Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A tale of three shortstops: Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra & Derek Jeter

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A tale of three shortstops
by rick olivares

They all came up around the same time; the wonder boys of their respective ball clubs. There was Nomar Garciaparra of the Boston Red Sox. Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees. And Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners.

A little over a year after his high school graduation, Alex Rodriguez made his debut for the Mariners on July 8, 1994. He went 0-3 in his at bats but he made huge defensive plays on the field. In his second game, he made a stab at a screaming liner through the gap between second and third and fired a laser to first base that threw out a Bosox runner. He also got the first two hits of his major league career in his second game. That season, he mostly handled himself like a veteran although there were instances where he showed that he was a rookie of 18 years old.

The Milwaukee Brewers drafted Nomar Garciaparra in 1991 but he opted to go to Georgia Tech where he had a stellar career. He led the Yellow Jackets to the 1994 College World Series where they ultimately lost to Oklahoma. The Boston Red Sox drafted Garciaparra that year and he played for their minor league clubs before being called up in 1996.

Like Rodriguez before him, he was a late game replacement and didn’t do much. But in his second game the following day, he belted a home run for his first major league hit against the Oakland A’s. Late in the season, the shortstop position was his as he displaced the previously incumbent John Valentin. He set an American League rookie record by successfully hitting in 30 straight games. Garciaparra was unanimously voted AL Rookie of the Year and finished eighth in MVP voting.

During his career in Boston, he was named to the All-Star Team five times in his first eight years.

The New York Yankees drafted Derek Jeter out of high school in 1992. He joined the team on May 29, 1995 and went hitless in five at bats. In his first game the following season, he belts a home run. Jeter becomes the Bronx Bombers’ everyday shortstop, won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and help the Yankees win their first World Series since 1978.

Rodriguez plays seven years for Seattle before exercising his rights as a free agent to sign with the Texas Rangers for the sum of $252 million; at that time the most lucrative in sports. This was when fans began to turn on him for leaving Seattle.

In his first season in Texas, A-Rod produced one of those most overpowering performances for a shortstop: a  AL-best 52 home runs, 133 runs scored and 393 total bases. He followed that season by slamming a major league-best 52 round trippers, 142 runs batted in, and 389 total bases becoming the first MLB player to lead in that category since 1984.

His numbers fell slightly the following season but he still led the AL in homers, runs scored and slugging percentage.

Garciaparra looked like he could do no wrong in Boston. In 1998, he stroked 35 home runs to go with 122 RBIs and finished second in MVP voting. He followed up that performance by leading the AL in batting average the next two seasons.

When the Red Sox were purchased before the 2002 season, team management, one weaned on sabermetrics, preached on base percentage and strong defense. Unfortunately for Garciaparra, he began to struggle. When he learned that he was being dangled as trade bait for a possible trade for Magglio Ordonez, Garciaparra chafed and fumed all but guaranteeing his exit as a Fenway Park hero. During a poor series against the Yankees in July of 2004, Bosox management pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs.

Sadly for Garciaparra, the Red Sox went on to win the World Series that year. Although his teammates voted to give him a championship ring, it just wasn’t the same as being on the field with them as they lifted the curse against the Yankees before dusting off St. Louis in the World Series.

Garciaparra was on the disabled list for the first three months of the 2005 season after which upon his return, volunteered to play third base.

The next season, he joined the Los Angeles Dodgers playing first base as Rafael Furcal was playing shortstop. Garciaparra played well at first base where he committed one error in 588.2 innings to go with a .998 fielding percentage. He was voted to the National League All-Star Team; his first while playing first base and in the senior circuit. By season’s end, especially after his late game heroics against the San Diego Padres and the Arizona Diamondbacks, he was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year.

In 2008, Garciaparra spent a lot of time on the disabled list then moved to the Oakland A’s for a season before finishing his career by going back to Boston on a one-day contract.

Jeter on the other hand became the Prince of New York where through the years, he won four more World Series while toppling one Yankee or league record at a time. In 2003, he was named Yankees captain; the first since Thurman Munson died in 1979.

In addition to being a five-time World Series winner, he has been named World Series MVP (2000), named to the All-Star team 13 times, been the recipient of two Hank Aaron Award, five Silver Slugger Awards, five Rawlings Gold Glove Awards, and the Roberto Clemente Award in 2009. He was also the 13th player to join the prestigious 3,000 hit club.

For a while, much was made of Jeter’s defense and declining production. But he came back and showed what he was made of. Like Cal Ripken before him, he got better over time. Prior to the injury-plagued 2013 season, Jeter had a terrific offensive year in 2012. Any talks that he was washed up disappeared.

Rodriguez would join Jeter in the Yankees in 2004 where they fell apart against the Red Sox in the AL Championship. Although A-Rod would play the hot seat (third base) for the Yankees as Jeter was the incumbent shortstop, he would continue to put up huge numbers culminating in two MVP Awards (2005 and 2007) in pinstripes and a World Series title in 2009. He would go to the All-Star Game seven consecutive times while in a Yankees uniform and win more awards. But his name has been tarnished in the wake of his divorce and the performance enhancing drugs controversy that saw him suspended by MLB for the entire 2014 season.

Of the three, Rodriguez had the gaudiest of numbers but his reputation has been tarnished. Garciaparra, as likeable as he was, saw a decline in his production and became sort of a journeyman playing for four different clubs. Jeter on the other hand is poised for one memorable farewell tour in his 20th and final season as he has been the face of baseball through the past decade or so. 

I followed all three shortstops because long before they became the respective faces of their ball clubs. They were young and talented. They were poised for greatness. Even throughout all the controversies, I remained fans of all three.

Rodriguez took the road to fame and fortune but instead took a detour that sent him down the avenue of infamy.

Garciaparra was on that road to success but somehow got lost along the way.

Jeter stayed the course and that leads to Cooperstown.

How I rooted for A-Rod to come to New York. Before Rodriguez made the decision to go to the Yankees instead of the Red Sox, I along with a few of my die-hard New York officemates, engaged Boston fans in a chanting contest outside the offices of Scott Boras in New York. A-Rod was there. I’ll never know if he knew that some dozen fans gathered out there with each group serenading him to join our respective teams. It was fun as there was no acrimony between both sides of fans.

I rooted for him through thick and thin as he came through in the 2009 playoffs and World Series. While I remain disappointed because of the PED controversy and his ensuing suspension, I still have high hopes that he will end his Yankee and baseball career on a high note.

Nomar Garciaparra. I have never been a fan of the Boston Red Sox but it was sure nice to see Nomar retire in a Red Sox uniform. It was also cool to see him perform with his other clubs. Unfortunately, he began to break down. But you cannot keep a good man down. I totally enjoy listening to him as an ESPN baseball analyst.

As for Jeter…

Before Jeter came up to the Yankees, I was a fan of Don Mattingly then Paul O’Neill (my first ever Yankees jersey was Paulie’s #21) and Bernie Williams. Jeter was an instant favorite in 1996. More than the flash it was his poise and clutchness. And it seemed that in the media capital of the world, Jeter had this Teflon-like coat on him. His upstanding attitude towards the game rewarded him well.

In 2003, I bought my second Yankees jersey and it was DJ’s #2. In fact, I have all three – the pinstriped version to the blue batting uniform to the beige road jersey.

Now, I hope to visit Yankee Stadium this New York summer to say goodbye to one of the all-time greats.


Some trivia here: The Georgia Tech team that Nomar Garciaparra played on also included future Boston teammate Jason Varitek. They lost to the Oklahoma Sooners 13-5 in the 1994 College World Series that also featured to future MLB players in Ryan Minor, Russ Ortiz and Mark Redman. If you know your baseball history, Ryan Minor was the player who replaced Cal Ripken in the Baltimore Orioles line-up when Ripken stepped down after 2,632 consecutive games. Minor famously asked, "Does he know?"

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