The best players choose the best player
Already the room teemed with the best of the best. So the idea of going around to baseball’s All-Stars and asking them to take things to the third degree – ask the best of the best to name their choice for the best player in baseball – seemed perfect.
Who better to ask than the best players in the game? They ought to know. They see each other daily. Pitchers laud their peers, hitters the same. One league props its players, the other answering likewise. They ponder tools vs. talent and now vs. then and innumerable other arguments bisected by the word versus. The debate, inexorable, begins forthwith.
In fact, sometimes it becomes an internal one, players arguing with themselves over a choice. Of the 26 players surveyed during the All-Star interview session this week, a baker’s dozen from each league, with a simple question – “Who is the best player in baseball today?” – more than half bandied about multiple names before settling on a final answer.
This, really, comes as no surprise, even with the three-time MVP’s season pocked by injuries and falling a distant second, in headlines garnered, to his alleged dalliances with Madonna. A-Rod, who turns 33 in nine days, stands just 225 home runs shy of Barry Bonds’ career record, could well break the records for runs and RBIs, and benefited from a group of his peers more inclined to go on history than present production.
Rodriguez received nine votes. Next was Josh Hamilton, the Texas Rangers outfielder in only his second full season, who got six votes. And the poll was taken around noon on Monday, hours before the Home Run Derby, where Hamilton smashed three balls more than 500 feet and won legions of admirers.
“It’s really hard to argue with what Alex has accomplished over his career,” said Michael Young, the Rangers shortstop and only All-Star who has teamed with Rodriguez and Hamilton. “When you talk about the best player in the game, you have to talk about some longevity as well. I play with Josh. I know how special he is. I know how talented of a guy he is. Alex has been doing it for 13 years.”
The case between the two is interesting. Hamilton leads this year in counting statistics, his 95 RBIs best in baseball and his 21 home runs third in the American League. Rodriguez’s rate stats are better, with higher on-base and slugging percentages, and slightly better numbers defensively, although third base is considered a little easier to man than center field.
It’s the spectacle of Hamilton – the back story of his recovery from crack addiction, the tattoos that cover his body, the fluidity with which he carries his 220 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame – pitted against the learned brilliance of Rodriguez.
“The player now most guys want to watch is Hamilton because of everything he can do,” Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau said. “But it’s hard to argue with 500-something home runs and everything Alex has done for how long he’s done it.”
Actually, it’s not that tough. Nearly two-thirds of the surveyed players opted elsewhere. Chicago White Sox outfielder Carlos Quentin took a full minute before making his pick. He thought about Albert Pujols for his natural hitting ability and Derek Jeter for his perceived propensity at clutch hitting and Ichiro Suzuki for how good he gets when he’s hot before attempting to settle.
“It’s like asking me what my favorite movie is or my favorite song,” Quentin said. “I could cut it down to position players – I’m not trying to do any injustice to pitchers. Geez. Tools-wise, talent-wise, it’s hard to pick against Josh Hamilton.
“You just look at his ability to do everything. His talent level is unbelievable. His potential is through the roof.”
Potential won Hanley Ramirez third place with three votes. Were the initial question phrased with a slight twist – “If you were starting a franchise today, who would be the player? – Ramirez, Florida’s 24-year-old shortstop with the whole kit and caboodle of skills, may have been the overwhelming choice.
“I’m from the old school,” Rockies pitcher Aaron Cook said. “I liked to play shortstop when I was in Little League, and I think you build your team around either your shortstop or center fielder. And I’d have to go with Hanley Ramirez.
“He basically does it all. He can hit anywhere from No. 1 to No. 5 in the lineup and be comfortable.”
Ramirez blanched when told he’d been named by three peers. He said he’d pick second baseman Dan Uggla, his Marlins teammate who, 36 hours later, would play the single worst All-Star Game since Atlee Hammaker 25 years ago. He made three errors, struck out three times, grounded into a double play – truly put the ug in Uggla – and didn’t quite acquit Ramirez’s pick.
Yet it was commonplace among the most confused to pick someone familiar. Cleveland center fielder Grady Sizemore named his former teammate, pitcher CC Sabathia. Chicago Cubs catcher Geovany Soto went with his ace, Carlos Zambrano. San Francisco closer Brian Wilson chose Tim Lincecum, who recently turned 24 and was the youngest player to receive a vote.
“A hitter’s not necessarily going to win every game,” Wilson said. “But every five games, if you have a 90 percent chance of winning a game, you go with that.”
Players tended to vote along league lines, with Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, Philadelphia second baseman Chase Utley and Pujols – “The best hitter in the game,” Milwaukee ace Ben Sheets said, “and he won the Gold Glove last year” – nabbing a vote apiece.
Which leaves us with one remaining nominee, and it was the shocker of the day. The player named Los Angeles Angels pitcher Ervin Santana, whose 11-3 record and 3.34 earned-run average certainly is respectable, though he’s not even baseball’s best Santana. That would be Johan.
Given a chance to backtrack, the player declined. Dammit, he loved Ervin Santana, and no one would convince him otherwise.
“The best player? Me,” said Ervin Santana, the man who voted for Ervin Santana. “I’m not giving credit to nobody.”