AP FILE Photo
In this April 15, 1971, photo, Boston Red Sox shortstop Luis Aparicio fires to first after forcing out Washington Senators’ Del Unser at second at RFK Stadium in Washington. Aparicio, all 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds of him, only hit 10 home runs and better than .280 once in his 18-year career, but he started more All-Star games at shortstop for the American League than any player other than Cal Ripken, Jr.
MINNEAPOLIS — It was the summer of 2002, and shortstops ruled the world.
Joe Torre, who managed the New York Yankees at the time and was in charge of picking the American League reserves for that summer’s All-Star game, looked at a new breed of big, power-hitting shortstop that was revolutionizing the position and couldn’t seem to choose one over the other.
So he chose them all.
Texas Rangers star Alex Rodriguez was voted a starter by the fans, and Torre added Derek Jeter, Oakland’s Miguel Tejada and Boston’s Nomar Garciaparra to the roster. He then threw in slick-fielding veteran Omar Vizquel — the lone Cleveland Indian on the team and the only traditional player at his position — giving Torre an unheard of five shortstops in the game.
“It’s pretty exciting that you can take five shortstops and realize what offensive forces they are, in addition to their defensive skill,” Torre said at the time.
The area of real estate between second and third base had for nearly the entirety of baseball’s long and storied history been occupied by little guys with names like Pee Wee, Pesky and Ozzie — quick-footed, sure-handed and not much of a threat with a bat in their hands.
Luis Aparicio, all 5-feet-9 and 160 pounds of him, only hit 10 home runs and better than .280 once in his 18-year career. But he started more All-Star games at shortstop for the American League than any player other than Cal Ripken, Jr. Back-flipping wizard Ozzie Smith played in 12 straight All-Star games for the National League — with the Padres and Cardinals — without hitting more than six homers in a season.
Sure there have been exceptions along the way — Ripken in Baltimore, Barry Larkin in Cincinnati.
But many thought A-Rod, Jeter, Tejada and Garciaparra — all at their peaks at the same time — represented a sea change at the position, paving the way for bigger, stronger hitters to take over one of the most important spots on the diamond. Those four combined to hit 133 homers and drive in 468 runs that season, one of many power-packed seasons for the group from the late 1990s well into the 21st century.
Ten years later, Garciaparra is retired, Tejada appears headed that way, Jeter’s career is winding down and Rodriguez moved to third base 2003. Now it’s looking more and more like that was just one special group rather than a revolution.
“That’s a different breed,” Red Sox shortstop Nick Punto said. “They were so special as players. Tejada, Nomar, Jeter, A-Rod, those boys were hitting 30 home runs. It’s just different. There’s not as many guys hitting 30 home runs around the league, so it’s good.”
Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy and Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki each hit 30 homers last season and Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera had a big year with 25 homers and 92 RBIs. But that’s certainly not the norm that some expected to see by now.
Rodriguez moved to third when he went to the Yankees out of deference to Jeter. Another rising star shortstop, Hanley Ramirez, is sliding over this season to make room in Miami for Jose Reyes.
Plenty of other big shortstops with potent bats get moved in the minor leagues, with teams preferring them to focus more on offense while playing a less demanding position in the field.
They have become so rare that Tulowitzki wonders how much longer he’ll be one of them.
“It’s hard for me to find people to relate to in this game just because no one — Cal Ripken is probably the only guy who was as big as me who stayed at short for a good portion of his career,” he said. “Jeter has the height but he’s not as physical as me. He’s kind of on the skinnier side. It’s probably something that I’ll probably battle with my entire career. And we’ll see how long I can ride this thing out with staying at short.”
The Twins have tried to groom the 6-foot-2 Trevor Plouffe, who has plenty of pop in his bat as their shortstop of the future for years. But Plouffe committed 11 errors in 45 games at shortstop last season and has since been moved to the outfield.
“Everybody would like to have a guy that’s an offensive shortstop,” Twins GM Terry Ryan said. “Unfortunately the pickins are a little slim.”
The Red Sox opened spring with small fries Mike Aviles and Punto competing, the Twins plan to start 38-year-old Jamey Carroll after a disastrous defensive season last year and the four regular shortstops in the AL West combined to hit 26 homers last season, or less than half of the 57 A-Rod hit in 2002.
“That time with Nomar, A-Rod, Jeter, all those guys was just a decade that people were just hitting homers at that position,” Hardy said. “That’s not always going to happen. I think that defense can always happen. I think it’s easier to find good defensive players that can’t hit than it is to find guys that can drive the ball.”
You won’t hear any of the little guys complaining. It’s hard enough for the vertically challenged to make it through the minors to the big leagues without bean poles like Tulowitzki hogging one of the few jobs that usually goes to them.
Thankfully for them, many executives place a premium on defense at the position. It’s why Carroll has a starting job at 38 even though he hasn’t hit a homer in two years and why Vizquel got some time with the White Sox last year at 44.
“It has been that way and maybe it is going back to that aspect of it,” Carroll said of the emphasis on defense at short. “If it is, I’m happy for myself and guys that are in my position.”
That’s not to say that a shortstop has to hit home runs to be an offensive force. Reyes only went deep seven times last season, but wreaked havoc by hitting .337 with 16 triples and 39 steals for the Mets. And Jeter has only topped 20 homers three times in his sensational career, but has been the steadying influence at the top of the Yankee order for five runs to the World Series title.
“If you had to describe what you’re looking for in a shortstop, you’re looking for a guy that can pick the ball up, a guy that can run, that’s got plenty of range and agility and arm and maybe a guy that can hit the ball over the fence 15-20 times a year,” Ryan said. “Those are All-Star caliber type shortstops. Everybody wants them. But they’re few and far between.”
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