By Drew Hammell, Photos via Sports Illustrated, February 24th, 1997.
20 years ago this week, Sports Illustrated released a cover featuring two of the top shortstops in the league: Alex Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners, and Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees. A-Rod and Jeter were part of ‘The Finest Group of Shortstops since WWII,’ the cover touted. The issue would prove to be prophetic, as both players went on to have legendary careers. They would also end up playing together, as Rodriguez joined Jeter with the Yankees in 2004. The two will forever be linked, though their careers ran drastically different courses.
Alex Rodriguez was born in Washington Heights, New York City. At the age of four, he and his family moved to the Dominican Republic before settling in Miami. Rodriguez would become one of the top baseball prospects in the country, and was the first overall pick in the ’93 draft. A-Rod spent little time in the minors, and made his major league debut in 1994. Two years later, he came in second in the American League MVP ballot at the age of 20.
In 2000, A-Rod left Seattle and signed the richest contract in MLB history with the Texas Rangers – a ten-year deal worth $252 million. Though he won the MVP award with Texas in 2003, the Rangers wouldn’t make the playoffs his first three years with the team. Rodriguez was traded to the Yankees in ’04 and moved to third base, since Derek Jeter was already the shortstop. Even though A-Rod was a better defensive player than Jeter, moving the Yankee captain to any other position would have created a PR nightmare for the team.
In 2007, Rodriguez opted out of his contract and signed an even more lucrative deal for 10 years and $275 million. Though he would help the Yankees win a World Series in ’09 against Philadelphia, the decision to sign A-Rod to such a long extension would come back to haunt the Yankees.
Like A-Rod, Derek Jeter was born in the Northeast. Also at the age of four, Jeter and his family moved from their home in New Jersey to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Though Jeter was also a standout prospect like A-Rod, he considered playing college ball at the University of Michigan. The Yankees would take him sixth in the ’92 Draft, as scouts believed he had the talent to become a Hall of Famer.
Like A-Rod, Jeter would also impress quickly in the big leagues. He was the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year, and was integral in helping the Yankees defeat the Atlanta Braves in the World Series that season. He would go on to win five championships with New York. Jeter also had his own big contracts – the most lucrative one came in 2001, worth $189 million over ten years.
As the ’97 Sports Illustrated cover indicated, A-Rod and Jeter were friends from the start. In the feature article, Jeter said, “I’m Alex’s biggest fan. I brag on him so much that my teammates are sick of me talking about him.” Both players would become 14-time All-Stars. Both were also the same height at 6’3”, though A-Rod was bulkier. As time went on, Rodriguez would continue to add muscle, which led to his steroid scandals beginning in 2001.
For the next thirteen years, Rodriguez would be plagued by allegations and admitted use of performance enhancing drugs. Ultimately, it would lead to his suspension for the entire 2014 season. Amid all the “A-Roid” turmoil in the Yankee clubhouse, Jeter was establishing himself amongst the legends of Yankee lore. Ever the professional, Jeter played consistently year after year, while staying spotless under the New York City media microscope. He would become known as ‘El Capitan,’ and ‘The good son.’
Ironically, after all the drama over the years, it is Rodriguez who is still contributing to the Yankees organization as a special adviser and spring training instructor. Still under contract, he will earn $21 million this year ($106,852 per day). Meanwhile, Jeter is settling down as a family man. He married 26-year-old model Hannah Davis this past summer, and Davis is already pregnant with their first child.
It remains to be seen how the two Yankee legends will be portrayed as the years progress. Most New Yorkers have forgiven A-Rod of his rocky past because of his outstanding play on the field, though the steroid use is difficult not to bring up. If Jeter is mentioned in a sentence, Yankee fans won’t stop pouring praise and adoration on him, though the acclaim is usually followed by criticism for his less-than-perfect fielding year after year. For a moment captured in ’97 on this cover, however, there was only hope and promise for the two budding stars.
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