They were the three young stars of the American League, emerging at the same position at roughly the same time. Derek Sanderson Jeter, age 22, was the AL Rookie of the Year in 1996 and the glue that held the ‘90s Yankees dynasty together. Alexander Emmanuel Rodriguez played too much as an 18- and 19-year-old to be considered a rookie in his first full season of 1996; he had to settle for leading the league in batting, doubles, and total bases while finishing a close second in the MVP voting. Anthony Nomar Garciaparra arrived a year later, a year older, and also won the Rookie of the Year Award while topping the AL in hits and triples.
Not quite a decade and a half later, Jeter is considered the ultimate winner, a player who does everything right, comes through in the clutch, has five World Series rings, and is a shoo-in Hall of Famer. A-Rod has a solid shot at breaking the career home run record, got the postseason monkey off his back last year, and will likely leave the game with a resume that puts him in the discussion about baseball’s single greatest player. Nomar, who retired yesterday, never made it to the World Series, and spent his last six seasons dogged by injuries.
Stylistically, they could not have been more different. Jeter exuded intelligence and cool, mature beyond his years; A-Rod was the pure ath-a-lete, gifted and natural, strong and fast; Nomar was all ticks and twitches, a bundle of habits that turned each at bat into a high-speed Macarena.
Not so long ago, a “who’s best” argument could have raged for days without resolution.
It’s easy to forget how good Nomar was. Through the 2004 season, A-Rod and Nomar ranked 1-2 among all shortstops in career OPS (min. 1000 games, seventy-five percent at shortstop); Jeter was fifth. In 1998, all three finished in the top ten of the MVP voting; they did it again in 2000. Nomar won back-to-back batting titles in 1999-2000, hitting .357 and .372. He was a postseason monster in ’98-99, with seven homers and 20 RBIs in thirteen games; his OPS in three series was 1.382.
Nomar’s power developed late but overnight. In 1994, his first season in the minors, he hit one home run in 105 at bats; in his second, in AA Trenton, he had eight in 581 ABs. In his third, at age 22, it was 16 homers in 172 at bats at Triple A Pawtucket and a quick promotion to Boston. A Sports Illustrated cover story in March 2001 described how he “pumped what was once a six-foot beanpole frame into a 190-pound coiled steel spring of explosive power” with a “five-hour-a-day off-season regimen – an ordeal that would exhaust a sled dog…. (T)he gym has become Garciaparra’s house of worship, his meticulously scripted workouts his canon.” In the offseason before his AAA breakthrough, he put on fifteen pounds of muscle.
Alarm bells, anyone? Things written admiringly in 2001 look like waving red flags today.
Whispers and rumors followed him as his body began to break down with regularity, though he never tested positive for anything nor was he named in the Mitchell Report. He played just 21 games in 2001, bounced back for two more All-Star years with the Red Sox, but averaged just 84 games per season over his final six. Red Sox fans were shocked when the club traded him to the Cubs in 2004 in a four-team deadline deal that brought in Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz; he had become a brooding presence on the team, an otherwise happy-go-lucky group that broke Boston’s World Series drought three months later.
He made one more All-Star team while playing for the Dodgers in 2006, batting .358 at the break before fading badly in the second half. He wanted to retire as a Red Sock, and the club signed him to a one-day contract so he could make his retirement official yesterday as part of the organization that brought him to the major leagues.
Jeter has balanced fame and privacy while dating a remarkable array of the world’s sexiest women. A-Rod has been a frequent tabloid target for relationships with global pop and movie stars, and confessed publicly to steroid use last spring. Nomar married a true sports icon, the beautiful soccer great Mia Hamm, and the two are parents of twin girls who turn three later this month. He reportedly blew away ESPN’s producers at his audition for an announcing spot, and will be part of their baseball crew this season.
Baseball is short, life is long, and there are a lot of measures of winning. Be happy, No-mah. What could’ve been, was.