Sports

Rey Ordóñez And The Outer Boundary Of Range

By one measure, Rey Ordóñez was a marginal player. By another, he was one of the great geniuses that baseball has ever seen. Both can be true, but which matters more?

by David Roth
Mar 31 2017, 8:20pm

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[Editor's note: Major League Baseball enters the 2017 season loaded with talent at the shortstop position like it has never seen before—not even in the early and mid-1990s, when Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra arrived. This week, VICE Sports will preview the upcoming season by examining the shortstop position, how it has evolved over the past 100 years, and where things stand right now.]

The New York Mets have won two World Series in their 55 seasons as a Major League Baseball franchise. The first of those was a glorious fluke that happened just seven seasons after the expansion Mets set the modern standard for abject shittiness. The second came 17 years later and marked the towering and retrospectively poignant zenith of a team that might have been a dynasty if only humans were wired to like cocaine and alcohol a little less.

One of the shortstops on the first Mets World Series champs was Al Weis, who played in the Majors for a decade as the sort of living embodiment of what was once the unofficial norm for big league shortstops. Weis was of roughly normal human proportions, a fine fielder, and a cosmically execrable hitter. He was also semi-fast for a little while early in his career, and there was the one requisite season of fluke-o batted-ball luck. But for the most part Weis was just a slappy anthropomorphized out with a few other redeeming on-field attributes. His OPS+ for the Mets in 1969 was an objectively appalling 53. If you know how baseball works, it will not surprise you that, during the Mets' five-game World Series win over the Baltimore Orioles in 1969, Weis put up a slash line of .455/.563/.727. He won the Babe Ruth Award, and his big league career ended 86 games later.

When the Mets won their next World Series, their primary shortstop was Rafael Santana, who was an inch taller and five pounds heavier than Weis at 6'1, 165, and otherwise more or less his equal as a good-field/no-hit nullity. Santana played seven years in the bigs, never hitting much and sometimes fielding enough to make things more or less even out. In the Mets' World Series season of 1986, Santana had the worst offensive and best defensive season of his career; his OPS+ in 139 games was....52.

Read More: The Evolution Of Jean Segura, A Shortstop From Another Era

When Rey Ordóñez joined the Mets in 1996, he fit very well within the broader trajectory of how his team—and baseball in general, to that point—understood the shortstop position to work. He was a bit shorter and a little lighter than Weis and Santana, and a below-average hitter by any measure. Ordóñez was also objectively a genius as a defender, and defiant and weird and improvisatory in how he went about performing that genius. During the brief zenith of his singular and increasingly anachronistic career, that was enough—not enough ever to make him an All-Star, or even really a particularly valuable player by the rude metrics that measure that sort of thing, but more than enough to make him one of the most indelible players of his era.

He was never great, really, and not nearly in the way that the current wave of shortstops are; Ordóñez was never even a serviceable offensive player, and when his defense backed off its Olympian peak there wasn't much justification for keeping him around. But he was also weird enough in his own right and on his own eccentric merits that the astonishment he produced marked everyone who saw him. For those that remember him, Ordóñez seems greater and stranger, and more a part of an abstracted past, because there just aren't shortstops like him out there anymore. For all the things that Ordóñez might have done differently and all the ways in which he could have but ultimately did not become great, that broader fate is not his fault, really. This is how it works. The future comes on and keeps coming, and sooner than later the past seems a lot longer ago than it actually is.

The man who picked up Rey Ordóñez when he walked away from the Cuban national team's dormitory in Buffalo during the 1993 World University Games was named Lazaro Megret. He was a Miami radio executive and family friend of Ordóñez's first wife, Hilda Maria Fiallo. Every story about Ordóñez's defection, which came just a few days after his teammate Eddie Oropesa hopped a fence and made his own escape, mentions that Megret's car was a red Cadillac. The implied metaphor is too explicit by half, but irresistible all the same. It's both mythic and a little tacky, in the way that the stories baseball tells about itself can tend to be. It had to be a Cadillac. It had to be red.

But for all the clumsy obviousness of the implied parable—an individual virtuoso ditches communism's dead-end and literally hops into the fucking Cadillac that will take him to fame and wealth in America—the mythic element fit Ordóñez. The myriad horrors of the gray-market trade in baseball players are everywhere in Ordóñez's story, and the stink of them floats through the early coverage of it even as those stories strain for the old sentimental baseball picaresque. Still, though, even if you were wised-up to the stories baseball sells itself, if you were all the way over it, still: you heard things about Rey Ordóñez that were different. "During his first workout with the staff, it took 75 grounders before they could get him to miss one," Saint Paul Saints owner Marvin Goldklang told the New York Times. "One scout told me he's better defensively than any shortstop in the American League."

"He has the most incredible hands," Ordóñez's Double-A manager, Johnny Tamargo, told the Times during the 1994 season. "He has to be one of the best I have ever seen, and I played with Garry Templeton." Ordóñez hit a little bit in the minors in 1994 and not at all the year after that. He was the Mets opening day shortstop in 1996, attended by strange whispers and intimations. It wasn't just that he was a good fielder, or a great one. It was that he... did things.

If these things were difficult to describe, it was because baseball had never bothered to come up with words for them. There is a working glossary that describes the things that shortstops do, and the story about Ordóñez, back when he was still mostly just a story, was that he was stuffing all kinds of weird neologisms into it. "You ask six people to name the best play they ever saw him make, and you'll get six different answers," Mets GM Steve Phillips told Sports Illustrated shortly after Ordóñez made his Major League debut. "One time in the minors he swatted a grounder to first with his glove. Never touched his throwing hand. Another time he grabbed a ground ball behind second and did a pop-up slide on the bag to force the runner. It was the only way he could get his foot on the bag."

It took six innings for Ordóñez to author his first such neologism as a big leaguer. In the visitors' half of the seventh on opening day in 1996, Cardinals outfielder Ray Lankford dropped a soft line drive into the left field corner. Ordóñez received Bernard Gilkey's lawn-dart of a relay throw about 150 feet from home, turned around, and threw a one-hop laser, from his knees, to catch Royce Clayton at the plate. "What I remember is the sound," the writer and Mets blogger Jason Fry, who was at the game, told me. "A kind of strange murmur/mutter. 50,000 people make a strange noise when they've devolved into 25,000 pairs devoted to one person asking the other, 'Did he really just do that?'" Broadcasters don't get to murmur, which left Mets play-by-play man Howie Rose to repeat, incredulous and seemingly a little amused, "he was on his knees."

There are two main ways to assess what Rey Ordóñez was worth, to his team and relative to the superstar peers rising around him. One involves referring to the relevant statistics, the sum of which put Ordóñez roughly on the same footing as Al Weis and Rafael Santana; Baseball Reference has him at 1.2 wins more valuable than a replacement player over the course of nine seasons. There is good information backing this up, and from a certain perspective it is absolutely an accurate assessment of Ordóñez as a baseball player.

The other way of measuring Ordóñez's value doesn't demand dismissing that assessment so much as it requires plugging it into a broader context. Over the course of nine seasons, Rey Ordóñez was a marginal player; from one moment to the next, he was one of the great talents that the game has ever seen. In order to reconcile this, we have to realize the point at which our interest as fans diverges from the necessarily different ones held by the people in charge of baseball teams. They are looking for production, and in the years since Ordóñez faded from the game—he broke his arm on F.P. Santangelo's helmet in May of 2000, missed the Mets' run to the World Series, and never quite got it back—those people have used increasingly more refined means to quantify that value. That work boils down to the pursuit of something reliable and repeatable over the course of years, which is a laudable business aim.

It also happens to be the opposite of what a fan looks for. Fans are there all season, but we are also only there in discrete moments in time; those moments are what we have left when the season ends, or when it rolls over into the next or the one after that. Surprise and awe are what make those moments, and Ordóñez's particular genius for invention and creativity created those moments in a way other shortstops could not—they happened in otherwise unremarkable games, at otherwise unremarkable moments, emerging from the sleepy familiarity of the game as jarring little jolts of possibility. "As far as I know, Rey invented that thing where he went down on one sliding knee in the hole to stop sharp grounders," says Greg Prince, the author of Piazza. "I don't remember it before April 1, 1996. Each hand and each foot was a contender to tag second on a 6-6-3 DP. He changed the defensive map the way the Louisiana Purchase altered America's." If this sort of disruptive brilliance is difficult to quantify, it is even more difficult to deny.

Ordóñez, even before things curdled in New York, was wary and prickly and difficult to know. "Reading all the gamers of the era, you could tell that writers wanted to get inside his head or get a better idea of his feelings, especially when he was clashing with Bobby Valentine, which happened often, and unlike with other players, it usually wasn't always just Bobby V stirring shit up," says Matthew Callan, who wrote a book on the 1999 and 2000 Mets called Yells For Ourselves. "But they couldn't."

There are reasons for this that are easy enough to guess at—the trauma of living in a cratering authoritarian country and the trauma of leaving it, his ruptured and upturned life, the athlete's inevitable confrontation with things that outpaced even the talent that had given direction to his life. There is reason enough, in the later stories about Ordóñez as a teammate and a man, to suggest that he might also just have been a difficult person. But if you think about shortstop in the mystical sense that baseball people used to—as the one position, except perhaps for catcher, that required and rewarded a deep and unknowable intuition—it's understood as a job that required a certain kind of genius. People tend to grade geniuses on a curve; they are different, and the expectations of them are different. Ordóñez's value is debatable, but his genius has never really been in dispute. The question is how that genius is valued, and by whom.

"Ordóñez, at 5-foot-9 and 159 pounds, looks like a middleweight fighter, with a compact muscular frame that doesn't carry an ounce of fat," Gerry Callahan wrote in Sports Illustrated near the start of the 1996 season. "The shortstop position was invented with Rey Ordóñez in mind." In Callahan's story, the other rookie shortstop in the city was the outlier. Derek Jeter was bigger, taller, a much better hitter, a much easier person. In retrospect, Jeter marks the beginning of the end of the idea that the shortstop position was invented with anyone in mind, let alone a person with a particular body type or a tangle of disagreeable genius burning them up inside. Sure, Cal Ripken Jr. came first, but Jeter made it the norm. If Jeter looks, in retrospect, like a prototype of the future, Ordóñez stands out more each day as an emblem of a wild and shrinking past.

Ordóñez, by regularly and randomly expanding the language of the shortstop position, exposed how limited even that sentimental conception of shortstop was; he opened the door onto something stranger and more unpredictable. Jeter, in his metronomic brilliance, closed it, and either revealed or reduced shortstop into a position like any other. From a certain perspective, that's just what it is. Moment by moment, it's a different story.