"In 1966 I was one of five or six shortstops in the [Triple A] International League who were considered future stars," says Yankees scout Gene Michael, a former shortstop. "Mark Belanger, Bud Harrelson, Bobby Murcer and Gil Garrido were there, too. They called it the year of the shortstop. The only one with pop was Murcer, and he wound up in the outfield. It didn't used to matter if you could hit much."
Yount began a renaissance at the position that was carried on by Trammell (1977), Smith ('78) and the 6'4" Ripken, who in 1982 became the tallest every-day shortstop in history when he was installed there by offensive-minded Baltimore manager Earl Weaver. "Cal Ripken broke the mold," Toronto general manager Gord Ash says.
Rodriguez, who grew up in Miami with a life-sized poster of Ripken in his bedroom, represents the next level of evolution. He is Ripken with speed, not to mention more power and the ability to hit for a higher average. Try to picture Pee Wee and the Scooter staging a slam-dunk competition, and you can understand how far the position has come since 1941. Moreover, most of the top young shortstops today might not even have received the opportunity to play major league ball in '41, six years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Rodriguez's parents are Dominican. Jeter's father is black, his mother is white. Ordonez was born in Cuba, which is also the homeland of Gonzalez's father. Renteria is one of only four players born in Colombia to have reached the majors.
In 1993, 10 shortstops were playing in their first or second full season in the majors: Mike Bordick, Andujur Cedeno, Royce Clayton, Wil Cordero, Gary DiSarcina, Ricky Gutierrez, Pat Listach, Pat Meares, Jose Offerman and John Valentin. Four years later only three remain at the position with the same club: Valentin (Boston, where he is being pressed by Garciaparra), DiSarcina (Anaheim Angels) and Meares (Minnesota Twins). "There's a big difference this time," Michael says. "That group didn't have the same kind of talent this one does."
"It's cyclical," says Baltimore general manager Pat Gillick about the influx of young shortstops. "Sometimes good players at a position just come in bunches. Shortstop still places a premium on defense. We got Bordick [a free-agent pickup in December] for his defense. But more and more of these young players are turning it into an offensive position."
Rodriguez is bigger than third baseman Mike Schmidt (6'2", 195 pounds) or centerfielder Willie Mays (5'11", 187) were in their prime. Rodriguez's first full season was the best ever by a shortstop. No one who has played the position had more hits (215), more extra-base hits (91), more doubles (54), more total bases (379), more runs (141) or a better slugging percentage (.631) than he did in 1996. Rodriguez blasted 36 home runs, two less than Rizzuto hit in his career, and stole 15 bases, only seven fewer than the Scooter's single-season high. Rodriguez even committed five fewer errors (15) than Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, but was runner-up to Vizquel in the Gold Glove award voting. Imagine if Rodriguez had been healthy all year—he missed 15 days early in the season with a hamstring injury that never fully healed. "I played almost the whole year at about 85 percent," he says. "I expect to steal more bases this year."
Like Rodriguez, Jeter has transfixing green eyes, a tight fade haircut and physical attributes that send baseball scouts and teenage girls swooning. When Jeter allowed a 14-year-old girl to pose on his lap for a picture at a Yankees fan festival in January, the overwhelmed teen broke into a crying fit.
"We get mistaken for each other all the time," Rodriguez says. The two shortstops talk at least twice a week during the season and share each other's apartments whenever their teams meet. One difference: Jeter is a morning person, Rodriguez is not. One Saturday night last August when Seattle played in New York, Rodriguez told Jeter to wake him the next morning so he could be at Yankee Stadium for a 9:30 workout. Jeter, whose team had no early hitting practice that day, dutifully walked into Rodriguez's room, smacked him on the hip and said, "C'mon, boy. It's time to get your butt to the ballpark."
"Now that's a friend," Rodriguez says. "That's how much I trust him."
Says Jeter, "I'm Alex's biggest fan. I brag on him so much that my teammates are sick of me talking about him. Last year we talked all the time, especially early in the season. We both knew if we didn't get off to a good start, we might be shipped out."