When the Cubs' Nomar Garciaparra fell to the ground writhing in agony with a torn groin muscle last week, the golden age of shortstops officially came to an end. With the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez in his second season at third base, Garciaparra in his fifth season of a health-related decline, Barry Larkin retired and no impact players breaking into the position since Miguel Tejada in 1998, shortstop has lost much of its glamour since A-Rod, Nomar and the Yankees' Derek Jeter vied to be the All-Star Game starter in the late 1990s.
The position has reverted to being a home to slick fielders and modest hitters who typically aren't found in the middle of a lineup. At week's end only two shortstops had hit more than three home runs this season: the Orioles' Tejada and the surprising Clint Barmes of the Rockies. Only Tejada, Barmes and the Rangers' Michael Young had at least 13 RBIs. (Jeter was hitting .361 with a .478 on-base percentage, second best in the AL.)
Two young shortstops who showed potential as rookies last year, Bobby Crosby of the A's and Khalil Greene of the Padres, are on the disabled list, though even when healthy they were not middle-of-the-order hitters.
Gone are the days of 2000, when Garciaparra (.372), Jeter (.339) and Rodriguez (.316) finished first, fifth and 15th, respectively, in the batting race, and Tejada, who was then playing for the A's, pushed his way into the elite class with 115 RBIs. Garciaparra's decline, however, began the next season, when a split tendon in his right wrist limited him to 21 games. He played in 81 games last season--43 of them with the Cubs after his trade from the Red Sox on July 31--because of a variety of ailments, principally right Achilles tendinitis.
This year Garciaparra, 31, was hitting .157 with no homers when he tore the muscle. (He has hit only four home runs in 216 at bats with Chicago.) Garciaparra is expected to be out two or three months, which means by the All-Star break he will have missed more than 40% of his teams' games since he won his second batting title in 2000.
Meanwhile, Barmes, 26, is hitting like the younger, healthier Garciaparra. At week's end he led the majors in batting (.438) and hits (32), an unexpected development for a former 10th-round draft pick who hit .281 in 2,132 minor league at bats. The 6-foot, 190-pound Barmes (pronounced BAR-mess) was drafted out of Indiana State after attending Olney (Ill.) Central College for two years on a basketball scholarship.
"In Indiana, basketball is king," says Barmes, who grew up in Vincennes, Ind., "so when I used to tell people I wanted to be a pro baseball player, they'd say, 'What are you really going to do?'"
Barmes had a breakout season at Triple A Colorado Springs last year, his second season there. He led the Pacific Coast League in hits (175) while batting .328. The Rockies handed him the starting job this year after allowing Royce Clayton to leave for Arizona as a free agent.
Barmes's hot start for Colorado is an exception among teams looking for the next Nomar. Fellow rookie shortstops Jason Bartlett of the Twins (.250), Wilson Valdez of the Mariners (.218), Russ Adams of the Blue Jays (.196) and J.J. Hardy of the Brewers (.130) have given no signals that another golden age of shortstops is near.
Jon Lieber, RHP, Phillies
Discarded by the Yankees, he has become his new team's ace, going 4-0 with a 2.73 ERA in four starts through Sunday.
Joe Mauer, C, Twins
Sidelined with a knee injury for all but 35 games as a rookie last year, he's back and hitting .327.
Jamie Moyer, LHP, Mariners
Well, he doesn't look 42, not with a 4-0 record and 2.53 ERA.
Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Reds
Though he hasn't gotten hurt yet this season, Junior was hitting .203 with no homers.
Houston Astros Hitters
They've wasted three brilliant starts by Roger Clemens, losing each 1-0 in extra innings.
Richard Hidalgo, RF, Rangers
Mired in a 5-for-45 slump, he was benched for two games last week and was hitting .179.
ROBERT BECK (BACKGROUND EXTENDED BY SI IMAGING)
HIGH AND LOW
Barmes gotoff to a hot start, but Garciaparra (inset) is out for two to three months with a groin injury.
BILL GREENBLATT/UPI (INSET)
[see caption above]