It’s a legitimate question with a dozen different correct answers. A close friend of mine noted that at the Giants home opener, after Willie Mays was introduced, a Cardinals fan who was sitting close by announced respectfully that Mays was the greatest player to ever play the game. He wasn’t necessarily wrong either. Willie Mays was a Rookie of the Year Award winner, was honored with two MVP’s, twenty all-star selections and twelve Gold Gloves. His 162-game average was .302 with 36 home runs and 18 stolen bases. Other names that are commonly mentioned include Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig and Hank Aaron. They’re all correct answers too.
The “Greatest Ever” question can be debated endlessly and we’d still never be closer to one final correct answer. But I raise the question, can this ever change? Will there ever be a player who once and for all answers the question? This player would need to hit for average like Ted Williams did, and hit for power the way Aaron could, run the way Mantle could before knee injuries, play the field the way that Mays did, revolutionize the game the way Ruth did, not have their careers interrupted by war, stay away from substances and performance enhancers, stay healthy and finally, get the hardware to boot. That’s a pretty tall order, though hopefully not an impossible one.
(Please forgive me ahead of time if your favorite player was not mentioned, there was no ill-intent)
Admittedly, many of these players came from a specific time period that we in our modern time tend to revere as heroes. They were larger than life when they played, but now, several decades later, their legend has grown beyond any questionable reason. To say a wrong word or to speak of them though they weren’t the greatest ever comes with the penalty of horrible ridicule and banishment from any intelligent conversation ever again. Though this doesn’t mean that this list of extraordinarily accomplished athletes can never be added to.
To the game’s credit, several players have entered this conversation just in the recent past, but in true fashion, their feats have come up short under the scrutiny that the modern world provides. Pete Rose was hated or loved by almost everyone, but his lack of HR power combined with mortal SB numbers and a gigantic gambling mistake have effectively removed him from such consideration. Ken Griffey Jr. certainly had the talent and numbers early in his career, but injuries took five years away in his early 30’s that likely would’ve put him square in the debate with the likes of Mays, Williams and Mantle. Barry Bonds certainly had the numbers, but unfortunately lacked the character, and his horrible mistake in judgment brought all his numbers in doubt. The worst part about the whole situation was that Bonds himself never needed the Performance Enhancers, he could’ve been the greatest without them. Tony Gwynn may be considered the greatest hitter for average, but a lack of other prominent skills left him short in the conversation.
As for current players, Ichiro Suzuki has placed himself firmly in the middle of the debate with his defense, speed and ability to hit for average. However, he didn’t come to America to play until age 27, and if he had arrived five years earlier, we’d be whistling a different tune. Alex Rodriguez was a definite possibility before admitted steroid use sent him the route of Bonds. Derek Jeter is certainly up there, though I don’t believe he’ll be regarded as the greatest ever despite minimal shortcomings given slightly less speed and power of the true greats. Albert Pujols is certainly on his way to being the greatest overall hitter of all time, and despite multiple Gold Glove Awards, his defense may never be mentioned in the same sentence as someone as great as Willie Mays. You can throw Miguel Cabrera into the same mix as well. He may go down as one of the greatest hitters ever, but a lack of speed and defense could keep him from the conversation. Ryan Braun has the talent and the numbers, but steroid allegations will need magically disappear and he’ll need to keep doing what he’s done for the past six years and do it again for another ten years into his late 30’s. An overhaul in image may also be needed if the media is to ever embrace Braun.
And of the newest crop of players, there are intriguing possibilities. Jason Heyward comes pre-packaged with all the ability to make a leap into the upper echelon, but may lack the ability to hit for average consistently. Giancarlo Stanton is a monster of a man that if he doesn’t contend for greatest player ever, he’ll likely be regarded as one of the greatest power hitters of all time. Bryce Harper has it all, but we’ll need to see him put together a monster year before saying he’s on his way. He’s certainly off to a good start this season. Mike Trout has the talent, the youth and that monster season already in hand, what he lacks is believability. Many “experts” saw what he did at age 20 and think it’s simply unrepeatable. So if his numbers dip from record breaking to merely great, he’ll likely need to have a career almost as long as Derek Jeter’s to be considered. And maybe there’s a prospect somewhere that can enter the conversation soon. It seems doubtful that Jurickson Profar or Wil Myers are that prospect, but maybe someone soon.
But even if these players have great careers, the numbers they’ll need to put up will have to be so good that they remove all doubt. Heyward would need to take his current homerun numbers, and almost double them, while maintaining his speed and defense and do so for the next twelve to fifteen years. Stanton would likely need to add ten more home runs and stolen bases and maintain such numbers for another decade at least, probably closer to fifteen. Harper would need to live up to his 40 HR potential, swipe a few more bags per season, get his batting average up closer to .300 and keep it up for another fifteen plus years. Trout would simply need to do precisely what he did last season, and have a long, injury free career that spans into his mid 30’s.
So will we ever have a sure-fire 100% correct answer to this question? Perhaps not. The world we live in right now doesn’t serve to glorify and make legends of mortal men, but searches for flaws and focuses on those. Perhaps if our current crop of great veterans and young stars played 60 years ago the story would be different. Perhaps everything will come together and we will have our answer. Most likely, we’ll just have a few more names to add to that illustrious list. Could picture it? Mays, Mantle, Gehrig, Ruth, Williams and Pujols/Cabrera/Braun/Stanton/Heyward/Harper/Trout. That would truly make this age we live in, a glorious one for baseball.