In the 90’s, they represented everything great about baseball’s future -the Big Three shortstops – Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra, New York’s Derek Jeter, and Seattle’s Alex Rodriguez. They were young, talented, marketable, and to boot, they were friends. The debate of “who’s better” raged throughout the three cities, spilled onto the black-and-white pages and into early Internet chat rooms. On the field, the three amigos were all smiles and All-World.
For years, Cal Ripken Jr. had been the gold standard for power hitting shortstops, clocking 34 home runs en route to the 1991 American League MVP Award and 431 over the course of his career. But Ripken was a freak of nature, his dexterity and nimble footwork uncommon for someone his size. His antithesis was Ozzie Smith, a more traditional slap-hitting shortstop whose glove served as a vacuum cleaner to acres of Busch Stadium carpet.
Smith retired after the 1996 season, around the time Garciaparra, Jeter and Rodriguez reached the big stage. A-Rod got there first, a man-child of 18 years old when he had his first cup of coffee in 1994. Jeter made his debut the following year, serving as the Yankee shortstop on their 1996 World Series team and winning the AL Rookie of the Year. A-Rod took home the ’96 AL batting crown.
Nomar, who had gone to college, took a bit longer, surfacing at the close of the ’96 season and assuming the reins in ’97. His .306/30/98 line warranted Rookie of the Year hardware, as well.
A-Rod would lead the AL in hits in ’98 while Jeter paced both circuits in ’99 – Nomar won the AL batting crown in both 1999 and 2000. All three were front and center on the October stage, but only Jeter’s Yankees won The Big One – and they did it four out of five years, beating the Red Sox and Mariners in separate instances on their way to the Fall Classic.
2001 was a turning point for the Big Three. Rodriguez, playing out the first year of a massive 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers, took a huge leap forward as a mega-star with a superhuman 52 home runs. Jeter finally had his “moment,” without Jeffrey Maier’s assistance, as the eyes of the world were on the 2001 Yankees following the September 11 terrorist attacks: his walk-off home run in Game 4, a classic 315-foot wounded duck over the right field fence, earned him the moniker of “Mr. November.”
And Nomar, well, he missed nearly the entire season with a devastating wrist injury. He would remain very effective for the remainder of his tenure with Boston, but lost his footing in discussions with Jeter and Rodriguez. Further, the old Big Three had company…
Miguel Tejada, fresh off two consecutive 30/100 seasons at short, finally broke through as the 2002 AL MVP with a line of .308/34/131 for an A’s team that fascinated baseball fans with a 20-game winning streak.
Over the next decade, things unraveled for two-thirds of the group. Rodriguez got caught up in baseball’s PED witch hunt and didn’t help his cause by repeatedly lying about his involvement. Nomar’s acrimonious departure from Boston damaged his brand, and, aside from one final All-Star season in 2006 with the Dodgers, he couldn’t recapture his past glories as he couldn’t stay on the field.
And Jeter? He kept doing Jeter. Despite his team’s postseason failures and his own declining defensive abilities, he continued to pound out 200-hit campaigns. He kept his nose clean. And in 2009, he copped his fifth championship ring.
Jeter’s retirement, for all intents and purposes, closes the Big Three era for good. Anything Rodriguez, currently in exile, does from this point forward will be a footnote, and Nomar hung it up nearly five years ago. But the day after the Yankee shortstop’s final game, it’s fun to remember a more innocent time, when the confluence of three incredible shortstop talents changed the game forever.