Before Jeter: Yankee Shortstops From Hell

To see what a Jeter-less future might look like for the Yankees, the answer may be in the Jeter-less past. posted on

Paul Sancya / AP

It’s hard to remember a time before Derek Jeter manned his spot on the left side of the Yankees’ defense. But now that his ankle decided to self-combust (when reached for comment, Derek Jeter’s ankle said, “DO YOU KNOW HOW OLD I AM?!” and hung up), and Number Two is watching the playoffs with A-Rod in the dugout, it seemed like a good time to remember the days without Jeter. Sure, maybe this ankle injury isn’t career-threatening, but he’s been in the league for 18 years. Unless he plans frequent trips to Germany for those weird Kobe Bryant surgeries, it’s all going to end sooner or later. So to get a glimpse at that future, let’s look at the past. Warning: It’s scary. Before Jeter (and after the Bucky Dent-era), shortstop in the Bronx was a scary place.

3. Roy Smalley

Even when Smalley won the vacant shortstop position, he was still considered a temporary stand-in for a longterm replacement. The team had identified Smalley as ‘the Yankees’ third baseman of the future.” But it turns out they must have bought their crystal ball on the cheap in Chinatown. Smalley battled injuries, couldn’t hit for power, and in 1984 was traded to the White Sox. So much for the future.

4. Tim Foli

It turned out that the Yankees hadn’t prepared much of a backup plan, and they turned to the once-highly touted prospect, now-mediocre veteran Tim Foli to continue to buy them time as they sought real answers. Foli had found his way into the Angels doghouse the previous year for not suiting up during a rain delay (in his defense, sitting in your underwear while it rains is one of life’s great pleasures), but by the time he got to New York, he gave the Yankees nothing more than flexibility. Sure he could man every infield position, but he wasn’t turning heads at any of them. Ultimately the Yankees found the most value in Foli in the form of currency — he was traded for minor leaguer, and goatee-enthusiast Jay Buhner.

5. Bobby Meacham

Eventually, the Yankees were able to locate a young player who deserved the start: Bobby Meacham. But in his first year as the everyday shortstop, Meacham hit just .218, falling well short of expectations. The team quickly grew impatient with their young player’s struggles and coaches felt Meacham would benefit from more time in the minors. Newly-acquired Rafael Santana took over the shortstop spot in 1988, and Meacham found himself competing for a spot at second base to stay in the majors. By the end of the 1988 campaign, Meacham was on his way out, shipped to Texas. “I really thought he had a chance to be a damn good player,” manager Lou Piniella said about Meacham in 1990. His explanation for what may have gone wrong: “Probably it was the whole New York thing.” If anybody had bothered to ask Piniella a follow up he might have added, “or the whole baseball thing.”

6. Wayne Tolleson

When Meacham didn’t pan out, the Yankees subbed in the forgettable Tolleson to take over while they again looked for someone more permanent. The utilityman appeared ready to rise to the occasion, saying in 1987, “I’ve always felt that if I could get my foot in the door, I’d kick it open.” Turns out when Tolleson kicked the door it shattered his ankle (metaphorically), and he stayed decidedly on the outside. His time as a starter was was short-lived, and the Yankees held onto him as a backup for another three years afterward, before he road off into the sunset of obscurity.

7. Rafael Santana

Mets’ fans remember Santana from his role in the 1986 World Series, but his time with the cross-town Yankees was less successful. Despite being so coveted that he was the first major league player ever traded from one New York team to the other, Santana hit just .240 with four home runs and 38 RBIs in his first season with the Yanks. Manager Billy Martin openly questioned Santana’s effort in the field, though saying Billy Martin openly questioned someone’s effort is about as newsworthy as saying Billy Martin breathed. Regardless Santana missed the entire 1989 campaign due to an elbow injury, after which the team released him. Shortstop was the becoming the Yankees’ Bermuda triangle.

8. Alvaro Espinoza

Espinoza took over for the 1989 season, leading a New York Times writer to introduce him to fans with, “Alvaro Espinoza is neither Ozzie Smith nor Ozzie Guillen; his glove does not dazzle. He is simply capable. He makes the plays.” YANKEE SHORTSTOP FEVER, CATCH IT! Espinoza lasted only three seasons as the Yankees’ shortstop, doing a somewhat serviceable job. It was when young Carlos Rodriguez rose up as the shortstop of the team’s future that Espinoza’s days were clearly numbered. Rodriguez, however, never made it big, causing yet another setback within the Yankees’ organization. Leaving the spot to be open for yet another “great new hope.”

9. Randy Velarde

It’s hard to believe, but at one time Velarde was supposed to be the Yanks’ next great infielder, but he struggled early in his time with the team. “Ever since I came to the Yankees,” Velarde said in 1989, ”I felt like I was their shortstop of the future. I’d just like to make that future start today. I wish they’d give me that opportunity, be more patient and give me more time because I know I can do the job.” He actually put together decent numbers over a 16-year career, but didn’t stick at short, and once the Yankees acquired All-Star third basemen Wade Boggs after the 1992 season Velarde’s days in New York were numbered.

10. Spike Owen

In the same offseason they added Boggs, the Yankees signed shortstop Spike Owen to a three-year deal. Many believed they had found their solution at last. Many were wrong. Almost immediately, manager Buck Showalter began to question Owen’s commitment, which only hurt the shortstop’s confidence. After just one season, the Yankees cut their losses and sent Owen out of town, only after agreeing to absorb a hefty sum of Owen’s contract as a condition of the trade. It was a cost-cutting measure, plain and simple. Owen had lost his starting spot to Mike Gallego, and Owen became the game’s most overpaid spectator (a role currently held by Alex Rodriguez).

11. Mike Gallego

Before Jeter took over the #2, it was Gallego’s, playing at the same place on the diamond. When healthy Gallego was mediocre, serviceable even. Unfortunately he was also often on the disabled list. Also he’s Mike Gallego. He’s not the answer for anything other than, “who was that guy named Gallego who played professional baseball?”

12. Tony Fernandez

By 1995, the Yanks decided it was time to turn it over to a proven winner — five-time All-Star Tony Fernandez. He’d been unhappy playing third base for the Reds and wanted to move back to his natural position of shortstop. The team signed Fernandez to a two-year deal figuring that the 32-year-old didn’t have much left in his tank, and that young prospect Derek Jeter would need a bit more time before he would be ready for the big show. But Jeter proved himself faster than anticipated, leading the International League in hits at the time of his callup. “I knew the Yankees weren’t just going to give me the shortstop job,” Jeter said then. “I know it’s something that you have to earn.”

When the Yankees turned the position over to Jeter in 1996, Fernandez was predictably upset, demanding a trade. “Welcome back to the wonderfully wacky world of Yankee baseball,” joked The New York Times’ Jack Curry at the time. Thanks to Jeter’s prowess, they haven’t had to go back to the well since. But after his injury last week, the shortstop carousel may be starting up again soon.

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