Trying to determine baseball's best basestealer is a little like trying to decide who throws the best chest pass in the NBA. The list of candidates is a short one.
The stolen base isn't nearly the weapon in the 21st century that it was in 1970s and 1980s, when a team could win a pennant -- the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, for instance -- with a lineup full of jackrabbits.
Now, most teams concentrate on the big inning, and in doing so, shy away from the steal. Why risk an out when a three-run homer could be on the on-deck circle?
Some teams, however, still aren't afraid to run, and there exists a handful of players who are fully capable of swiping a bag nearly at will.
But the one name everyone mentioned, without fail, was the Florida Marlins' Juan Pierre, who has stolen 203 bases over the last four years, an average of nearly 51 per season. Last year, he stole 45 (Podsednik had 70 to lead the majors; Crawford's 59 was tops in the AL).
Still, this isn't who steals the most, or even who runs the fastest. Pierre would lose both of those contests. Crawford may be baseball's fastest player, and Podsednik has more total steals over the last two seasons. It's generally agreed that Ichiro could steal far more often if he -- or the Mariners -- so chose.
But one expert after another said Pierre is the guy they'd want running if they needed someone to steal a big base.
"First of all,'' explains one major league executive, "he's got good instincts. Speed is one thing; instincts are another. He gets great leads, and that shows he's not afraid to get picked off. And that's another trait you look for: fearlessness. The great ones have it.''
Added a longtime scout: "Some guys -- for lack of a better word -- outrun the ball. Pierre's not one of those guys. But he's plenty fast enough and he uses his speed well. He's the kind of guy who maximizes his ability.''
Josh Byrnes, the Red Sox's assistant general manager, can vouch for that. Byrnes was with the Colorado Rockies when Pierre took -- not surprisingly -- the fast track to the big leagues.
"We rushed him,'' concedes Byrnes, looking back. "He was a left fielder in the (Class A) South Atlantic League, and 12 months later, he was a starting center fielder in the major leagues. We sped him along.
"But he didn't take long to make an impact. I think he hit safely in his first 14 or 15 games, and that included a three-hit game against Randy Johnson. And he hasn't backed down since. He'd stick his nose in there. Seeing Juan pace around the on-deck circle (to lead off a game), you knew he was ready to go.''
It wasn't at all unusual to see Pierre working with former major leaguer Dave Collins in early morning spring training sessions. Collins instructed Pierre on all things "small ball'' -- from bunting to bat control to stealing bases. Pierre listened well.
"He picked up a lot of the nuance,'' recalls Byrnes. "The physical part of baserunning, as well as the mental part. He's always played with a sense of how his skills can impact a game, and he never wastes at-bats. You don't see him hitting the ball in the air much. He knows to hit the ball on the ground so he can put pressure on fielders to make plays, and then, on catchers to throw him out.''
Watching Pierre measure his lead, carefully eying the pitcher, is to watch a student at work.
"He knows how far to get off base,'' says another general manager. "He's pretty aggressive in that regard. He takes as big a lead as anyone. He's got that innate feel for how far to push the envelope. He's always out there just enough so that the pitcher knows he's teetering on the edge.''
And once Pierre puts his mind to going, there's little to stop him.
"He's got that first-step quickness that you want in an elite basestealer,'' remarks a veteran advance scout. "And he's fearless. That's definitely something else you look for.''
Pierre was caught 24 times in 69 tries last year -- a far less successful ratio than Podsednik, who was nabbed just 13 times in 83 attempts. But that, too, can be deceiving.
"He steals when it means something,'' says another talent evaluator. "He's not padding his total. Everyone knows he's going and he still makes it most of the time. That, to me, is the mark of a really great basestealer.''
"He's not the kind of guy who would have won a lot of foot races with some of those guys in the '80s,'' says Byrnes. "But he has a passion for stealing bases and disrupting the game.''
And no one does it better.
Sean McAdam of the Providence (R.I.) Journal covers baseball for ESPN.com.