Clarification: this is just a list of the best players I remember seeing in person–during Spring Training, regular season, Inter-League, post-season. That’s the only criteria–I had to be at a ballpark when I watched them play–and I have to remember seeing them. That’s the tricky part. I don’t remember every game I’ve ever gone to or who played in them. Do you?
And I know that if you’re reading this, you probably have an idea of how your own list would go. I doubt you’ll be able to find someone who agrees with you 100% on something like this, as I’m sure you disagree with my list. But this is just for my own enjoyment, anyway.
Also, I like lists.
10. Roberto Alomar (1988-2004). Sure, Robbie could hit well enough–.300 career batting average, .814 OPS, 1032 walks, 474 stolen bases–but he’s on this list because he was the greatest defensive infielder I have ever seen. He was 5th in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1988 with the Padres, an All-Star every year from 1990 to 2001, won a Gold Glove every year from 1991-96 and ’98-2001, and finished in the Top 10 in AL MVP voting 5 times. Robbie’s 66.8 WAR is in the Top 100 all-time for position players, only 2 guys played more games at second base, and his .984 fielding percentage at 2B is 45th best all-time.
9. Roger Clemens (1984-2007). At a time when hitters were notoriously using steroids, Clemens became the poster boy for dirty pitchers. From ’86 to ’92, he was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball, going 136-63 with 1,673 K’s, and winning 3 AL Cy Young Awards (’86, ’87, ’91) and the 1986 AL MVP Award. But 1993-96 were down years, and Clemens went 40-39 before signing with Toronto, where he apparently found the Fountain of Youth. In ’97, he went 21-7 with a 2.05 ERA on his way to winning his 4th AL Cy Young. He won his 5th in ’98 after going 20-6 with a 2.65 ERA. After the 1998 season, Clemens was traded from the Blue Jays to the Yankees, where he went 83-42 in 6 seasons (4.01 ERA). In 2001, he won his 6th AL Cy Young (20-3, 3.51 ERA, 203 K’s in 220.1 innings). In 2004, Clemens signed with Houston and pitched for the Astros for 3 seasons, winning 38 games, bringing his career total to 354 (9th all-time). In 2004, he won his 7th Cy Young Award (1st and only in the National League). He can deny it all he wants, but it’s pretty clear that Clemens was dirty (all of that evidence from his personal trainer, and all). But how many other guys were using while he was playing? We’ll never know. Judging a dirty pitcher against dirty hitters, and yeah, Roger Clemens was one of the best players I saw play.
8. Albert Pujols (2001-2013). He’s still playing, and he hasn’t slowed down much. In his 13th season this year, Pujols should hit is 500th home run (he’s currently at 486). He was the 2003 NL Rookie of the Year, and he’s already won the MVP three times, could easily have four more (he finished 2nd in ’02, ’03, ’06, & ’10, and 3rd in ’04), and Barry Bonds detractors will say that Bonds should hand at least two of his MVP’s over to Pujols because of the whole steroids thing (and as far as I know, Pujols has never been suspected or implicated in PED use). His 92.6 WAR is already good for 41st all-time (28th for position players), and he’s in the Top 50 in batting average (.322), on-base percentage (.411), slugging percentage (7th with .602), OPS (also 7th with 1.013), doubles (520), and homers (currently 28th), he’s 55th in RBI (1,474), and 93rd in walks (1,053). Oh, and he’s played 1st base (1484 games), 3rd base (106), left field (269), right field (40), and 1 game each at 2nd base and short stop. Something tells me that by the time he’s done, Pujols will go down as one of the 5 or 10 greatest players ever.
7. Frank Thomas (1990-2008). 521 homers (18th), .301 average, .974 OPS (14th), 1704 RBI (22nd), 1667 walks (1oth), 2 AL MVP awards. Those are pretty good numbers. In fact, Thomas has as many homers and MVP’s as Ted Williams, a higher batting average than Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle, his OPS is better than Mel Ott and Ty Cobb, more RBIs than Cal Ripken Jr, George Brett, and Mike Schmidt, and more walks than Stan Musial, Lou Gerhig, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron. Just based on his offensive numbers, he’s right up there with Bonds and Griffey in the “best hitters of the 90′s” conversation. He should be a first ballot Hall of Famer, but who knows what will happen next winter with the way those BBWAA guys vote now-a-days.
6. Ken Griffey, Jr. (1989-2010). I turned 21 in 1997, and my dad said we could take a trip anywhere I wanted (within reason) for my 21st birthday–just the two of us. 1997 was also the year that MLB started Inter-League Play. Most people (my brother included) would choose a trip to Las Vegas. I’m not most people. Dad and I flew up to San Francisco in June–two months after my birthday–to see the Mariners and Giants play at Candlestick Park. Why did I pick that series? Because the two best players in baseball at the time would be playing each other–Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr. I think they went a combined 1-11 with 4 walks in the two games, and Stan Javier was the hero of both, but whatever. Junior is 6th all-time with 630 home runs, 15th with 1,836 RBI, 40th in walks (6th in intentional walks), and if you ever saw him out in CF with Seattle, you just know how good he was. And I’m not too sure how many kids ever wore their ball caps backwards before Junior started doing it during batting practice. In my heart, I want to put him higher than 6th on this list, but my head can’t forget those Cincinnati years.
5. Greg Maddux (1986-2008). I don’t know that there’s been a pitcher with better control than Greg Maddux. Ever. Once things clicked for him (he was a combined 8-18 in ’86-’87, then in 1988, he went 18-8), he seemed to be able to put the ball where ever he wanted it. From 1988 through 2004, he won at least 15 games every year, and from ’88 to ’03, he never had an ERA over 3.96. Maddux wasn’t a power pitcher, but he still struck out 3,371 batters in his career, good for 10th all-time. He made 740 career starts (4th most all-time), with 109 complete games, and 35 shutouts. In 5,008.3 innings (13th most all-time), he only allowed 999 walks–that’s less than 2 walks per 9 innings pitched. Maddux won the NL Cy Young Award 4 straight years, from ’92 to ’95, and finished in the top 5 in ’89, ’96, ’97, ’98, and 2000. Maddux’s 355 wins are good for 8th best all-time. He was the first pitcher I was willing to pay just to see pitch.
4. Tony Gwynn (1985-2001). In 20 seasons, Tony had the highest batting average in the National League 8 times, the most hits 7 times. His .338 career average is good for 20th all-time, and he’s 19th all-time with 3,141 hits. But did you know that he stole 319 bases (he stole 56 in 1987 alone), was intentionally walked 203 times (12th all-time), and never struck out more than 40 times in a season (1988)? Tony Gwynn got into the Hall of Fame because of his hitting, but he also had a .987 career fielding percentage, committing only 62 errors in his 20 years and 2,326 games in the outfield (Ken Griffey, Jr had 89 in 21 seasons/2,384 games, Barry Bonds had 97 in 22/2,874). Only 16 guys have played more games in the outfield than Tony, his 4,512 assists are 43rd all-time among outfielders, and he turned 26 double plays from the OF, the same as Torii Hunter, Frank Robinson, and Ichiro, and more than Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Devon White, Dale Murphy, and Tim Raines. For those WAR fans, Tony’s career WAR was 68.9, good for 71st among position players, and his 66.3 Offensive WAR is 70th. He’s 67th in career plate appearances (10,232), 70th in games played (2,440), 94th in runs scored (1,383), 61st for total bases (4,259), and his 543 doubles are 28th best all-time. No matter how you look at it, Tony Gwynn was one of the 100 greatest baseball players to ever play the game. The downside to playing 20 years in San Diego is that Tony never got the media attention he deserved, but for Padres fans (and baseball fans in San Diego like me), it just means that he’s all ours and we don’t have to share Mr. Padre with anyone else. Other than San Diego State.
3. Rickey Henderson (1979-2003). The guy led the American League in stolen bases and walks at age 39. Let that sink in for a minute…No one in baseball history has scored more runs or stolen more bases than Rickey (or has been caught stealing more), only 3 players have played in more games or have more plate appearances, and only Barry Bonds has more walks. For all of you über-stat-geeks, his 110.7 WAR is 19th best all-time (14th for position players), and his 104.1 Offensive WAR is good for 16th best all-time. Rickey’s job was to get on base and to get in scoring position, and no one did that better (or for a longer period of time), than Rickey. He also hit 297 home runs in his career. That’s pretty good for a lead-off hitter–in fact, no one has hit more home runs as a lead-off hitter than Rickey. I didn’t get to see him until the end of his career when he played for the Padres, but he was still fun to watch. He was with San Diego in 2001 when he notched his 3,000th hit–a home run. As only Rickey could do, he slid in to home before being mobbed by his teammates.
2. Randy Johnson (1988-2009). I was able to see RJ pitch a few times when he was with Arizona. From ’93 to ’02, I don’t think there was a more dominant pitcher in baseball. 4 straight NL Cy Young Awards (99-02) plus his 1st in ’95, 303 wins (22nd all-time), 10.61 K/9 IP (best all-time), 4,875 career K’s (2nd all-time), 603 career starts with 100 complete games, and 37 shutouts. And all of that while hitters were pumping themselves full of steroids and God-knows-what-else and putting up crazy inflated numbers. If you haven’t seem them yet, or it’s been a while, look up when he faced John Kruk and Larry Walker in the 1993 and 1997 (respectively) All-Star Games. And who can forget that sweet, sweet mullet.
1. Barry Bonds (1986-2007). Say what you want about all of the negative aspects of his career–and there are a lot of them (shoot, his teammates at Arizona State agreed to kick him off the team when Coach Jim Brock put it to a vote)–but the guy could flat-out play. His career stats are just insane, and even if you discount the Steroids Years, his stats are still Hall of Fame worthy (see this previous post). There is no doubt in my mind that Barry Bonds is not only the greatest baseball player I ever saw play, but he was the greatest player of my generation, and probably one of the ten greatest players to ever play the game.
Honorable Mention (In no particular order because I don’t feel like doing that much thinkin’): Fred McGriff, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Trevor Hoffman, Ivan Rodriguez, Mark McGwire, Gary Sheffield, Mike Piazza, JT Snow (for his defense alone), Chipper Jones, Carlos Beltran, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio.