BALTIMORE, MD: Derek Jeter #2 of the New York Yankees celebrates a run with Alex Rodriguez during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Maryland. The Orioles won 12-5. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
Around this time in 1997, Sports Illustrated ran a famous story about baseball's top five up-and-coming young shortstops. Here, we see how they turned out.
Sports Illustrated is known for its words. It's also known for its pictures. Its illustrations, if you will. The magazine has featured a ton of memorable pictures over its countless years of existence*, which is one reason why the SI_vault Twitter account is a thing.
* not countless
Ask around and a lot of people will give you different answers as to which SI photo sticks out in their minds the most. God knows there are thousands upon thousands of possible options. For me, it's an easy pick. I do have fond memories of that Brandi Chastain cover, for I was but a wee boy, but nothing approaches this. Nothing's even close.
That's weird now. That's incredibly weird now. But I knew it was weird then, too. I was young, and I got that adults sometimes did things while shirtless that I didn't understand, but this picture stuck. I saw it, and that was the end of it. It was seared into me.
Well, thanks to MLB.com, now I know that this picture, and the column for which it was taken, are just about 15 years old. It was on February 24, 1997 that SI published Tom Verducci's feature on the next wave of shortstops.
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.
At the head of the crop, according to Verducci, were five guys. The five guys pictured. I figured now would be as good an opportunity as any to reflect on how those five guys panned out.
Derek Jeter has panned out all right I guess. In 1996, he batted .314 as a 22-year-old rookie. He has remained with the Yankees, he has remained at shortstop, he's very much still active, and last season he surpassed 3,000 career hits. Without even considering his extensive postseason experience, Baseball-Reference puts his career value so far between Johnny Bench and Johnny Mize. Derek Jeter has never gone by Johnny, which is good since with his last name that would be stupid. Also it wouldn't make sense. Because we can't compliment Derek Jeter without also insulting him, here's this from Verducci's article:
Jeter is not polished defensively—he needs to improve his range moving to his left—
Like Rodriguez, Jeter has transfixing green eyes
Maybe the first mainstream media reference to Derek Jeter's eyes?
Anyway, the point is, Derek Jeter has been really good.
Derek Jeter has a career Baseball-Reference WAR of 70.4, excluding the playoffs. Alex Rodriguez has a career Baseball-Reference WAR of 104.6, excluding the playoffs. If Derek Jeter has been great, Alex Rodriguez has been amazing. He's gone from awesome and beloved to awesome and not beloved to awesome and pretty much everybody hates him to declining and pretty much everybody hates him. He did steroids a little. He hasn't been a shortstop since 2003, but that wasn't so much his fault as Jeter's fault, since Rodriguez joined Jeter's team and Jeter was pretty well established. There's no question that Rodriguez was the better defensive shortstop early on. Anyway, in short, Alex Rodriguez has been one of the greatest players in baseball history.
In 1998, Kal Penn made his feature film debut in Jonathan Buss' Express: Aisle To Glory. He would subsequently land a number of other roles, but he rose to prominence by playing Kumar in 2004's Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. In 2007, Penn joined the cast of House. Outside of the motion picture industry, Penn has been active in politics, serving as an advocate for the Obama campaign and later joining the Obama administration as an associate director of public engagement.
That is not Kal Penn. That is Rey Ordoñez, who was supposed to be a defensive wizard. Ordoñez might have been a defensive wizard, but he was an offensive troll, posting a career 59 OPS+ before disappearing after 2004. That might have flown in decades past, but Ordoñez was a liability whose second-best slugging percentage was .336, in 2001. His best slugging percentage was .487, in 2003. Figure that one out. Seriously, please figure that one out. I haven't the foggiest.
The season after this article was published, Edgar Renteria delivered a walk-off World Series-winning single. He was 21. He remained a starter all the way through 2009, which is a long time. He's currently a free agent looking to sit on somebody's bench. From the original article:
According to Marlins Latin American scouting director Al Avila, "Renteria is the type of guy who's going to hit .300 year-in and year-out while getting to the point where he should hit 10 to 15 home runs a year."
Half of that wound up right. Between 1999-2008, Renteria hit no fewer than eight home runs, and no more than 16 home runs. He also has a lifetime average of .286, which is close to .300, but which isn't .300. Renteria has batted .300 four times. In all, Renteria has been a pretty good player, but he looks like a huge disappointment when you put him next to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Wait, how about this! By WAR, the difference between Renteria's career and Jeter's career is about equal to the difference between Jeter's career and Rodriguez's career. And then the difference between Renteria's career and Ordonez's career is...patterns, man. Patterns.
Alex Gonzalez developed into a player everybody confused with Alex Gonzalez. This isn't like Ryan Braun and Ryan Braun, where people try to be cute, but the differences are obvious. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez and shortstop Alex Gonzalez were virtually indistinguishable. Fortunately this one had the courtesy to go away after 2006. But, seriously:
The active one has a career 80 OPS+. This one had a career 79 OPS+. The active one has a career WAR of 6.6. This one had a career WAR of 7.4. They both played for Toronto. I cannot properly convey how unacceptably bizarre this is.
"I'd love to make an All-Star team," Gonzalez says, "but with [Jeter and Rodriguez] around, it's going to be real hard over the next 10 or 15 years."
Gonzalez never made an All-Star team. He never won a Gold Glove, or any award. Alex Gonzalez never turned into an incredible, impact shortstop. But he did turn into Alex Gonzalez, and that's weird enough for me to remember forever. So there's that.