Greatest athletes in San Francisco sports history

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YCN Greatest Athletes San Francisco. Yahoo! Sports photo illustration.
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YCN Greatest Athletes San Francisco. Yahoo! Sports photo illustration.

Editor's note: YCN contributor Dave Tobener has compiled his list of the 10 greatest athletes for San Francisco. Joe Montana claimed the No. 1 spot in user poll voting. Complete results are to the right.

[Vote for No. 1: Baltimore | New York | Philadelphia | Pittsburgh | Complete series]

When listing the 10 greatest athletes in San Francisco history, one thing becomes perfectly clear: there's an embarrassment of riches to consider. So many great athletes have come through this city, it's nearly impossible to narrow a list down to 10.

The only way was to come up with criteria. The list includes players who played professionally in San Francisco, so collegiate players were out. It doesn't include players who were born in San Francisco but played professionally elsewhere, nor does it include players from teams in the general Bay Area (so no Oakland A's or Raiders, no Golden State Warriors, no San Jose Sharks, etc.). And the list doesn't just take performance into account; rather, it encompasses everything a player did while he played in San Francisco. Popularity, cultural impact, and the like were all weighted when constructing this list.

With that in mind, here's the list of the top 10 athletes in the history of San Francisco, listed in alphabetical order. Who's your pick?

Barry Bonds (Giants, 1993-2007)

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Tim Lincecum (55) celebrates after throwing a no-hitter against the Padres. (USA TODAY Sports)

The scandals that have plagued Bonds since he left the game have taken some of the shine from his legacy. Still, there's no denying the impact he had on the Giants and on San Francisco. The city wouldn't have AT&T Park without Bonds putting people in the seats and driving up fan interest in the late '90s, and the Giants wouldn't have enjoyed one of their longest runs of success without his exploits on the field. In spite of what he did or didn't do off the field, Bonds was the most exciting player to ever put on a Giants uniform since Willie Mays. His at-bats were can't-miss, and he often did things on the field most people thought were impossible. And even though he's a pariah everywhere else, Bonds still gets standing ovations whenever he shows up at AT&T. San Francisco fans won't ever forget what he did for their team, and what he did for their city.

Roger Craig (49ers, 1983-90)

It's easy to picture a Craig run: eyes wide, knees pumping furiously, rushing to the end zone. While he never put up huge rushing yardage numbers in his career, Craig was ahead of his time as a dual-threat back that could hurt teams with his pass-catching ability as much as he could with his running. He may have been overshadowed by his more famous teammates, but Craig was as big a part of the Niners' dynasty as anyone. It's a shame that many fans still only remember Craig for his infamous fumble in the closing minutes of the 1990 NFC championship game that cost the 49ers a chance at winning their third straight Super Bowl. He deserves to be remembered as one of the most dynamic offensive players in 49ers history.

Tim Lincecum (Giants, 2007-13)

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Tim Lincecum (55) celebrates after throwing a no-hitter against the Padres. (USA TODAY Sports)

"The Freak" may have fallen on hard times recently (save the no-hitter in early July), but few young players could have captured the collective imagination of a city quite like Lincecum did when he came onto the scene in 2007. The most heralded prospect to come out of the Giants' system in decades, Lincecum didn't disappoint on the field: he won back-to-back Cy Young awards and helped pitch the Giants to two World Series championships. His affable, laid-back personality fit perfectly with the city and he became a huge fan favorite, arguably one of the most popular Giants of all time. Though his reputation has taken a hit lately with his declining performance, there's no way to overstate the hysteria that Lincecum generated in San Francisco or the cultural impact he had on the city. Just ask anybody who bought a Lincecum wig.

Ronnie Lott (49ers, 1981-90)

Lott is arguably the most fearsome defender in 49ers history. Though the Niners of the 1980s are mostly remembered for their offensive talent, Lott was the face of a punishing defense that shattered the notion of the Niners being merely a finesse team. You'd be hard-pressed to find an athlete tougher than Lott, who famously had the tip of his left pinky finger amputated rather than have surgery that would have caused him to miss the start of the 1986 season. That toughness made Lott a fan favorite, and his high level of play made him a legend in San Francisco. He's still the standard by which all 49ers defenders are measured.

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Steve Young waited a long time before getting his chance to lead the NIners to glory. (Getty)

Juan Marichal (Giants, 1960-73)

Marichal garnered legendary status almost as much for his wild, high leg kick as he did for actually stifling batters. Marichal was nearly 100 games over .500 during his career, but he had a stretch from 1963-69 where his numbers were unreal. In a seven-year period, he won more than 20 games six times, including leading the league with 25 and 26 victories, respectively, in '63 and '68.

Willie Mays (Giants, 1958-72)

How spoiled are San Francisco fans? Not only did arguably some of the greatest football players of all time call the city home, but the same can be said for baseball. Mays could do it all on the baseball field. In his prime, he was the best all-around player the game had ever seen. Though fans were slow to embrace Mays after the Giants moved from New York, he won them over with his play and is the ultimate Giants icon today. There's a reason his statue greets people at the entrance to the ballpark, and there's a reason AT&T Park's official address is 24 Willie Mays Plaza. He's without question the greatest player in Giants history.

Willie McCovey (Giants, 1959-73, 77-80)

"Stretch" holds a special place in the hearts of San Francisco fans. As one of the Giants' first true home-grown superstars after the team moved west, fans in the city embraced McCovey as one of their own. His performance on the field didn't let them down as McCovey became one of the most feared power hitters in baseball and one of the best left-handed hitters the game has ever seen. He remains popular to this day and is still an important part of the Giants organization, and the team gives out the Willie Mac Award (named in McCovey's honor) to the Giants' most inspirational player each year. And of course the body of water just over AT&T Park's right field wall just happens to be named after him. A true legend, McCovey has been a presence with the Giants for more than 50 years.

Joe Montana (49ers, 1979-92)

If championships measure greatness, Montana makes a strong case for No. 1 on that merit alone. He was the face of the 49ers dynasty and has a strong case to be considered as the best quarterback ever. His four Super Bowl rings and his history of success are more than enough for Montana to be considered for this list, but consider this: if you were to pick just one image that summed up San Francisco's sports history, what would it be? For me, it would be a shot of Montana from the back, dirt on his uniform, arms raised after throwing another touchdown pass. That picture is San Francisco.

Jerry Rice (49ers, 1985-2000)

There's a compelling argument to be made that Rice is the greatest football player of all time, regardless of position. He was a marvel on the field who seemed to catch every ball thrown his way and who made cornerbacks look silly on a regular basis. He shattered NFL receiving records and maintained a standard of excellence throughout his career, helping the 49ers to win three Super Bowl titles. There really aren't enough words to describe just how good Rice was on the field. There hadn't been a receiver like him before, and no one has managed to come close to his greatness since. Like Lott, he's one of the names that personifies the golden age of Niners football in San Francisco and for that he'll always be a favorite in the city. There will never be another player quite like him.

Steve Young (49ers, 1987-1999)

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Steve Young waited a long time before getting his chance to lead the NIners to glory. (Getty)

Following a Hall-of-Fame quarterback isn't an easy task, but Young managed to step out of Montana's gigantic shadow and put together his own Hall-of-Fame career. A precursor to today's mobile quarterbacks, Young was a dynamic player who could hurt opponents with both his arm and his legs. And while some 49ers fans were slow to embrace Young, he eventually won most of them over with how well he played. Bringing a Super Bowl title to the city didn't hurt, either. One can make the case that Young was under-appreciated because of the huge shoes he had to fill. He still managed to carve out his own legacy as one of the best athletes San Francisco has ever seen.

Honorable mentions: Will Clark, Gaylord Perry, Orlando Cepeda, Buster Posey, Jeff Kent, Wilt Chamberlain, Nate Thurmond, Frank Gore, Bob St. Clair, Hugh McElhenny, Dave Wilcox, Leo Nomellini, Matt Williams and Bryant Young.

Dave Tobener is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer whose work has appeared on numerous sports websites, including Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew. You can follow him on Twitter @gggiants.

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