By SEAN EDWARD RAPOSA
June 17, 2008
OK - before you go all Lee Harvey Oswald-John Wilkes Booth three-name theory on me, I assure you that all my guns are properly registered and I’m an upstanding member of society … most of the time. I have finally found a venue to share my passion for sports and I figure there’s no better reason to utilize it than to honor my grandfather, Edward Raposa, who died at the age of 78 on Friday, June 6. A decorated Korean War veteran, my grandpapi was a legend in the Attleboro area of southeastern Massachusetts. He was a friend to many, a family man through and through and the person responsible for my sports fanaticism, which was passed through my pop. Happy Father’s Day, Dad.
This week’s category for My Five is a fitting tribute to the man whose enormous heart was counterbalanced by his diminutive physical frame. Lost amidst the relentless towering blimp shots and the Stallone-sized biceps of the Steroid Era were the reasons we all love the game of baseball, why everyone could play as a kid, and why it’s our national pastime (shameless plug, I know). There are so many ways to contribute, so many different roles to play and a wide variety of skills that are vital to a team’s success. Today I will be handing out accolades to some of baseball’s small wonders and my favorite players: The leadoff guys.
Trying to determine who the best leadoff hitter is typically generates heated debate because good table setters do so many things on the field and there are many different views on which of their skills are the most important. Ideally they are great defenders, disrupt opponents and create runs with their speed, hit for average and carry pop disproportionate to their featherweight frames. The growing popularity of the multi-tool player provides evidence the game is returning to its purist form, and there is no shortage of such talent these days. As Bob Marley said, “Everything is gonna be alright.” Let’s get to it:
No. 5: Tie between Grady Sizemore, Indians,
and Jacoby Ellsbury, Red Sox
When Abercrombie & Fitch genetically engineered these two center fielders they went heavy on the skills. I had to invoke the first tie in My Five history to avoid the inevitable onslaught of hate mail from Grady’s Ladies or Ells’ Belles (patent pending) had one been left out. Sizemore is built - 6‘2”, 200 pounds - and hits like a middle of the order guy (17 home runs and a .529 slugging percentage) but he’s a sabermetrician’s dream in the No. 1 spot. He has seen more pitches than any batter in the bigs this season and gets on-base at a .378 clip. His approach and discipline at the plate have led to 110-plus runs three years running, but like Ringo, he’ll need a little help from his friends to get there again in 2008.
Like Sizemore, who is fresh off his first Gold Glove award, Ellsbury is a wizard patrolling the outfield. He has yet to make his first major league error after 97 games and a silly diving grab from Ellsbury seems to be a weekly staple. Offensively, he’s a scrappy hitter who goes to all fields, can bunt for a hit and has good plate discipline for a youngster (30 K’s, 28 walks so far this season). He hits for average and is tied for ninth in the league in runs scored with 50. Beyond all that, it is Ellsbury’s speed that has Boston abuzz. He leads the majors with 33 stolen bases and has been christened by some as the fastest Red Sox player ever. At 24, his potential is boundless and it’s a great bet he’ll add an A.L. Rookie of the Year trophy to his World Series ring from last year.
No. 4: Jose Reyes, Mets
If this were the box office, Reyes might come out as the top dog. He’s the flashy speed-demon shortstop that owners drool over. As they say, you can’t teach speed, and this guy steals with the remorse of Tony Soprano. He’s led the National League in swiped bags three years in a row, including 78 last year - matching Marquis Grissom‘s 1992 haul for the most in the past 17 seasons. He’s a good hitter, batting .280 or higher in his first three full seasons in New York, and more importantly, he’s raised his on-base percentage 50 points over that span. Like many of the men we’ll be discussing today, Reyes is very young at 25 years of age and needs to improve his consistency and embrace the leadership role like his counterpart across the borough, Derek Jeter, did as a youngster. He is the most disruptive force on the bases today and has all the tools to be the best in the game
No. 3: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
Upon his arrival in the States in 2001, Ichiro faced the kind of pressure Dewey Cox dealt with when he followed Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Elvis onto the stage. As the first major positional player to make the leap from Japan and with a nation watching his every swing, the expectations were nearly impossible to live up to. Well, unless you’re Ichiro Suzuki, that is. He batted .350, scored 127 runs, stole 56 bases, led his team to a record-tying 116 wins and won the American League Rookie of the Year and MVP awards. His career in the U.S. has served as a tribute to the Japanese work ethic. He always shows up for work, having never played in less than 157 games, and he’s the poster child for consistency. Ichiro has batted over .300 (including two batting titles), scored 100-plus runs, stolen 30-plus bases and won the Gold Glove Award in each of his seven seasons. And, oh yeah, he’s the only player in history to have 200 or more hits in as many consecutive campaigns. Perhaps overlooked and underappreciated as dull in the Tim Duncan mold, I for one prefer to sit back and marvel at his greatness. The lack of pop in his 160 pound soaking-wet frame is the only thing keeping him from the top of this list.
No. 2: Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Much like Sizemore, Ramirez wouldn’t be allowed to step into the same Octagon as his My Five-mates. His 6‘3”, 195 pound frame and the power that comes with it have experts assuring his eventual movement into the No. 3 hole in the lineup, where he spent some time earlier this year. There is no question that Hanley is Florida’s best hitter and maybe the game’s brightest future star, but for now he’s more comfortable in the leadoff sport and I think that’s where he’ll stay. Targeted to be the face of the franchise in the Josh Beckett deal and paid as such with an extension this year, Ramirez has been nothing short of spectacular. In one year, his home runs increased from 17 to 29, his RBI total from 59 to 81 and his average from .292 to .332, and he swiped 51 bags in each of his first two full seasons. Despite a slow May, Ramirez is off to another great start this year, on pace for would-be career highs of 135 runs and 35 homers.
No. 1: Jimmy Rollins, Phillies
Rollins just may be my favorite player to watch these days. The reigning National League MVP does it all, and does it with an Allen Iverson-like confidence and flair. He’s not flashy or cocky, just a really talented tough customer - and he sports the Lil’ Wayne cornrows to boot. Like A.I. and Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas,” Rollins gives credence to the theory that you need to be leery of the little guy. At a mere 5’ 8” and 160 pounds, it’s hard to believe that he has belted 25 and 30 home runs and driven in 83 and 94 runs the past two years. The more traditional leadoff numbers were just as staggering, with 127 and 139 runs scored and 36 and 41 stolen bases respectively. In case you weren’t sold, Rollins tacked on a Gold Glove to his celebrated 2007 campaign for good measure and was the leader of a historic playoff charge that led to a division title. An ankle injury has slowed his start in 2008, but his 13 perfect burglary attempts, including three swipes in the last five games entering yesterday’s action, are a great sign. I expect him to get really hot and continue to lead what may be the N.L.’s best lineup. Get him now if you can in your fantasy leagues.
To be a successful professional athlete without the blessing of great physical size takes grit, athleticism, intelligence and cunning. Rollins exemplifies all these characteristics and is the man I’d want setting the tone for my lineup. He is a true five-tool player and a leader in the midst of his prime, and in my opinion, the most dynamic leadoff hitter in baseball.
Are you appalled that Ian Kinsler got snubbed? Banking on Rafael Furcal returning from injury and continuing the pace he set early? If Johnny Damon‘s wife came as a package deal, should they make My Five? Should we “Men In Black”-taser ourselves into forgetting that Brian Roberts was included in the Mitchell Report and give him some run? Post a comment and let me hear it.
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting Rotations, The Power Alleys, MLB’s Best Bullpens.