Remember the golden age of shortstops? It was from the late 90s into the early 2000s, and shortstops were no longer slick-fielding pipsqueaks who struggled to hit 10 home runs or slug .350.
OK, Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell and Barry Larkin probably deconstructed that perception of shortstops years earlier. Not only were they excellent fielders, but could put up MVP-caliber numbers at the plate.
Yet it looked like baseball had a new era of shortstops when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and Nomar Garciaparra dominated the position with the sort of offensive performance we were accustomed to seeing from first baseman, third baseman and right fielders. Three of the four regularly compiled 25 to 30 home runs a season, power numbers previously unheard of for middle infielders.
They were a fantastic foursome (I would've said "Fantastic Four," but that might lead us to argue which of them would be the Invisible Girl), collecting four MVP trophies and two Rookie of the Year awards among them.
However, perhaps you noticed that half of this quartet was in the news for entirely different reasons over the weekend.
Tejada was suspended for 105 games on Saturday after testing positive for amphetamines. Then there's the continuing soap opera of Rodriguez, who keeps adding new storylines to his melodrama. The latest episode includes reportedly preparing to sue the Yankees' team doctor for malpractice and allegations that A-Rod paid the lawyer of Anthony Bosch, whose Biogenesis clinic is tied closely to baseball's latest PED scandal.
If Rodriguez and Tejada helped represent the golden age of shortstops, that era is now deteriorating into something resembling copper or lead.
Meanwhile, Garciaparra retired after the 2009 season after playing mostly at first base and designated hitter with the Oakland Athletics. Jeter has only played five games this season, as he continues to work his way back from a broken ankle suffered during last year's playoffs. Quadriceps and calf injuries have also kept him sidelined.
Naturally, simply getting old has something to do with the end of this particular era of shortstops. Tejada is 39 years old. Rodriguez recently turned 38. Jeter is 39. Garciaparra retired when he was 35.
Their skills were obviously going to diminish with age. Only Jeter regularly plays shortstop anymore. What seemed particularly impressive is how long these four were able to sustain success over many, many seasons.
Unfortunately, we now know that Rodriguez and Tejada had at least a little bit of help when it came to staying on the field and putting up impressive offensive numbers.
Tejada's penalty was so harsh because it was the third time he'd tested positive for amphetamines. Two of those flunked drug tests occurred this season. Performance-enhancing substances could certainly help explain how Tejada was able to return to the major leagues — even as a reserve — after it looked like his career was over with the Giants in 2011.
Last week, Mike Trout said that he believed PED users should be permanently suspended after their first positive test. While discussing the idea with a sports-talk radio host, I said that I thought a lifetime ban for a first-time offender was too harsh. I went on to say that there still has to be some room for benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps that sounds terribly naive. I expect to be given a pat on the head and a quarter for a gumball when I say things like that. We might all roll our eyes when a player claims that he didn't realize a banned substance was in a supplement he was taking. These guys almost certainly know what they're putting in their bodies when they train and they have team physicians and trainers at their disposal for consultation.
But what if Guillermo Mota really did test positive because he took cough syrup that contained Clenbuterol, a banned stimulant? (He did admit to taking steroids when he first failed a drug test in 2007.) Was it possible that Tejada was genuine when he claimed that he suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder and had a Therapeutic Use Exemption for taking Adderall?
However, it became extremely difficult to believe Tejada — if you actually did, that is — when ESPN's Pedro Gomez reported that Tejada was also implicated in MLB's investigation into the Biogenesis clinic. MLB had evidence that he was a customer of Bosch's and gave him the choice of accepting the suspension for amphetamine use or incur further punishment for being involved with Biogenesis.
Additionally, believing Tejada's story would ignore his previous history with PEDs, as recalled by Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Passan. In 2009, Tejada pleaded guilty for lying to Congress four years earlier about a teammate's use of steroids and Human Growth Hormone. He also claimed that he threw away $6,000 of HGH that was purchased but never used.
When it comes to A-Rod, he's not even denying PED use. He and his legion of lawyers are disputing the evidence that MLB has reportedly collected, evidence that was compelling enough for 12 players to willingly accept their suspensions without filing appeals. As previously mentioned, A-Rod is also asserting that Yankees officials and doctors conspired to keep him off the field due to injury. Furthermore, lawyer Joe Tacopina claims that the Yanks played A-Rod during last year's postseason when they knew his hip was injured.
Remember when we marveled over what Tejada and A-Rod did on the field? Remember when it was a joy to watch them make diving stops or glove groundballs deep in the hole at shortstop, to recover and make laser throws to get runners out at first base? Remember how amazing it seemed for these two to hit 30 home runs? (A-Rod hit at least 40 homers eight times, exceeding 50 bombs in three different seasons.) They were two of the best hitters of their day.
Though those days are almost 10 years ago, it feels like much, much longer. Whether it's innocence or belief or just a larger sense of fun, that era seems to be long past.
But the four MVP-caliber shortstops from the so-called golden era did change the game. Look at the players we've had at that position in the years since. Jimmy Rollins won the NL MVP award in 2007. Troy Tulowitzki has put up MVP-caliber numbers several times during his career. So has Hanley Ramirez, who could be the most impactful for the Dodgers this year.
What about budding stars like Jean Segura, Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Starlin Castro, Ian Desmond? We might soon add Jurickson Profar, Jose Iglesias and Adeiny Hechavarria? Manny Machado will surely move back to shortstop someday as well.
If we're on the verge of another shining era of shortstops in MLB, let's just hope those careers and stories end much better a decade from now than those of the previously celebrated foursome.