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A-Rod, Nomar and Jeter: Stars at Shortstop

March 26, 2000|JOSH DUBOW | ASSOCIATED PRESS

PEORIA, Ariz. — Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez joke around while their teammates trade blows in a brawl.

Nomar Garciaparra chuckles as Jeter entertains an All-Star game crowd at Fenway Park with his rendition of Garciaparra's batter's box dance. And Rodriguez and Garciaparra praise each other before competing on the field.

Don't let them fool you. They might be buddies, kid around and sometimes even sleep at each other's houses. But there is also a competitiveness between the greatest three shortstops ever to play the game at one time.

"I always look to see what Nomar and especially A-Rod did, because I'm a fan of theirs," Jeter said. "It's the kind of competition where if I get three hits and think I had a good day, I check the boxes to see if one of those guys got four hits.

"I don't have to check the paper to know how A-Rod did. If I have a message when I get home from the park, I know to watch 'SportsCenter,' because that means A-Rod did something big."

A-Rod, Nomar and Jeter. One-word names that can't be separated.

Like a modern-day Willie, Mickey and the Duke, fans and baseball followers can't help but compare these stars at shortstop.

"He has it all," Mariners coach Larry Bowa said of his shortstop Rodriguez. "If you were to build a franchise, that's the guy you'd start with."

San Francisco shortstop Rich Aurilia called Jeter the "best all-around player" of the three. But even Jeter's own manager says they are all very similar.

"You can put their names in a hat and there wouldn't be much difference," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

No, there isn't.

Sure, A-Rod might have a little more power, Jeter's got the rings, and Nomar seemingly never swings and misses.

But there isn't a weakness to be found in any of their games.

The three friends, while competitive, say it's too early to compare. Even if it is one of the most popular arguments in the game today.

"I'm always honored when people mention my name with those other guys," Garciaparra said.

"After 15 or 20 years then you can sit back and say he can do this better and he can do that better," Rodriguez said. "But our careers are way too young to do that now. You have to wait until we're all in Cooperstown."

The way their careers have started, that's not such a bold prediction.

Rodriguez already can be considered one of the greatest hitting shortstops ever. He is one of three players to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in a season, has more homers (148) at age 24 than all but three shortstops in the Hall of Fame and has won a batting title.

Jeter won his third World Series championship at 25 and has more hits after four seasons (807) than Ty Cobb or Pete Rose.

Garciaparra, the old man of the bunch at 26, is coming off a batting title, had 27 homers with only 39 strikeouts last season, and carried the Red Sox into the playoffs.

"Today you think one is better, tomorrow it could be someone else. It depends on who you see last," Aurilia said. "It changes all the time. I don't know how they pick an All-Star. I'm just glad I'm in this league."

A generation ago, people would have been gushing over the power of players like Aurilia, Oakland's Miguel Tejada and Toronto's Tony Batista. All three hit more than 20 homers at shortstop in 1999--a mark reached only by Roy Smalley 20 years earlier.

Instead they--and nearly everyone else who plays the position--are overshadowed by the biggest stars in the American League.

They are celebrities who are written about in SI, GQ and the gossip pages of the New York tabloids, and who hang out with the likes of Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm and Mariah Carey.

They also are the envy of their colleagues for their talent and the extraordinary wealth that will soon follow.

The Big Three have picked up from where Cal Ripken left off and transformed what was a mostly defensive position into the glamour spot in the American League.

No longer are shortstops solely slick fielding, slap hitting little guys at the bottom of the lineup. Now teams are searching for big, powerful sluggers who also can cover the important area between second and third base.

"It is sort of like basketball with guards," said Ozzie Smith, perhaps the greatest defensive shortstop ever. "Typically guards used to be like Tiny Archibald. Now guards are 6-foot-7, 6-8 and can handle the rock. We've had the same transition here."

Before the 6-4 Ripken proved that size and offense can go with Gold Glove defense at shortstop, teams were wary of putting a big guy there.

It's almost expected now. And a defensive whiz like Rey Ordonez has been challenged by Mets manager Bobby Valentine to improve his offense or he won't be able to stay in the lineup.

"It's changed how the position is seen," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "It used to be just a defensive player first and foremost. That was all people wanted. Now the mold has been broken."

Despite the gaudy numbers at the plate, Rodriguez, Jeter and Garciaparra wouldn't be playing shortstop if they couldn't field.

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