It's tough being a Super Shortstop

A trio of All-Star shortstops from 25 years ago (and another from 15 years ago) reminds us just how tough holding on to superstardom can be.

As outdated as it can seem, there are still moments that make Major League Baseball's All-Star Game a special treat for fans. Take a once-in-a-generation collection of shortstops all on the same squad for the first time in their career, for instance. Three shortstops on the verge of changing how the position is viewed. Three shortstops all seemingly in their primes. That's the kind of memory only the All-Star Game can provide.

And, no, I'm not talking about the 2000 All-Star Game at Turner Field, where Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra teamed up for the American League. Believe it or not, that was merely the second once-in-a-generation shortstop trio to play together in the Midsummer Classic since Bill Buckner committed his famous error.

The first squad joined forces in 1987, when Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell, and Tony Fernandez starred for the junior circuit at the All-Star Game in Oakland. The group was immortalized in this cardboard masterpiece from Score's debut 1988 baseball card set:

Supershortstops_medium


The text on the back of the card suggests why this threesome might have been so celebrated:

Tony, Alan and Cal are the best hitting shortstops in baseball. In addition, all three are superlative fielders and leaders of their teams.

Fernandez is described as a "Gold Glove shortstop" whose "212 hits … in '86 were the most ever by a shortstop in the history of baseball." Trammell had an "MVP-type year" as the Tigers' cleanup hitter in 1987, with 28 home runs and more than 100 runs both scored and driven home. Ripken, meanwhile, was "baseball's biggest and hardest-hitting shortstop" who had just slugged 20 home runs for the sixth consecutive season. In a world that still viewed Mark Belanger as a model shortstop, Fernandez, Trammell, and Ripken represented a changing of the guard.

The problem with cards like this is that hindsight makes their naïveté so obvious. A young baseball fan 25 years ago, for example, might have held that card in his hand and imagined three different Hall of Fame careers yet-to-come. Today, we know that only one of 1987's Super Shortstops would find his way to Cooperstown, while another could count the votes he received -- in his sole turn on the ballot -- on one hand. Despite that, these Super Shortstops all had long, distinguished careers that our '80s kid could be proud of.

Cal Ripken needs no introduction, of course. The Iron Man eventually shattered Lou Gehrig's consecutive games played streak before sitting out the final home game of the 1998 season. He owns the record for most home runs by a shortstop, among many other hitting marks. When Ripken came up for election to the Hall of Fame, the question wasn't "Will he make it?", it was "How close to 100 percent of the vote will he get?".

Things have been different for Alan Trammell. The longtime double-play partner of Detroit's Lou Whitaker, the pair seemed destined for Cooperstown. Like the card said, Trammell could do it all on the field and at the plate. He even helped lead his team to a World Series victory in 1984. Somewhere along the way, however, voters lost sight of just how good Alan Trammell really was. A sudden and lengthy decline phase that hit in 1992 and lasted until his retirement in 1996 (save for one shining season in 1993) didn't help. In his New Historical Baseball Abstract (2001), Bill James ranked Trammell as the ninth-greatest shortstop of all-time. Last winter, Trammell was passed over for the 12th time in the Hall of Fame voting and will almost certainly need help from the Veterans Committee to take his rightful place in the Hall.

By the end of his career, Tony Fernandez had played for seven different teams across 17 seasons. His career opened very strong, with three All-Star appearances in four years. For most of the next decade, however, Fernandez was merely a serviceable starter. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Fernandez managed only one season with more than 3 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) after he turned 29. Despite this, the Dominican shortstop would finish his career with a very respectable 45 WAR. (Trammell managed 70 WAR in his career; Ripken, 96 WAR.) Fernandez is also remembered for one moment of postseason glory, when his 11th-inning home run off Armando Benitez in Game 6 of the 1997 American League Championship Series helped clinch Cleveland's second pennant in three years.

What's most remarkable about the 1987 trio of Super Shortstops is just how similar their careers matched the group of Rodriguez, Jeter, and Garciaparra 13 years later. There are no perfect analogues, of course, but the Captain, A-Rod, and Nomar fit the general forms well.

Gqcover_medium

The '87 squad, for example, was headlined by Cal Ripken, one of the most loved and respected players of the last thirty years. In much that same way, Derek Jeter is the undisputed leader of the 2000 group. Liked, respected, and a true baseball legend, Jeter will float into Cooperstown on a magic carpet. Writers are already asking the same question of Jeter's candidacy as they did of Ripken: "Will he be the first unanimous member of the Hall of Fame?"

On the flip side, there is Nomar Garciaparra. While the Boston shortstop started his career with a blast, he ended it meekly, never putting up anything better than 2.5 WAR in a single season after his 30th birthday. He finished his career as a veteran of four clubs and with a career total 44 WAR. Nomar will almost certainly be remembered more fondly than Tony Fernandez (and he will definitely receive more Hall of Fame votes than Fernandez), but their careers didn't end all that differently.

And then of course there's A-Rod. Can anyone offer any intelligent insight on what will happen to Alex Rodriguez between now and the end of his career? With the Biogenesis suspension looming, and whatever else is hiding in his closet (*cough*centaurs*cough*), anything -- and I do mean anything -- can happen to the man who could have been the greatest shortstop of all-time. Instead, all we can say is that future Hall of Fame voters will have no idea what to do with A-Rod, the same way current Hall of Fame voters have no idea what to do with Alan Trammell, albeit for very different reasons. Some consolation.

Predicting the future is hard, even when you're dealing with players who should be "sure things" like Nomar, A-Rod, and Trammell. Players slump, scandals emerge, injuries happen, and time marches on. It's a lesson that needs to be revisited every so often.

I'll get right on that. Just as soon as I go stock up on a few more Yasiel Puig rookie cards!

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