Forty years ago, when the All-Star Game came to the District in the 100th anniversary season of professional baseball, there was a dinner honoring those who were selected to a team known as baseball’s “Greatest Living Players.”
At the time, Ted Williams, managing the Washington Senators, and Joe DiMaggio were alive and well and were named two-thirds of that team’s outfield. The third outfielder was Willie Mays.
Hank Aaron was on the National League All-Star team that year. He didn’t make the greatest living players team. He didn’t even get an invitation to the dinner.
So let’s take care of that right now.
Hank Aaron is the greatest living player today. Period. No asterisk needed. And on the eve of the 80th All-Star Game in St. Louis and 40 years after the 1969 game, it is worth taking a look at the “Greatest Living Players” team now - at least in this heart and mind.
The outfield is a no-brainer. Baseball fans are blessed that Aaron, Mays and Frank Robinson are all still with us, so they are easy choices.
Going around the horn, first basemen to be considered would have to include a slugger like Willie McCovey and a run-producing machine like Eddie Murray.
But I think baseball’s greatest living first baseman is playing the game today: Albert Pujols.
He is the greatest player in the game today, and given the remarkable season he is having this year - 32 home runs, 87 RBI and a .332 average - the best still may be to come. He is only 29 and already has 351 career home runs, 1,064 RBI and a .334 career batting average. He is a two-time MVP, on his way to a third, and a good fielding first baseman with a Gold Glove to his credit.
It’s not easy saying a player in the game today - or even in the past 10 years or so - is one of the greatest living players of all-time, given the steroid cloud that hangs over the era. Cross your fingers that Pujols is the real deal.
The choices at second base include Rod Carew, Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan. Carew is listed as a second baseman in Cooperstown, but he only played the position for the most part in nine of his 19 seasons.
Sandberg makes it interesting, a nine-time Gold Glove winner who hit 282 home runs, drove in 1,061 runs, stole 344 bases and batted .285 in 16 seasons.
But it says here that Morgan is the best second baseman alive. I know familiarity breeds contempt, and his longtime presence on ESPN baseball broadcasts may have worn thin. But his numbers put him in the argument - 268 home runs, 1,133 RBI, 689 stolen bases, and a .271 average (plus five Gold Gloves). But what puts him over the top are the two MVP awards he won in 1975 and 1976 on a team seemingly full of MVPs - the Big Red Machine.
His double-play partner is a tough one. It comes down to weighing the value of offense vs. defense at the shortstop position.
Ozzie Smith is the greatest fielding shortstop alive - a 13-time Gold Glover. And he managed to turn himself into enough of an offensive player - a .262 average, 580 steals, 1,257 runs scored - over 19 seasons to make him an important part of those St. Louis Cardinals lineups.
Cal Ripken is the greatest offensive shortstop alive - 431 career home runs, with a record 345 at shortstop, 3,184 hits, 1,695 RBI and a .276 average. But while he was not Smith’s equal on the field, he ranks among the best fielding shortstops in a number of areas. He has the most double plays of a shortstop in the American League with 1,682 and led shortstops in assists for seven years, tying the league mark held by fellow Hall of Famers Luke Appling and Luis Aparicio.
Plus, there is that detail of the 2,632 consecutive games - 2,216 at shortstop. Ripken gets the nod.
Third base is almost as tough. Thirty years after he retired, Orioles great Brooks Robinson remains the most identifiable player at that position. He was a good offensive player with 268 home runs, 1,357 RBI and a .267 average over 23 seasons. But he won so many Gold Gloves - 16 - they should have renamed the award after him.
But Phillies third sacker Mike Schmidt’s offensive numbers are too strong to overlook - 548 home runs and 1,595 RBI in 18 seasons. Since he was no slouch with the glove, either, winning 10 Gold Gloves, he has to be the greatest living third baseman.
Behind the plate, Yogi Berra may be the greatest living New York Yankees player, but Johnny Bench is still the standard at catcher - 389 home runs, 1,376 RBI and 10 Gold Gloves in 17 seasons - and the greatest living catcher.
The team needs a right-handed and a left-handed starter, and this probably sparks the most debate. There was a time not along ago when some would have said Roger Clemens is the greatest living right-handed pitcher, but I seem to “misremember” that time.
So I guess the nod would have to go to Greg Maddux, with his 355-227 record and 3,371 strikeouts in 23 seasons - though it is hard for me to pass over Tom Seaver, who finished with a 311-205 mark (231 complete games) in 20 seasons, many of them with the New York Mets. But Maddux it is.
Some people might say that the same reasons Sandy Koufax is in the Hall of Fame - stunning dominance in a short career with three Cy Youngs and a 97-27 record in his final four seasons, plus three no-hitters and a perfect game - should be the reasons he is the greatest living left-hander.
Others would say the long-term success of Steve Carlton, with a record of 329-244 in 24 seasons, 4,136 career strikeouts and four Cy Youngs, is the right choice.
At their best, which one would you want on the mound? Koufax, the greatest left-handed pitcher alive.
I am reluctant to even choose a closer because the position is so difficult to get a historical handle on. Is it Rollie Fingers, Bruce Sutter or Goose Gossage, all Hall of Famers who were relievers at a time when it was not so specialized down to simply a ninth-inning appearance? Or are we watching the greatest living closer of all-time when Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, who was born the same year the first greatest living team was picked, comes out of the bullpen?
The manager has come out of the dugout and is signaling for Rivera, with his sustained excellence in 15 seasons - 505 saves, a 2.29 ERA and a remarkable postseason record of 76 appearances, a 0.77 ERA and 34 saves.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2009 version of the Greatest Living baseball team.