|Wednesday, April 24
Greatness now is greatness always
By Joe Morgan
Special to ESPN.com
Everyone has his own opinion about baseball's all-time greatest players. Your list may depend on when you were born. It may only include players who played before 1980, legends like Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson and Roberto Clemente.
But don't recall the past greats without remembering the present. Some of today's players deserve consideration among the best to ever play their positions.
In compiling an all-time list, however, statistics should not be used to compare today's players to those from the past. Hitters generate superior numbers now than they did 20 years ago because the game is played in smaller ballparks with a livelier ball and with less-consistent pitching.
Baseball used to be the only sport in which numbers could be compared over eras. The statistics were more relative: If a player had 100 RBI, he was an excellent run producer; if he hit .300, he was a good hitter; and if he hit 30 home runs, he was among the best power hitters. But those offensive benchmarks no longer apply.
During Mays' prime, from 1954-1970, he hit .317 with 35 home runs and 99 RBI in an average season. Last season, though, 24 players hit 35 home runs or more, over 40 had 99 RBI or more, and 21 hit .317 or better. And no 20 players -- or maybe even two players -- have ever been better than Mays, today or any day.
Rather than numbers, which I have never cared about, I judge a player based on his ability and how he plays the game. Remember, the statistics may be bloated now, but the way the game is played on the field has remained the same. That is why great players from the past would be great players today, and today's great players would be great in the past.
Just imagine if Babe Ruth played in 2002 instead of 1922; he would hit 60-80 home runs every year. If Mays played today, he would average more than 60 home runs a year. Today's pitchers don't throw hard enough. And if they couldn't throw hard, they couldn't get Mays out. Ruth, Mays, Aaron and Williams would all have Barry Bonds-like numbers.
That said, here is my list of 15 current players, and those who retired after last season, who are among the all-time greatest at their position:
Catcher: Ivan Rodriguez and Mike Piazza
Every player on the list adds something special to the game when he takes the field. But of the 15, Bonds and A-Rod could someday be considered among the top five or 10 players of all time, regardless of position. Stop and watch what A-Rod is doing; his ability is unlimited. Ten years from now, we may wonder if he is the greatest player ever.
Except for Maddux, a finesse pitcher, one quality common among today's all-time greats is power. With their overpowering ability, they strike fear in the opposition. When Bonds is standing in the batter's box, he intimidates pitchers. When Johnson is on the mound, staring in at the plate, he intimdates hitters.
To be among the greatest ever, a pitcher has to be in the mold of a Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson. Neither pitcher won 300 games, but they dominated the opposition during their time. That is why I would rate today's all-time pitchers in the following order: Clemens, Johnson, Martinez and then Maddux.
I know Maddux has won a lot of games and has won four Cy Young Awards, but he lacks the intimidation factor of a power pitcher. Clemens and Johnson have each struck out 20 batters in a game (twice for Clemens), and Martinez has the potential to strike out 20. But if Maddux doesn't get calls on the outside corner, how many games would he win? The other three pitchers don't need help.
Who would a hitter rather face -- Johnson or Maddux? Maddux. Who would a pitcher rather face with the bases loaded -- Bonds or a dangerous singles hitter? The singles hitter. I could name 10 pitchers a hitter wouldn't want to face before Maddux, but I couldn't name 10 hitters a pitcher would be afraid of more than Bonds.
Power dictates everything and is one of the qualities that separates the dominant players from the great ones. Each hitter on my list can win a game with a home run. And each pitcher, except for Maddux, can blow a hitter away at any given time. For instance, Rivera, my only selection among today's closers, overpowers hitters in the late innings and was automatic in the postseason until Game 7 last November.
In addition to the 15 players I mentioned, there are more who have the ability to be among the all-time greatest at their positions. If they continue to play at their current level, look for their names to be added to my elite list in the next five years.
Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan is a baseball analyst for ESPN and writes a weekly column for ESPN.com.