 1983 World Series. "The first one I
clearly remember is '84: Tigers-Padres," Rodriguez says. He is
so young that only recently did he move out of his mom's house.
"I had to," he says. "I didn't fit in my bedroom anymore. I had
clothes hanging out of closets and stuff hanging out of windows."

It is past midnight, and Rodriguez, still clad in his basketball
clothes, is sitting in the backyard of his new Miami home, an
abundance of stars above him. It is a rare moment of repose. In
his last week before spring training, Rodriguez will attend
three awards dinners (none, alas, at which he will meet Cindy);
chat up the folks at GQ about a photo spread and a Manhattan
advertising firm about a milk ad campaign; do two photo shoots
for national magazines and visit Ripken at his house in Maryland.

Rodriguez's home is not yet fully furnished, but displayed
prominently in the foyer is a basketball autographed by another
of his heroes, Magic Johnson, who redefined point guard the way
Rodriguez is revolutionizing shortstop. Rodriguez grew up
watching Magic and the other great basketball stars--Jordan,
Bird and Barkley--enthusiastically sell their sport. Baseball
stars are infamous for shirking such ambassadorship, but
Rodriguez is equipped to make a difference. Is it fair to ask
someone four years removed from high school to be a flag bearer?
Did Pee Wee and Scooter have to worry about endorsement
strategies, charitable foundations and media training while
learning pitchers' tendencies and improving their footwork
around the bag?

"I believe the game is just taking off," Rodriguez says, "and
maybe as a group we young shortstops can help. The opportunity
is there for us. Baseball always comes first, though. You're in
trouble the minute you start thinking you're a media strategist
or marketing guy and not a baseball player.

"I want to get better. I love it when people say that last
season was a career year for me, that I can't do it again. I
love to hear people say that. That's a challenge to me, a major
challenge."

Rodriguez, still revving as if it were noon, walks into his den
and pops a highlight tape into his VCR. A coffee-table book
about Joe Montana is so worn that its cover curls perpetually
open. Rodriguez is a voracious reader whose tastes run to the
motivational tomes of Pat Riley and Anthony Robbins. The tape
begins with a title, Alex Rodriguez. Hitting. 1996. Sitting on a
kitchen chair turned backward, he faces the big-screen TV with
his chin resting on his crossed arms atop the chair back. His
eyes, like his house, are aglow. He is alone with his perfect,
edited self. Every pitch is a swing. Every swing is a hit.

COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY WALTER IOOSS JR. COVER SHORT STORY DEREK JETER AND ALEX RODRIGUEZ HEAD UP THE FINEST GROUP OF SHORTSTOPS SINCE WORLD WAR

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IICOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. [Derek Jeter playing baseball]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. His first full season was the best ever by a shortstop, and a nagging hamstring kept him from playing at full speed. Alex Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. After belting 14 homers and swiping 16 bases in '96, he hit the weight room in hopes of doubling those numbers in '97. Alex Gonzalez, Toronto Blue Jays COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. When he's at his best in the field, this acrobat in spikes flashes glovework that is equal to that of the great Ozzie Smith. Rey Ordonez, New York Mets COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. Already a superstar in his native Colombia, his rookie season suggests he could reach that status in the U.S. Edgar Renteria, Florida Marlins COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. The days of the 5'9", 160-pound, good-field, no-hit shortstop are over. (Clockwise from left) Gonzalez, Renteria, Ordonez, Jeter, Rodriguez [Alex Gonzalez, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, Rey Ordonez, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez, all bare-chested]