Bird Land: The Greatest Living Lineup

2010-11-22T12:34:00Z 2012-12-18T17:42:26Z Bird Land: The Greatest Living LineupBY DERRICK GOOLD
November 22, 2010 12:34 pm  • 

TOWER GROVE - As part of the special section The Post-Dispatch put together for Stan Musial's 90th birthday (gratuitous link here), I was charged with putting together a list of the 10 greatest living players.

The assignment came with some guidance - retired players only, and, no, it wasn't the 10 greatest living players after Musial - and little else.

It was, as I mentioned in the paper, an imperfect exercise.

There is not a right answer.

Judging by the emails I've received since the section dropped Saturday, there are some wrong ones*. On the list of the 10 greatest living players, I included Barry Bonds, whose career has been tainted by allegations of performance-enhancing drug use and confirmed reports of caustic arrogance.

Yet, it wasn't his inclusion on the list that brought the most criticism. That honor goes to another left fielder: Rickey Henderson. Color me perplexed. All The Rickey did was score more runs than anyone ever, spend his career as the greatest leadoff hitter ever, and radically alter the game every time he got on base. Oh, and he was on base a lot. Only one other righthanded hitter ranked in the top 10. This is the guy who didn't belong on the list of the greatest living players? Well, brace yourself ...

* My favorite comments were the ones that listed 12, 13 or even 15 players I had to include on a list limited to 10 spots. In short, I failed because I couldn't alter the culturally accepted definition of 10. My bad.

The natural tangent to follow from the list of the 10 greatest living players is to put together the greatest living lineup.

I'll follow the same rules that were mentioned above. Only retired players are eligible. As we'll discuss below, including active players in the discussion would change two positions definitely and arguably a third. Also, as I chose 10 for Sunday's special section, one position gave me fits. I'll pass along the chore of choosing that position to you, in a poll you'll find under the picture above.

No more loitering.

Let's get the lineup, so you can get to commenting and criticizing. (Note: An asterisk designates a player who made the 10-greatest list linked above.)

C YOGI BERRA*: When I sketched out the 10-greatest list, I had Johnny Bench written in ink and was ready to move on to other positions. Berra's 10 World Series titles and 14 American League pennants drew back to his stats just to check. Obviously, that caused me to reconsider. Bench, rightfully, gets a lot of play as the game's best all-time catcher. He has eight Gold Gloves, he backstopped the mighty Red Machine, and he hit 389 home runs in his career. It's hard to pick against him at this position, except Berra's accomplishments are just as impressive. They seem to be hidden by his character, his quotes and his role with the Second Yankee Dynasty. Look for yourself:

Bench, 1967-83
.267/.342/.476 ... .817 OPS ...126 OPS+
1,091 runs ... 1,376 RBIs ... 389 HRs
2 MVPs ... 71.3 WAR ... 8 GG

Berra, 1946-65
.285/.348/.482 ... .830 OPS ... 125 OPS+
1,175 runs ... 1,430 RBIs ... 358 HRs
3 MVPs ...61.9 WAR ... 0 GG

Berra has impressive counting stats and rates, and his zero Gold Gloves is explained by the fact that most of his career came before the advent of the award. The championships can act as a tiebreaker, if necessary. Several of the people that I contacted for their expertise while researching this 10-greatest list insisted that Bench was the pick. Bill James, when he listed the best at each position, went with Berra. Other candidates: Bench, Mike Piazza. Active candidates: Meh.

1B STAN MUSIAL*: Musial spent more of his career in the outfield, but for the sake of sanity, let's put The Man at first base because there are so many options to take the three spots in the outfield. This decision comes with one caveat: If we were to include active players, this spot would go to Albert Pujols and Musial would move into the outfield. There is a case to be made that Pujols is the best first baseman since ... Lou Gehrig. This afternoon Pujols will learn if he won the National League MVP for the fourth time in his career or if he finished second for the fourth time in his career. That's pretty heady company, living or legendary. Other candidates: Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Willie McCovey. Active candidates: Pujols.

2B JOE MORGAN: There are probably numbers and performances out there that make it possible to pick another player at second. I just didn't find them. Morgan won five Gold Gloves at the position, two MVPs, and was the engine behind the Big Red Machine. Yes, he's become a polarizing personality as a broadcaster, but should detract from his career anymore than Berra's charisma hides his. From 1975 to 1976, Morgan won his two MVPs with a batting li9ne of .324/.456/.541 and OPS of .997. Several of my friends have pointed out that some of the same measures that Morgan rails against on the air are the same that support his place as the greatest living second baseman. Other candidates: Roberto Alomar, Craig Biggio, Jeff Kent. Active candidates: Someday Chase Utley.

3B MIKE SCHMIDT*: One of the most detailed rebukes I received about the 10-greatest list in Sunday's paper had to do with Schmidt. Rather, had to ... inconceivably ... do with Schmidt. The dude hit more homers than any other player in the 1980s, won 10 Gold Gloves, and is one of only two players to win three MVPs while playing entirely on the defensively demanding left side of the infield. Yet, according to one email I would have been better choosing Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith, Todd Helton, Andres Galarraga or, yep, Nick Stavinoha for the list ahead of Schmidt. I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that even Dr. Thunder would acknowledge Schmidt edges him in a few significant categories. (Stavinoha, it should be noted, has a .272 average and a .444 slugging percentage as a pinch hitter, dwarfing Schmidt's woeful .204 and .327, respectively.) If someone can explain to me why Schmidt is a bad pick here, please the floor is yours ... He'll hold this spot for a few more years, I figure. Other candidates: Brooks Robinson, Wade Boggs, George Brett. Active candidates: Alex Rodriguez, Chipper Jones.

SS CAL RIPKEN JR.*: A hard call, especially for the home crowd here. Both Ripken and Ozzie Smith were on the short list for the 10-greatest. Ripken has the offensive numbers. Smith was unmatched defensively at the game's most important defensive position. What gives Ripken the nod here isn't the streak (impressive) or the 3,000 hits (very impressive), but the era he inspired. Ripken became the model for the modern shortstop, and that cannot be ignored.  Other candidates: Smith, Robin Yount and Barry Larkin. Active candidates: Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter.

LF RICKEY HENDERSON: Yep, Henderson gets the nod here. This could be a pick that reveals my age, because few players were as dynamic or colorful as Henderson at his height. Guilty: I had to get those batting gloves that were the color of pulped lightning bugs. Who didn't? Henderson ran down the unreachable record - Ty Cobb's career runs - and he lapped the field when it came to stolen bases. (He has nearly 500 more than any one in history.) He was a nomad, and that could hurt his Q-rating because he doesn't have that iconic uniform or that devoted fan base. But the game's best leadoff hitter belongs on the list somewhere, he belongs in his lineup. Other candidates: Barry Bonds*, Carl Yastrzemski, Rose. Active candidates: Not right now.

CF WILLIE MAYS*: Imagine an outfield of Musial in left, Mays in center and the guy coming up in RF. In a few biographies, the next player mentioned describes how $50 was the difference between him being a Brave and him signing with the Giants and starting next to Mays. Other candidates: Ken Griffey Jr., oh what could have been. Active candidates: Not really.

RF HANK AARON*: No debate here. Moving on. Other candidates: Frank Robinson*, Al Kaline, Tony Gwynn, and I did hear one vote for Reggie Jackson. Active candidates: Not at that caliber.

LHP SANDY KOUFAX*: This was a more difficult pick than it probably should have been. What Koufax lacks in longevity, he makes up in sheer dominance. Still, I wonder if a decade or so from now, as Koufax's career becomes less contemporary and more sepia-toned, if another lefty eclipses him as not only the greatest living lefty, but arguably the greatest lefty. Who? Randy Johnson. Other candidates: Johnson, Steve Carlton. Active candidates: Too early to tell.

RHP Poll Pick: This position is a test of fence-sitters everywhere. There is no wrong answer, and apparently there is no right answer. I went with Tom Seaver*. When I first made out my list of the greatest living players, Seaver was one of the first names removed. Fast-forward a few days of research and Seaver was back on the trusty yellow legal bad, listed behind the likes of Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens. The more I looked, the more support for Seaver I found. I eventually sided with an ESPN poll of his peers that named him the best, and the influence he had over the next wave of starting pitchers. Still, there's a number of ways to go here. If you go with peak years, you can side with Gibson, Seaver, or Feller, the oldest living Hall of Famer. If you go with longevity and total numbers, Ryan's you're guy. If you go with the dominant heft from an entire career, then hold your nose and pick Clemens. Greg Maddux deserves some attention. And that's why I leave it up to you to pick. Click away. Active candidates: None like these guys.

Closer DENNIS ECKERSLEY: Let's be blunt. Whoever holds this position during this exercise is only keeping it warm for Mariano Rivera's retirement. Like Pujols, Rivera would be here, listed, if active players were thrown into consideration. Heck, we should probably bend the rules to list him here now. Eckersley is the pick, but there are a handful of quality closers who would slide in here without many complaints. Other candidates: Lee Smith, Bruce Sutter, Billy Wagner (a 187 career ERA+!), Rollie Fingers. Active candidates: Rivera, Trevor Hoffman.


HIT THE LINKS: New York Times columnist George Vecsey, a longtime fan of Musial and certified Stan the Man-iac, wrote a birthday letter to the Cardinals great. ... The United Cardinals Bloggers have posted their annual best-of awards, and apparently I need to step up my game. Writing epic entries almost daily just ain't good enough anymore. ... Washington University is hosting a panel on the Future of Sports next Monday. Panelists include the aforementioned Bill James, Sports Illustrated writer and super-blogger Joe Posnanski and Bob Costas. The panel has been organized by local author Michael MacCambridge, and there is more information here, including a link to RSVP. ... The free-book contests continue at the Bird Land@Facebook page. Today is the final day to submit a limerick or haiku about the Cardinals, or vote (by clicking "like") on the one that you think should win.


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