On opening day in a miserably cold mist at Shea Stadium, Mets rookie shortstop Rey Ordonez went to his knees and brought a lot of New York baseball fans with him. In the seventh inning of a game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Ordonez scooped up a low throw from leftfielder Bernard Gilkey and relayed it 150 feet to the plate from his knees, cutting down speedy Cardinals shortstop Royce Clayton and leaving eyewitnesses pleading for a replay.
Most New Yorkers come out of the womb convinced that they have seen it all, but Ordonez, a 23-year-old Cuban defector making his major league debut, left them as wide-eyed and giddy as Canadian tourists in Times Square. It was much more than a spectacular play—it was an original, a wonderfully instinctive move that stood out even in this age of ESPN plays of the day/week/year.
The Mets went on to beat the Cardinals 7-6 that day, and the great Ozzie Smith, who had witnessed Ordonez's throw from his place in the visitors' dugout, said, "It's safe to say that he's the second coming of me."
Across the Triborough Bridge the Yankees believe that they too have found themselves a purebred shortstop. On Opening Day in Cleveland, 21-year-old Derek Jeter was in the Yankees' starting lineup, the 11th shortstop to start the opener in pinstripes since 1981 and the first rookie to do so since 1962, when Tom Tresh subbed for Tony Kubek, who was in the military. Jeter hit a home run in his second at bat and made a pretty nifty defensive play himself, pulling down an over-the-shoulder fly in short centerfield to save a run.
Four weeks into his rookie season Jeter was hitting .265 with a .390 on-base percentage. Ordonez, a weak hitter in the minors who was batting a surprising .342 through Sunday, may be the next Ozzie in the field, but the Yankees are hoping Jeter is a young Ripken or Larkin, an all-around shortstop with a sizzling bat to match his solid glove. "I think patience is the key," says Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs. "But we're in New York. Patience and New York don't always go together."
It has been years since New York has had a shortstop who got people excited, years since Kubek (1957-65) and Bud Harrelson ('65-77) were hits on Broadway for the Yankees and the Mets, respectively. Now the city has two potential stars at shortstop. Now comes the fun part. Now we see if two promising rookies can survive in a baseball town that often eats its young.
Beyond their pinstripes and their position, Ordonez and Jeter have about as much in common as Havana, Cuba, and Kalamazoo, Mich., their respective hometowns. Jeter is long and lean (6'3", 185 pounds), with the body of an NBA two-guard and the raw athletic ability to play any position. He just happened to choose shortstop. Ordonez, at 5'9" and 159 pounds, looks like a middleweight fighter, with a compact muscular frame that doesn't carry an ounce of fat. The shortstop position was invented with Rey Ordonez in mind.
Jeter is friendly and outgoing, and the only time he ducks a question is when he is asked to praise himself. He was proud to get number 2 because all the other single digits (except 6, which belongs to his manager, Joe Torre) were worn by Yankee legends and have been retired. Jeter can match the names of those legends to their retired numbers, a remarkable feat for a big league rookie in this day and age.
Ordonez is reticent and zealously private, wary of even his colleagues in the Mets' organization. Last year, while traveling with Triple A Norfolk, he was held up at the Canadian border by questions about his immigration status, which didn't help to allay his fear of authority. "Like a lot of Cubans, he's still wary of authority figures," says Mets assistant general manager Steve Phillips. "We're still trying to convince him that we're all in this together: coaches, managers, players, front office."
For now, Rafael Landestoy, a minor league manager in the Mets' organization, is serving as Ordonez's interpreter. Ordonez will speak some English to teammates but not to reporters. Phillips says the team is trying to "structure things to make success more likely" for Ordonez.