Baseball is the only sport in which the defense has possession of the ball. They might have written songs called "Centerfield" or about the three men who played that position in New York City in the 1950s, but shortstop has always been the glamour position for baseball's most dynamic glove men. There is simply something special about the way the word "shortstop" sounds, especially when pronounced by the late Bob Sheppard in his recorded Derek Jeter Yankee Stadium introduction.
Between them, Barry Larkin and Nomar Garciaparra started exactly 3,100 major league games at shortstop through careers that included batting titles and Gold Glove, Silver Slugger and MVP awards. Larkin hit .295 over 19 big league seasons in Cincinnati, from 1986 through 2004. In 2009, Garciaparra retired with a .313 career batting average after 14 years in the majors, nine of them in Boston. Over the course of their careers and now into retirement, they've watched their position evolve.
"I think my era was more of a transition to Nomar's time," said Larkin, who played until he was 40 years old, when he still hit .289. "There was more of an emphasis on defense when I came up as opposed to, I think, than when Nomar came up."
Garciaparra, who hit a staggering .372 in 2000, said the position prototype didn't change from Mark Belanger to Troy Tulowitzki overnight. "Shortstop has always been about defense first," he said. "That's what made the transition you talked about, why our eras connected, because the guys still played defense. That was first and foremost. When I was playing it was still about defense. The Jeters, the A-Rods, the Tejadas, it was all about defense first. They just happened to be able to hit as well."
Larkin and Garciaparra were both much more than shortstops; both were organizational icons, the face of a franchise. Jeter is such a player in New York, as is Jimmy Rollins in Philadelphia. That list, however, is shorter now than it's been in decades, so I asked both former shortstops about the evolution of the position and the players they watch play shortstop today.
Shortstop you most enjoy watching right now
Larkin -- Starlin Castro, Cubs: "This guy has all kinds of ability. Offensively. Defensively, you can see the plays he makes with flashes of brilliance here and there. He's gonna be successful in Chicago for many, many years. I love watching guys and see them develop in the big leagues."
Garciaparra -- Hanley Ramirez, Marlins: "I just love watching Hanley Ramirez play. First and foremost as a shortstop, he plays great defense. He makes the plays behind his pitcher. But he can run, steal bases and he can hit third and fourth in any lineup in the major leagues. He supplies that power, supplies that leadership on the offensive side."
Shortstop who might outgrow the position based on offensive production
Larkin -- Ian Desmond, Nationals: "I got a chance after I retired in 2005 to go work with the Washington Nationals and I saw this guy as an 18-year old kid just develop. He's put on over two inches and probably 20 pounds of maturation and has unbelievable ability. My question is, he's growing so quickly, is he gonna ever stop?"
Garciaparra -- Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies: "He can play a Gold Glove shortstop but he's also a very big guy. I don't think people realize how big he is, probably because he played shortstop so well as a little guy with a great glove. He's a max-effort guy over there at shortstop so I can see him moving over maybe to third base (eventually), maybe to first base if they have somebody up and coming, to give him kind of a blow and last longer, especially with what his bat does in that lineup."
The best pure glove man
Larkin -- Alex Gonzalez, Braves: "I just marvel at this guy. When we'd play against him, I would come out and watch him take ground balls at shortstop and you could see him turn the double play. Strong arm. His thing has been health. A great, great glove man."
Garciaparra -- Alcides Escobar, Royals. "This guy has range. He covers everything. You think it's a base hit? Nope, he's got it. And he's got a hose to go with it. He can go to the backhand and still have enough on it to whip it over there. When he does throw that ball? I know I had a lot of movement on my ball and I felt bad for the first baseman. But he throws the ball and it stays straight and on a line and it hits him right in the chest."
Most unheralded shortstop you played with or against
Larkin -- Jack Wilson, Mariners: "He's now playing second base for Seattle, but when he was in Pittsburgh and playing shortstop he was just absolutely unbelievable. Jack Wilson is a guy that no one really talks about; unbelievable defensive shortstop."
Garciaparra -- John McDonald, Blue Jays: "This guy has been kind of a utility guy. I can just have a video of all his Web Gems. His range and the plays he makes are just truly unbelievable and I can just sit there and watch him over and over again. He makes plays at shortstop, he makes them down at second, he makes them at third. He's just a great glove."
Shortstop lifetime achievement award
Larkin -- Dave Concepcion: "Growing up in Cincinnati I used to imitate and emulate Davey Concepcion. He actually taught me the bounce throw to first base, but he was my guy. If you weren't a Reds fan growing up in Cincinnati there was something wrong with you and I was a huge Davey Concepcion fan. He got it done defensively and he could swing the bat a little bit as well."
Garciaparra -- Omar Vizquel: "I don't think he's ever got a bad hop in his career. We talked about going out there early and watching somebody take infield? He was one of them. I just wanted to know one day ... one day, even for maybe just three ground balls, to feel what his hands really feel like. It's incredible."
It's long been expected that a shortstop provide his team with a sense of leadership, or at least dependability. Even with a greater emphasis on offensive production the men who spent professional careers playing shortstop still go back to defense as the very nature of the position. "The standard is making the routine play," Larkin says. The days of an Ed Brinkman playing 15 seasons at shortstop while hitting .224 are almost certainly over. After all, the infamous "Mendoza Line" is named after a man who made 420 of his 424 career starts at shortstop. However, even the relatively recent arrival of the slugging shortstop -- guys like Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada -- still has its link to the past. "The offense was so good that people overlooked that they were also great defensive shortstops," said Garciaparra. "That's why they played shortstop and I think now we see these new up-and-coming guys are continuing that trend."
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