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Jeter, Nomar, and A-Rod

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Nomar's .372 average in 2000 was the highest by a right-handed hitter since before World War II. His bat was lightning quick, and he seemed to hit everything hard.

Dick
Flavin

Finally, 20 months after being elected, Derek Jeter has been officially inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame -- and deservedly so. He was the shortstop for the New York Yankees for 20 seasons and maintained a standard of excellence through every one of them. In all his years on baseball's biggest stage, and in the harsh glare of its spotlight, he never made a single misstep. Everyone, friend and foe alike, applauds his induction.

But I'll tell you something.

Nomar was better.

The two of them arrived in successive years and won successive Rookie of the Year awards: Jeter in 1996 and Garciaparra in '97. Their careers seemed to be inextricably linked together, two shortstops with wondrous talent and playing for baseball's most storied rivals, competing head to head. But as excellent as Jeter was, Nomar seemed to outdo him. In 1999 and 2000, for example, Jeter hit .349 and .339, but Garciaparra won the batting title in those years with averages of .357 and .372. He was the first right-handed hitter to repeat as batting champ since Joe DiMaggio had accomplished the feat more than 60 years earlier. Nomar's .372 average in 2000 was the highest by a right-handed hitter since before World War II. His bat was lightning quick, and he seemed to hit everything hard.

In the field, Garciaparra had far more range than Jeter and his buggy-whip, side-armed throws carried more strength and accuracy than those of his Yankee counterpart.

Then, however, their careers began to diverge. Nomar's began to unravel while Jeter remained on track to reach his ultimate destination: Cooperstown, New York.

In the following off-season, Garciaparra was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, showing off his shirtless and well-muscled torso and fueling speculation of steroids use, which he vehemently denied. Just a week later, he injured his wrist while working out and opened the season on what was then called the disabled list, where he remained for most of the year. He appeared in only 21 games in 2001, and was never again the same. His legendary bat speed had slowed considerably, and he could now be fooled by breaking balls, low and away. He was still a good hitter but would never again reach the heights he attained in '99 and 2000.

Worse, his lower body began to betray him and the former defensive stalwart gradually morphed into a liability at shortstop.

In the off-season between 2003 and 2004, the Red Sox began negotiating for the services of Alex Rodriguez, who, if you can believe it, was rated even higher than either Garciaparra or Jeter, largely because of his 50-homers-a-year power. Garciaparra hit about 30 home runs a year while Jeter averaged about 20. Even the Patriots, on their way to the Super Bowl title, were overshadowed by the A-Rod-Red Sox negotiations. Part of the ongoing drama consisted of a hush-hush contingency deal the Red Sox had arranged with the Chicago White Sox -- Garciaparra for Magglio Ordonez. It was all Top Secret. But, as with what happens with most top secret deals, word of it leaked out.

When he heard of the pending deal, it soured Garciaparra's relationship with the Red Sox and had the effect of cooling down his red-hot romance with Red Sox fans. The team and A-Rod eventually agreed to terms on a deal only to have the players' association veto it because, the association said, it represented too large a cut in pay from what the Texas Rangers had been paying Rodriguez. It was only then that the Yankees swooped in to sign him.

As it turned out, the Red Sox had dodged a bullet. Allegations about Rodriguez's use of performance enhancing drugs were at first a distraction and then a burden to New York.

When his constant denials were shown to be false, he became a baseball pariah and was suspended for the entire 2014 season. He'll be on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time later this year, but, despite the gaudy statistics he accumulated (696 home runs) he is expected to draw only minimal support.

On July 1, 2004, the Red Sox and Yankees were engaged in the 12th inning of a tie game at sold-out Yankee Stadium (the real one, not the reasonable facsimile that took its place in 2009), when Trot Nixon lifted a foul pop up to short left field, near the grandstand. Jeter, running at full speed, managed to catch it just before his momentum carried him face-first over a short retaining wall and into the second row of seats, but he managed to hold onto the ball in spite of being cut on the chin. It was a dramatic and selfless play. A television camera showed the Red Sox players on the top step of the dugout checking on Jeter's condition -- all the players except one. Sitting by himself on the bench with a sullen expression on his face was Nomar Garciaparra, he was out of the line up because of one of his frequent injuries, in this case a torn achilles tendon. The contrast between the two shortstops could not have been more dramatic. On the one hand, there was the heroic Jeter, face bleeding, being helped to his feet by grateful teammates; and, on the other, there was the disengaged and unhappy Garciaparra, alone on the bench. Before the month was over, the heretofore unthinkable had happened. He was gone from the Red Sox, traded to the Chicago Cubs in a complicated transaction in which the Red Sox received shortstop Orlando Cabrera from the Montreal Expos and first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz from the Minnesota Twins.

Nomar played for five more years, mostly at first and third base, for the Cubs, Dodgers, and Oakland A's for whom he was a good but by no means great player. He lasted only two years on the Hall of Fame ballot before falling below the 5 percent minimum number of votes.

Jeter was voted into the Hall in his first year of eligibility by a vote of 396 to one, the highest plurality of any position player in history.

But let the record show that back in the day when his career was in full bloom, he was only the third best shortstop in the American League.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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