When A-Rod, Jeter and more posed shirtless

February 26th, 2023
Art by Tom Forget

Walter Iooss Jr. has been called the "photo laureate of sports."

Just take a look through his collection over the last 50 years. He's captured nearly every major athlete and moment in the last half century: Michael Jordan dunking from the free-throw line, a young Kelly Slater catching a wave, Serena Williams unleashing her killer backhand, Dave Parker and the "We Are Family" Pirates taking a smoke break in the dugout, The Catch by the 49ers' Dwight Clark.

But one of the most enduring photographs he ever took happened on a Miami Beach rooftop 25 years ago in February 1997.

It didn't feature a show-stopping highlight or even a clutch, history-defying moment in sports. What it did feature was, in some people's opinion, something even more iconic.

Five baseball players posing close together. Five shortstops on the rise in baseball. All very, extremely, totally shirtless. You probably know the one:

"Well, it's certainly not top 5," Iooss said with a laugh over a recent phone call. "Certainly not top 10. Maybe top 2 shirtless pictures."

The day was hot, as any day usually tends to be along Miami Beach. Sports Illustrated, the magazine Iooss had gotten a dream job with straight out of high school in 1961, had sent him down to do a shoot with a crop of baseball's talented young middle infielders.

There was, of course, Derek Jeter. The 22-year-old was coming off a World Series and AL Rookie of the Year Award -- well on his way to taking over New York City for the next two decades.

Alex Rodriguez, at just 20 years old, was an All-Star in '96, won the AL batting crown with a .358 average and finished second in the MVP vote to Juan Gonzalez.

Edgar Renteria had burst onto the scene with the Florida Marlins, finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year vote with a .306 batting average. He'd be the reason why his team would win its first World Series later that October.

According to defensive WAR, Alex Gonzalez was the best shortstop in baseball in 1996. And fourth best overall, at any position, in the Majors. He also hit 14 homers and stole 16 bases.

But you can't talk about outstanding defensive shortstops over the last 100 years without talking about Rey Ordóñez. The Mets shortstop made plays that more belonged under circus tents than atop baseball diamonds. He finished fifth in NL Rookie of the Year voting in '96 and would win Gold Gloves in each of the next three years.

"I remember the Mets front office came to me and asked if I would be interested. I said, 'Sure,'" Ordóñez recalled over email. "I was a young guy just starting out my career and it was an honor for me to be in a group that included Jeter and A-Rod."

But there was one future generational shortstop missing from the bunch: He was a rookie for the Red Sox in '96 and would win the AL Rookie of the Year in '97 -- leading the league with 209 hits. He'd go on to get elected to six All-Star Games and win two batting titles.

"I wanted to have Nomar Garciaparra be a part of it, but the Red Sox turned it down," Tom Verducci, who wrote the accompanying SI story, told me in a call. "The Red Sox said they're not gonna do that because they couldn't guarantee him being the starting shortstop."

(Verducci would get to team up with Iooss for a future Nomar story for Sports Illustrated, one in which the Sox shortstop was, yes, also shirtless).

But let's get back to that day in Miami: the five players that were there that afternoon made their way up the stairs to the roof of Big Time Studios. The setting was perfect. The shoot was destined to be a great one.

"This roof was painted all white," Iooss remembered. "They have a thing called a cyclorama. Not only was it this huge white wall, but there was like a step up. So you were already at like an angle, and they could climb up it if they wanted. The available light up there is insane."

Iooss already knew Jeter and A-Rod at that point and would go on to photograph them many more times during their respective careers. The two budding stars were already pretty good friends, and would actually be the two of the five to appear on the cover (with shirts on) for the story.

Verducci recalled being a little nervous about the two of them before the shoot got going.

"Yeah, I remember Jeter and Alex Rodriguez playing this basketball game of H.O.R.S.E.," he said, noting the game in his article. "Which I thought was entertaining, but a little bit scary. Because I started thinking, 'If one of these guys breaks his ankle playing this game of H.O.R.S.E. and I have to write about it, that's gonna be a completely different story than what I had in mind."

Iooss didn't know Gonzalez, Renteria and Ordóñez as well as the other two, but said they were very easy to work with. He took many shirt-on photos with those three and then just Jeter and A-Rod later in the day. Iooss was able to get some great shots of those two leaping up against the white walls and he also got some great portraits of A-Rod.

"It was sort of incredible that day, especially with the two of them," Iooss remembered. "They were very agile at that point and young."

The entire shoot lasted about an hour-and-a-half to two hours. That was long for most athletes.

"God, I've had shoots on a stopwatch for one minute. Five minutes with Yogi on a watch. All he kept saying was, 'How much more time?'" Iooss imitated in his best Yogi voice. "He hated to pose."

But at some point, the shirts came off, and multiple photos were taken at different angles. How, or why? There are varying opinions on it.

"I'm pretty sure it was nothing scripted," Verducci said. "It wasn't like, 'Hey, let's think about pictures we'd like to get and, hey, why don't we get a picture of all these guys shirtless?' I was definitely not aware of that. I think it was an impromptu shot."

Iooss wasn't sure if he asked the group to remove the shirts or someone just went ahead and did it. Either way, he seemed to hint at one particular person to de-shirt first.

"I'm sure A-Rod was the first to take it off," he said. "Oh yeah, he was like Ronaldo or something."

And then the rest of the four players followed suit.

"I worked out a lot so I wasn't worried about taking a photo without my shirt," Ordóñez said. "I thought it was cool."

"It's another example of the power of peer pressure, I think," Verducci laughed.

"I mean, they were hot anyways, it wasn't so bad," Iooss said.

The chains were also an important element that became more apparent with the shirts off. They all, somehow, had pretty much the same chain on. Chains were cool in the nineties.

"Yes, everyone had chains," Iooss laughed.

"I remember we all talked about the chains we were wearing," Ordóñez remembered. "It wasn't our normal picture, that's for sure."

A few weeks later, the story dropped in the magazine's March issue.

It was an exciting one -- highlighting perhaps the best batch of shortstops since World War II. But no matter how enticing Verducci's words were, readers couldn't keep their eyes off the shirtless photo in the inset. It was bizarre. It was hilarious. It was great.

"I remember there was a lot of buzz and I wasn't really expecting it," Verducci said. "I thought it was a cool story because, especially with Derek and Alex, it was a great class of shortstops. It was exactly the way I pictured it. But I didn't anticipate that the picture would supersede the story in terms of just the buzz factor."

And the buzz has carried on for 25 years -- it's showed up on all-time greatest sports photo lists, received historical lookbacks and been posted on Twitter nearly every year since.

"Yeah, it just becomes about this one picture," Iooss told me. "I mean, there's never been a baseball picture like it. Of any variety."

"I have the photo in my home and I looked at it the other day," Ordóñez said. "It's amazing how young we all look. It's a great memory to have."

Verducci probably summed up the photo's nostalgia best.

"To me, to kind of picture it over time, it still puts a smile on your face," the longtime SI writer told me. "First of all, they look so darn young. Their careers are ahead of them. There's a sort of innocence about it. I don't think anybody was doing it to preen about themselves or show off in any way. I just think it was a bunch of young guys at a point in their careers where they were on the cusp of greatness. It's pretty cool."