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THE INSIDE TRACK | COMMENTARY

The All-Time Team Is Changing All the Time

April 01, 2001|THOMAS BOSWELL | THE WASHINGTON POST

For generations baseball fans have discussed their All-Time Team. The best ever. Heaven's ballclub. What lineup would you pick if one game were being played with your house as the side bet? To be a serious lifelong fan is to get a handle on that pantheon and everyone's place within it, from Ruth to Ripken.

Why, those two last names alone are enough to grab our imagination and start the process of making distinctions. Yes, Babe Ruth's in right field, hands down. No, Cal Ripken can't start over Honus Wagner at shortstop no matter how beloved he is. And it's not close. Tell Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez to forget about it, too. Will they win eight batting titles, six slugging titles, five RBI crowns and steal 723 bases like Wagner? Only if you put all three of them together.

This choose-up-sides labor of love is a ritual of spring and a sanity-saver in winter. And it's particularly apt these days because baseball has seldom had so many players in one era who actually deserve to be considered in such company. At almost every position, the game has at least one, if not two or three, superstars who can be compared, without embarrassment, to the best who ever played there.

On one hand, such an exercise appears goofy, unfair and almost impossible. How on earth can you compare Cy Young's 36 wins in 1892, when he pitched 48 complete games, with Pedro Martinez's 18 wins in a dainty 217 innings in 2000? One of the delights of baseball is that, with some common sense and a few statistics, you actually can bridge the decades, and even the centuries, in most cases.

For example, Martinez was much better! The gap between Pedro's ERA and the league average was twice as big as Cy's margin. And what's the big deal with 48 complete games. Wild Bill Hutchinson had 67 that year!

Luckily, every position is not up for grabs. Along with Ruth and Wagner, you put Rogers Hornsby at second base, Mike Schmidt at third base and Dennis Eckersley (587 wins-plus-saves) as your closer. Those spots are automatic. You can compliment others, but, with all due respect to Robby Alomar's pursuit of 3,000 hits and Mariano Rivera's five amazing seasons and four Series rings, you can't pick them.

Part of a proper childhood is learning that Hornsby hit .380 seven times, won the slugging title nine times and that any adult who thinks somebody else was a better second baseman has mashed potatoes for brains.

After these first five easy picks, the wonderful screaming begins. And it's never going to stop. Is it fair to pick Walter Johnson and Johnny Bench as the all-time starting battery, as is usually done, over Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, who never got to play in the majors?

Somebody's always going to grouse about Ted Williams being in left field ahead of Stan Musial. Who's your left-handed starter? Sandy Koufax (greatest short career), Warren Spahn (greatest long career) or Lefty Grove (best career combining longevity and brilliance)? And, if you know what's good for you, don't get fans started about Willie Mays vs. Joe DiMaggio in center field. That could take days. (Pssst, it's Willie. Joe got too many bonus "legend" points.)

However, in recent years, our predicament has gotten even more deliciously tangled. We're in a period of reappraisal. We know we're surrounded by an era of amazing players. But where do they stand compared with the best ever?

Getting a sense of perspective is disorienting. If Mark McGwire isn't hitting 70 home runs then Pedro Martinez posts a 1.74 ERA when the league average is 4.91! No pitcher has ever been that superior to his peers. Suddenly Mike Piazza's offensive numbers make every other catcher's look puny. He's combined the power of Bench with a career batting average (now .328) that's even higher than that of Mickey Cochrane or Bill Dickey. That wasn't supposed to be possible. Yet 29-year-old Ivan Rodriguez might end up with 3,000 hits, 300 homers and better defensive credentials than any of the top-hitting backstops. Where does Pudge fit?

Ironically, in a period of inflated offense, baseball has produced five of its greatest pitchers. Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux could each win 300 games. Randy Johnson strikes out more men than Koufax. Pedro is Pedro. And no reliever has ever closed more big October games with an ERA as low as Rivera has.

To add to this glorious mess, Barry Bonds, one of the best defensive left fielders ever, may end up with 600 homers, 500 steals, 2,000 walks and 2,000 runs. But so what? With 438 homers at 31, Ken Griffey Jr., could break Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs-unless he gets hurt or bored. Don't forget all his Gold Gloves, too.

So, do any of these stalwarts actually deserve to break into our All-Time lineup? And who, in the next decade, might we have to add? Everybody has an opinion.

But, as any fan knows, only your own is correct. Some things are too important for doubt. So let's settle every issue, all at once, right now.

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