Last night, MLB and Fox gave Derek Jeter the slickly produced All-Star send-off we anticipated. Through the multiple standing ovations, the Jordan “hat tip” commercials between innings, the piped-in vocals of deceased Yankee Stadium PA man Bob Sheppard announcing Jeter at the plate, “Theme from New York, New York” washing over the Minneapolis crowd…all eyes were on the Captain. The classy Jeter played his part, contributing a ringing double in the first and a single in the third and doffing his cap to the crowd upon his departure.
There was a time we’d have imagined the three of them having a similar send-off: Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Nomar Garciaparra. In the mid-to-late 90’s, the three twenty-something shortstops embodied a changing of the guard from an era where slugging shortstops like Cal Ripken and Alan Trammell were the exception to the rule, to a new one where they were expected to anchor a Major League lineup. Seeing their grinning faces on baseball cards, posters and magazine covers in the mid-to-late 90’s, we were constantly reminded of their boundless potential and, the fact the three were friends.
Rodriguez was hot shot to the the Majors as an 18-year old, destined to play Robin to Ken Griffey’s Batman. He won the American League batting title just after reaching drinking age in 1996 and crushed 40 homers three consecutive seasons from ’98 to 2000. But after Junior left Seattle for Cincinnati, A-Rod too departed, for the largest free agent contract in history, 10 years and $252 million from the Rangers.
Boston’s Garciaparra was the oldest and last of the group to reach the Majors in September of ’96. Nomar attended Georgia Tech, starred in the Cape League, and charged right into the fray, winning the ’97 Rookie of the Year and the AL batting title in ’99 and 2000.
Jeter touched down in Gotham in ’95, won the World Series in ’96 and starred for one of the greatest teams of all-time in ’98. But for all the postseason credentials and resultant media fawning, Jeter’s substantial tools were somewhat overshadowed by his power hitting peers.
Over a decade later, Jeter stands as the only surefire Hall of Famer of the bunch. He kept cranking out hits while the other two went down swinging.
The writing was on the wall by 2004. Over the course of several years, Miguel Tejada had nosed his way into the discussion as the best shortstop in the league, pushing the triumvirate to a foursome. Nomar had returned from a 2001 wrist injury a slightly diminished version of his former self and began Boston’s first World Series campaign on the shelf with an Achilles ailment. He was shipped to Chicago in shocking fashion that July. Rodriguez had shifted to third base following his trade to the Yankees, the only team who could afford him, and wound up a scapegoat for the Bombers’ postseason failure. He didn’t sniff a championship until 2009, when the Yankees won the World Series in their new home.
The unraveling of the Steroid Era resulted in fingers pointed at A-Rod, the game’s biggest power hitter, as a user of performance enhancing drugs. While he continued to put up huge numbers through the end of the decade, he eventually copped to the accusations. Still an active player, he is currently suspended for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal, and most recently made news as the subject of a lawsuit.
Nomar’s career was cruelly sabotaged by injuries that sapped his power and range in the field. He enjoyed one final All-Star season in 2006, hitting .303 with 20 home runs as a first baseman for the Dodgers before hanging it up after 2009. Deservedly or not, his legacy is also subject to finger pointing with regard to his ripped appearance on a 2001 Sports Illustrated cover and the rash of maladies that followed.
Boston fans (and A-Rod fans, whoever those people are) still wonder what might have been. Last night was Jeter’s night – the curtain call and the accolades well-deserved. For the other two superstar shortstops of the 90’s and all of their previous successes, the sunsets have been a little less colorful.