Last week was Derek Jeter Week. In case you didn’t notice.

If you didn’t, you did a remarkable job abstaining from all available forms of sports media. Highlights of Jeter’s career, leading up to last Sunday’s number retirement ceremony at Yankee Stadium, were everywhere. The Flip against Oakland in 2001. The Dive against Boston in 2004. The Mr. November home run against Arizona in the 2001 World Series. All of those capital letter plays, and more. They all steered the focus beyond the weekend toward Jeter’s eventual Hall of Fame induction, and the question emerged: Will Jeter become the first unanimous Hall of Fame selection?

It’s not a bad question. There’s no argument here, at least. I’m an Orioles fan, I went to sleep at night as a kid with a Cal Ripken Jr. poster by my bed, but I’ll readily admit that Jeter, if we call Alex Rodriguez a third baseman, is the greatest shortstop I’ve seen play. I’ve never seen a baseball player — save for perhaps David Ortiz — with more of a feel and mastery for big moments. He was automatic in the clutch, a baseball version of Tom Brady — valuable beyond the statistics, and just as prolific a winner.

But for all the crystal-clear recollection of Jeter’s prowess, the lenses of memory have blurred toward his former peer in Boston. Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra once seemed destined to be forever linked in future discussions and debates, much the way Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were. And Brady and Peyton Manning were. And Michael Jordan and LeBron James are.

Fast forward to today, however, and Jeter is mentioned more with Honus Wagner, Ernie Banks and Ripken in a conversation for the greatest shortstops of all time. Get people who are unforgiving of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid history, and it’s as if Jeter stands alone as the shortstop talent for a generation.

It’s too bad, considering that Garciaparra was every bit the player Jeter was. And in his prime, he was better.


There’s no question that Jeter brings the superior career to a debate between the two. Injuries derailed what Garciaparra could become from a legacy standpoint, and cost him the Hall of Fame nod that Jeter will certainly receive. But determining which player was better — a question that weighs the players’ peaks more than their career totals — is a different matter, and the fact that Garciaparra maxed out at 5.5 percent in the Hall of Fame voting and fell off the ballot after only two chances is proof that his Boston days have become overshadowed over the years.

Everyone remembers that Garciaparra was great. What 5.5 percent suggests, however, is that people have forgotten that he was historic.

From 1997 to 2003, a significant chunk of time that took him from his early 20s to his age 30 season, Garciaparra batted .325. He averaged 24 home runs and 93 RBIs, turned in an OPS of .929 for that stretch, and had a WAR that averaged out to 5.9. Boil the range down to 1997-2000, which covers Garciaparra’s Rookie of the Year season to his final full year before a wrist injury that cost him most of 2001, and he averaged 28 home runs and 105 RBIs with a .337 average, .963 OPS and 6.9 WAR. All while playing one of the positions at which offense has historically been the most scarce.

More impressive than the numbers, however, was the terrifying presence Garciaparra was in the batter’s box. The wiry frame let loose a swing that seemed to hit every pitch hard, be it down the line, up the middle, into the gap or over the fence. Garciaparra was whatever hitter he wanted to be. One year, he hit 35 home runs. Another year, he batted .357, which would have been impressive enough had he not topped it by 15 points the next season. Another season, he hit a league-high 56 doubles.

He was the best contact-hitting shortstop since Wagner, and he would have been the best power-hitting shortstop since Banks had he not overlapped with Rodriguez, who was on his way to becoming one of the 10 greatest players of all time. According to a 2015 ESPN article, Garciaparra has the second-highest all-time OPS for a shortstop with 5,000 plate appearances, behind Rodriguez. He had six seasons with a WAR of over 6 in that peak stretch alone; in all of baseball history, only Wagner, with nine, had more than six such years at the shortstop position.

It probably wasn’t enough to warrant induction into Cooperstown, but it was closer than 5.5 percent gives it credit for being. Several players are in the Hall of Fame — deservedly so — for brilliant peaks rather than long, productive careers. Sandy Koufax is enshrined for six seasons during which he was arguably the greatest pitcher of all time. Ralph Kiner is in on the strength of eight seasons during which he was the National League’s top slugger. Whether Garciaparra stacked up ahead of other shortstops in his prime the way Koufax did with pitchers is debatable; what’s not is that the Nomar that used to patrol shortstop at Fenway Park was among the best to ever do it.


So, too, was his contemporary down in the Bronx. At one point, it seemed Jeter and Garciaparra would be linked forever. Hopefully during a week spent celebrating one, fans took the time to remember just how good the other was as well.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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