Measuring Derek Jeter, the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year, against Alex Rodriguez, the league's batting champion, is as unavoidable for the foreseeable future as it is on this February night inside the steamy cinder block gymnasium at the Boys Club of Miami. "Let's see what you've got," Rodriguez says to Jeter, his friend and foil. Dressed in jeans and leaning on the bleachers, Jeter is reluctant to take the court. He came here only to watch Rodriguez in one of his regular pickup basketball games, which ended abruptly in its second hour after a hard foul ignited three fistfights, none of which involved the Seattle Mariners shortstop.
Jeter cannot resist the challenge. "All right, Al," he says. The shortstop of the world champion New York Yankees grabs a ball and starts draining jump shots. Within a minute or two, Rodriguez and Jeter are battling each other in a slam-dunk version of H-O-R-S-E. The 6'3", 185-pound Jeter stands flat-footed about four feet from the basket, takes two short steps and easily power slams the basketball—blue jeans be damned. Rodriguez, 6'3" and 205 pounds, matches that move, but he gets less height on his jump than Jeter does. Rodriguez then stands at the foul line, throws the ball down so that it bounces off the floor and then the backboard, before he catches it and jams it in one vicious swoop. On his first two attempts Jeter fails to get the proper bounce. His third try is only slightly better, and he is left too far from the rim to throw the ball down. "I've got to go," Jeter says, mindful of his flight home to Tampa.
"C'mon with me to New York, DJ," Rodriguez says. He has been trying all evening to persuade Jeter to fly with him the next morning to an awards show, having failed at dinner with his A material: "Cindy's going to be there. Cindy Crawford!"
Jeter insists on leaving, but before he does, he walks to the corner of the court, placing his heels where the sideline meets the baseline. He heaves a 25-foot jumper. It goes in.
There are many nights on which Rodriguez and Jeter—playing in sold-out ultramodern ballparks around the country—demonstrate why they are state-of-the-art shortstops, possessing an unprecedented combination of size, speed, power and agility at what historically has been a little man's position. In front of about six people at the Boys Club of Miami, this, too, is one of those nights.
With Cal Ripken Jr. pushed to third base and Ozzie Smith and Alan Trammell to retirement, there remains only one active shortstop who has started an All-Star Game: Barry Larkin of the Cincinnati Reds, and he turns 33 in April. Fear not for the most crucial position in baseball, though. The best crop of young shortstops to come along in 56 years—and the most multi-talented group ever—already is redefining the position and putting a fresh face on the game.
This week, as most players report to spring training, at least nine teams plan to start a shortstop who is either no older than 23 or has no more than one full season of major league experience. Nomar Garciaparra and Tony Batista, a pair of 23-year-olds who battered Triple A pitching last season before being promoted to the majors, are expected to replace veterans as starters for the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland As, respectively. Benji Gil, 24, a sparkling fielder who missed virtually all of last year because of a back injury, returns as the Texas Rangers' shortstop. Mark Grudzielanek, a late bloomer who turns 27 in June, has a hold on the Montreal Expos' job after his breakout .306 season last year.
At the head of the class are five others who are already setting standards at the position: Rey Ordonez, 24, of the New York Mets, an acrobat in spikes; Edgar Renteria, 21, of the Florida Marlins, a .309 hitter last season with more range than Cecilia Bartoli; Alex Gonzalez, 23, of the Toronto Blue Jays, who hit 14 home runs and successfully handled more fielding chances per nine innings than any other regular shortstop in '96; and Rodriguez, 21, and Jeter, 22, the only shortstops who started 140 games and hit .300 or better with at least 10 home runs last season. Those two are the prototypes of the new generation of shortstops. "I'd love to make an All-Star team," Gonzalez says, "but with these two guys around, it's going to be real hard over the next 10 or 15 years."
Not since 1941 have so many young shortstops arrived with this much potential. Of the 16 regular shortstops that year, 10 were entering their first or second full season, including three future Hall of Famers: Lou Boudreau, Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto. They epitomized the classic shortstop—short, slick fielders with limited pop at the plate. The average size of the 18 shortstops in the Hall of Fame is 5'10" and 167 pounds.
From 1942 through '73 only two shortstops debuted who would have Hall of Fame careers: Luis Aparicio and Ernie Banks. No shortstop who broke in between Banks (1956) and Robin Yount ('74) is likely to make the Hall of Fame. It was a pitcher-dominated era in which defensive-oriented shortstops such as the Baltimore Orioles' Mark Belanger, a lifetime .228 hitter, carved out long careers.