If you spend enough time in the baseball section of what the mass media often refers to as the "toy department," it is inevitable you eventually get asked this question: "Who's the best player you've ever seen?"
It came up again recently during a visit to 105.7 The Fan's "Vinny & Rob Show," and with July being "Hall of Fame Month" on my calendar, this seems like as good a time as any to revisit the subject. The first thing that has to be understood here is the approval rating of any answer will most likely be about the same as either of the assumed presidential candidates. In other words, there will be a lot of disagreement.
When Vinny Cerrato and Rob Long presented the question, I took an admittedly dangerous 15-second trip through the mental rolodex before coming up with an answer that was really only an opinion. It was something of a snap decision, absent any statistical comparisons, but one I was comfortable with days later -- after doing more than simple memory research.
In order to narrow down the process, all players before the second half of the 20th century were eliminated from consideration. The list was further reduced by interpreting players "seen" as those whose careers I'd witnessed from the beginning.
Put in that perspective, the question was one I'd actually asked myself a few times during the last couple of years -- most recently last year during my annual visit to Cooperstown, N.Y. Former Orioles executive Bob Aylward was among the Seattle representatives on hand for the festivities. The Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks were co-sponsors of a party honoring inductee Randy Johnson, but that wasn't the only reason for Aylward's trip
"Getting ready for Ken Griffey Jr. next year," he said.
"He was the best player I covered during my time on the [baseball] beat," I told Aylward. And that was the first time I answered the question posed by Vinny and Rob almost a year later.
Ken Griffey Jr. was the best player I saw, from start to finish.
There were, of course, some instant challenges. "What about Willie Mays?" was the first one. While I would not argue Mays was a great, perhaps even the greatest player, he didn't fit into my time frame. Neither did Ted Williams (who I still believe is the best hitter I ever saw, even at an advanced age), nor Joe DiMaggio.
Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Brooks and Frank Robinson, even former high school opponent Al Kaline, didn't survive the cut because their careers ended before mine had advanced beyond first gear. And just for the record, I'll take Babe Ruth's hitting and pitching record over anything else you can find in the Baseball Encyclopedia.
By eliminating so many, it may look, at first glance, like Griffey gets the nod by default. But hold on, not so fast. There have been a lot of Hall of Fame careers spun during the last four or five decades and still a few more in the works.
In all honesty, I must admit to eliminating all pitchers from this discussion -- not out of disrespect, but because I don't believe (despite what the WAR numbers might say) there is an equitable way to compare everyday position players to pitchers who start once every five days or work 100 innings per year.
Robin Yount was an MVP at two critical positions; George Brett was the best hitter of his time; Eddie Murray was the MVP of a decade (even if he never won one for a year); Cal Ripken Jr. had ability surpassed only by his durability; Rickey Henderson might have been the best leadoff hitter in baseball history; Derek Jeter's amazing accomplishments demand attention; Alex Rodriguez (who also started with Seattle) has unresolved issues, but his ability can't be doubted; Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose and the rest of the "Big Red Machine" were in the mix; so were Rod Carew, Carl Yastrzemski, Vladimir Guerrero, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield and so many more that I'm going to miss -- but not overlook.
In addition, there are a lot of potential Hall of Fame careers that don't, as yet, have a final resume. Very close to, if not at the top of that list is another player who debuted with the Mariners. Ichiro Suzuki, whose remarkable career will even establish an added chapter for the Hall of Fame itself, heads the list of active players headed to Cooperstown, but he's the only active player I'm including -- mainly because it's my discussion, so I get to set the boundaries.
By his own admission in a recent
feature, Griffey will probably best be known for his smile, his swing -- and wearing his hat backward. As an exuberant young player, he is credited with introducing the backward cap that once raised the ire of Orioles manager Buck Showalter, then a young and exuberant manager, but he brought so much more to the table as a far-roaming, hard-hitting center fielder.
Having looked at the question from every conceivable angle, I'm content to stick with my gut feeling. And I'm not even going to factor in the injuries that cost him three years close to the peak of his career.
With 630 career home runs unblemished by any hint of performance enhancement and 10 Gold Gloves, I believe he ranks as both the best offensive and defensive player of his time. And that makes it easy for me to say Ken Griffey Jr. was the best player I ever saw.
Let the debate begin -- or continue.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Issue 223: July 2016