Tagged: shortstop

To praise Jeter, and not bury him

As long as I’ve been writing this feature, I’ve had to respond to this kind of comment:

Steve, I always look forward to reading the PB. You are very knowledgeable and have a great sense of humor and write extremely well. That being said, have you ever written anything on Jeter that was totally positive? As, I tell my 10 year old son all the time, we are very blessed to be able to watch him play. Of course he has weaknesses, everyone does, but the total package is to be appreciated. You are able to do this with Posada, why not Jeter? There is no need to put this hits record into perspective. It is what it is. No one is suggesting that he is a better hitter than those he is passing (Mantle, Ruth, Gehrig) anymore than anyone would suggest that Pete Rose was a better hitter than Ted Williams, Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. — RTO

You can’t be much of a baseball fan if you don’t appreciate Derek Jeter. I appreciate Jeter not only for all the things he is, but for all the things he’s not, which is to say that I’ve been following the Yankees long enough to remember in excruciating detail his many predecessors, most of whom were advertisements for how not to build a winning ballclub. Put it this way: I’m just old enough to remember people debating the merits of Chicken Stanley, and I attended games in which Bucky Dent played. Unfortunately, by the time I was old enough to follow the Yankees with anything like an adult comprehension of the game, Dent had stopped hitting even at the low level he had previously; he was essentially done at 30, and the Yankees swapped him for Lee Mazzilli. He gave way to…

ROY SMALLEY (1982-1983)
Smalley was a very good hitter for a shortstop of the day, batting .266/.351/.434 as a Yankee in ’82 and ’83, but injuries had reduced his range to that of a rusty coat rack. Before the 1983 season was over, the Yankees were experimenting with other players. Worse, they traded Greg Gagne to the Twins to acquire Smalley; Gagne was a not a great player, but he played a fair shortstop for two championship teams while the Yankees watched from the sidelines.

The Yankees tried hard to pretend that Robertson was a Major League shortstop. His glove got good reviews, but he had struggled to post even a .285 on-base percentage in the minors. In 1983 he got a chance to take over for Smalley and hit .248/.271/.326, which is actually better than would have been projected from his showing in the sticks. Indeed, he was in an extended slump when a serious car accident ended his season in August. The rest of his career was one long attempt at a comeback. At the time, there was a good deal of asking “what could have been,” but the correct answer was, “Not much.”

BOBBY MEACHAM (1983-1986)
Meacham took over shortstop after Robertson got hurt, and then repeated the experience when Robertson’s 1984 comeback was aborted due to his making a disproportionate number of outs. Meacham was a double-threat. He couldn’t hit and was an erratic, error-prone fielder. He was also singled by the owner, which almost certainly did not help. In 1985, Meacham’s .218/.302/.266 rate stats and 24 errors played a decisive role in the loss of a close divisional race to the Blue Jays. In 1984, we also had the pleasure of seeing 33-year-old infielder Tim Foli dramatically under-hit his career .251/.283/.309 rates as a Robertson/Meacham substitute. Meacham began 1986 in the same role, likely because offseason moves were being misguidedly  being restricted. When Meacham had batted only .222/.301/.278 through mid-June, the Yankees finally sent him down. This was a terrific move, except there was no substitute on hand. In the short term, the Yankees tried veteran non-hitter Mike Fischlin, who batted .206/.261/.225 on the season. They also tried Dale Berra and veteran National Leaguer Ivan DeJesus. Ken Griffey and Robertson were then dealt to the Braves for Claudell Washington and 27-year-old Paul Zuvella, who was installed as the sorting shortsop. He hit .083. The Yankees then traded for…

WAYNE TOLLESON (1986-1987)
The 30-year-old Tolleson came to the Yankees on July 30, 1986. The 5’9″ infielder had primarily been a light-hitting second baseman in his career, but he was coming off a fluke season in which he had hit .313, albeit with no walks or power. Still, he made the Yankees look good over the remainder of the season, batting .284/.332/.344. This was great production compared to what they had received from shortstop over the previous months and year. In 1987, a year in which everyone hit, Tolleson became an out machine, and by the end of the year, the Yankees were giving Randy Velarde a look and also gave Meacham one more chance. There were also one-game cameos from veteran Jerry Royster and minor league journeyman Jeff Moronko.

In December of 1987, the Yankees dealt three middling prospects (all they had at the time) to the Mets for Santana, who had a bit of a glow on him from being the starting shortstop on the champion 1986 Mets. The glow seemingly blinded Yankees decision-makers to the painful realities of Santana’s game — he couldn’t hit, had neither good range nor sure hands and was suffering from an arm problem that hampered his throwing. Billy Martin, then managing his final season, was reportedly appalled by him. Unfortunately, the club had few alternatives. Velarde got in a few games, and veteran Luis Aguayo, brought over from the Phillies to platoon at third with Mike Pagliarulo, got in one game.

It was assumed that Santana would start again in 1989, but his arm proved to require surgery that would keep him out for the season. In desperation, the Yankees turned to Espinoza, who had joined the team as a Minor League free agent the year before, spending the entire season at Triple-A Columbus. Espinoza was a fairly steady fielder, but had no business holding a bat in his hands. His .224/.258/.274 season of 1990 still qualifies as one of the most pathetic offensive seasons in Yankees history, and it is no coincidence that Espinoza’s reign coincided with some of the worst years the team has ever had. Substitutes during this period included Tolleson, Velarde, Yankees farmhand Carlos Rodriguez, and veteran infielder Tom Brookens.

STAFF (1992)
The Yankees released Espinoza during spring training 1992, having signed free agent utility infielder Mike Gallego away from the Oakland A’s. Gallego got hurt during spring training and didn’t make his Yankees debut until mid-May. Velarde, now 29 but not yet established in the Majors, played in his place, as did Andy Stankiewicz and farmhand Dave Silvestri, whose Minor League numbers suggested he might hit a bit for a middle infielder, but somehow he never did. A  broken wrist shelved Gallego for most of the second half, leaving Velarde and Stankiewicz sharing the shortstop’s job. Overall, team shortstops hit .248/.317/.331, which was miserable but better than what they had been getting out of Espinoza.

Another free agent signing, this time from the Expos, Owen was no hitter, though he did walk a bit. Defensively, his range was extremely limited. Buck Showalter rapidly soured on him, and by late April was giving him regular time off, then benched him completely not long after the All-Star break. Gallego and Velarde split time at short over the rest of the season. Velarde was starting to find his bat in this period, but never showed great hands at short.

Gallego played 69 games at short in the 113-game season, although there were also many starts by Velarde and an odd
flirtation with Kevin Elster, who was neither a good hitter nor strong fielder and hadn’t played more than a smattering of games in two years while rehabbing an injury. At this point in his career, he had the range of Jason Giambi. Gallego hit .239/.327/.359, which was beginning to look positively Ruthian as far as Yankee shortstops were concerned.

The Yankees signed the former All-Star and Gold Glover as a free agent after he had spent a year playing third base for the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees would be the last team to ask Fernandez to play shortstop for any length of time. There was good reason for this; at 33, the Gold Glove days were long gone, as was the pretense of throwing hard to first base on routine grounders. Fernandez could be a very solid hitter for a shortstop, but as the Mets had discovered a couple of years earlier, his bat had a New York aversion, and he hit a weak .245/.322/.346. When Fernandez required time off, the Yankees tried Elster, the unavoidable Velarde, light-hitting Netherlands import Robert Eenhoorn, the unavoidable Velarde, and a then-obscure fellow named Jeter. The next spring, as Joe Torre was grousing about having to play a rookie shortstop, Fernandez went out for the season, and the rest is history.

IN TOTAL (1982-1995)
For the entire period under discussion, Yankees shortstops hit .245/.306/.331. Given that they played in a division with Cal Ripken (Hall of Fame), Robin Yount (ditto), and Alan Trammell (inexplicably isn’t in, but should be), as well as the occasional Julio Franco, this is even worse than it looks. The Red Sox, who were not exactly playing Vern Stephens and Johnny Pesky at this time, got more production out of their shortstops as well. Yankees shortstops also made more errors during this time than all but a handful of teams.

The Yankees won nothing during this time, and at best did little more than tease the possibility of winning. There were days when you could spend half the game on the phone or in the bathroom or just asleep and know you weren’t going to miss anything from the Yankees’ lineup. Just picking a game at random, on July 31, 1987, the bottom four hitters in the Yankees’ lineup were Gary Ward, Mark Salas, Juan Bonilla, and Wayne Tolleson. Incredibly enough, the Yankees won that game on a walk-off home run by Ward, but such days were few and far between — Ward hit .248/.291/.384, which competes with Rondell White’s 2002 as one of the worst seasons by a full-time Yankees outfielder. But I digress — the point here is the years of Waiting for Jeter, of hoping against hope that the Yankees would solve this ongoing, bleeding, suppurating hole in their roster. Jeter not only put an end to that, not only became the greatest shortstop in franchise history, but he ushered in an age of championships and is going to the Hall of Fame. In short:



If I have written critically about Jeter at times, it is only because the whole world sometimes seems directed towards writing a Jeter hagiography, and I am of the firm belief that we cannot properly appreciate even the best among us unless we fully measure the precise dimensions of their strengths and weaknesses. A Jeter who is perfect isn’t real and isn’t much of a hero, because where is the heroism in perfection? A true hero is a hero in spite of his or her flaws. They overcome. I want to know that George Washington had an incredible temper, that Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression, that Babe Ruth had to keep reminding himself that the world had rules once he got out of the orphanage. These things magnify their accomplishments rather than diminish them, and to discuss them does not betray their memory but exalts it, does not show a lack of appreciation or respect but rather enhances appreciation or respect.

Some people want to worship a Jeter that doesn’t exist, a paper god. I want to see him for what he is — and what he is, especially given what came before him, is great but hardly flawless. If you want more than that from me, I’m sorry, but the Pinstriped Bible is not about alternate realities. Major e longinquo reverentia.