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NotGraphs: My most favorite baseball players in the whole wide world, Part II

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A cross-post, Toronto Blue Jays heavy, from NotGraphs:

Last week, I gave you those baseball players that make up the latter half of my top 10 most favorite baseball players in the whole wide world. If you missed it, and would like to read my most scientific of scientific reasoning, here’s the post. However, since then, I’ve had to make one change to those very rankings. Here they are, in short order:

10. Melky Cabrera and Coco Crisp. It’s a tie. Actually, to be more specific, Melky Cabrera and Coco Crisp’s afro.
9. Kirk Rueter
8. Paul O’Neill
7. Tony Fernandez
6. Mark McGwire

Without further ado, I present my top five:

5. J.T. Snow

The more I thought about this most fruitful exercise, the more I thought about J.T. Snow. And I’ve come to the realization that, deep down, I’ve always had an affinity for slick-fielding first basemen. And that love affair began with J.T. Snow. The scoop at first, it’s an art. And Snow was an artist. He wasn’t the greatest hitter, and, even though he spent the majority of his career in the National League, I always kept a watchful eye on Jack Thomas’ career. And, hey, on top of winning six straight Gold Gloves, Snow saved young Darren Baker’s life. That counts. (On an aside, I’ll never forget Dusty Baker’s reaction in the dugout after the incident. Baker knew, as we all did, that when he got home that night, he was a dead man.) In the end, two years after his retirement, Snow’s career ended the way so many players’ don’t: He signed a one-day contract with San Francisco, and left the game once and for all a Giant.

4. Ken Griffey Jr.

“The Kid.” That swing. Along with John Olerud’s, the sweetest swing I’ve ever seen. It’s rare for a player so highly touted — a first overall draft pick — to not only meet, but exceed lofty expectations. Ken Griffey Jr. did, and more. He played with his father, he played with swagger, and he played center field the way I did in my dreams. Junior was the reason I wished I didn’t bat right-handed. Junior was the reason I tried, at the very least, to switch hit.

Last summer, I was in Seattle to watch the Mariners only a few of days after Junior announced his sudden retirement. I spoke to a man outside Safeco Field, who left a written message on a photo of Griffey Jr. that adorned the ballpark’s wall. (I did, too.) The man, this baseball stranger who I’d never met before and will never meet again, was super emotional as we spoke, after I asked him to describe what Griffey Jr. meant to him. “[Ken Griffey Jr.] built this ballpark, man” he said, fighting back tears. “He saved baseball in Seattle.” It was raw emotion. “I wanted one more chance to see him,” he said. We all did.

Junior did it all, from playing with his father, to playing at home in Cincinnati, to returning to Seattle, where it all began. Full circle. If healthy, there’s no doubt he goes down as one of the best ever. Growing up, it didn’t matter where you were from or who you rooted for. You wanted to be like “The Kid.”

3. Roy Halladay

In his second career start, way back in September 1998, Roy Halladay had his no-hitter broken up with two outs in the ninth inning. (I finally forgave Bobby Higginson after Doc’s perfect game last year.) It was a brilliant display of foreshadowing. A sign of things to come.

Before the world knew of Halladay’s greatness, Toronto was privy to it. Twelve years, man. From his immaculate debut, all the way down to A-ball, to greatness. To the top. The All-Star games, the 20-win seasons, the complete games, and, finally, a Cy Young award. In 2009, I went on Mission: Doc; I set out to watch every Halladay start of the season at Rogers Centre SkyDome in person. I didn’t know at the time it would be Halladay’s final season as a Blue Jay, but I never wanted to say I took him for granted. The way Doc did it, and when he did it, and who he did it to, there’s no doubt in my mind: Halladay’s the greatest pitcher the Jays have ever employed. And the pleasure was all mine. Ours. Now in his second season as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies, the message remains the same: Thanks, Doc. Get your ring, and come on home. We’re waiting for you.

2. Carlos Delgado

After King Carlos announced his retirement last week, I hastily took to Twitter — follow me: @eyebleaf — and said that Delgado belongs in Cooperstown. I know, I know, he doesn’t. Not unless and until, as Getting Blanked‘s Dustin Parkes and The Platoon Advantage‘s Bill pointed out, a lineup of first basement get in, most notably guys like Jeff Bagwell, and even John Olerud.

But let me take this opportunity to tell you what a pleasure it was to watch Carlos Delgado on a regular basis. Toronto had never seen such a prolific slugger. Delgado’s stance and swing were brilliant, a poetic combination of power and grace. I’ll never forget the night he hit four home runs against the then Tampa Bay Devil Rays. One at-bat after the other. I’d wager that no player in Toronto baseball history has ever hit the windows of Windows Restaurant as many times as Delgado did. A regular in the Toronto lineup from 1996 through 2004, Delgado’s Blue Jays never finished higher than third place in the AL (B)East. Make no mistake about it: Delgado’s smile — along with his passion and love for the game — lit up some of the darkest days and nights in Blue Jays history.

A short story: Near the end of the 2004 season, the writing was on the wall. The Blue Jays could no longer afford Carlos Delgado, and he’d be leaving at season’s end. So I made it a point to attend the final Jays home game of the season. I needed to say goodbye. It was a Sunday afternoon, the New York Yankees were in town, and tickets in the 500 section were only $2; one last promotion. I went with a lady friend, one I was trying, in vain, to woo. Yes, I splurged on the tickets.

In the bottom of the 7th inning, Delgado was due up, in what would be his final at-bat as a Toronto Blue Jay. I’d mentioned to said lady friend in passing, on the way downtown, that it was in all likelihood Delgado’s final game as a Blue Jay. Historic! The end of an era! And in the 7th, as Delgado stood on-deck, I remember thinking to myself, “Is she going to think I’m a nutter if I get up and give Carlos a standing ovation?” When it was Delgado’s turn, when he was announced as the batter, there was no “Thanks Carlos!” sign on the JumboTron, no special announcement, nothing. But at that point, my lady friend no longer mattered. Only Carlos did. I stood to my feet. I clapped. Others around the stadium joined me. To be honest, I don’t remember if my lady friend joined me. I like to think she did. I even yelled, from all the way in the upper deck, “Thank you, Carlos!” Even though I knew there was no way in hell he would ever hear me. It didn’t matter. I didn’t do it for Carlos, I did it for me.

There will never be another. As my man Drew put it, “Long live The King.”

1. Roberto Alomar

When I close my baseball eyes, I see Roberto Alomar. In the field, at second base, chasing down a ground ball he has no business getting to, gloving the ball on his backhand, leaping, and, in mid-air, twisting his body and making an obscene throw to first base. The runner’s out. The runner’s always out.

When I close my baseball eyes, I see Alomar with both his arms in the air, raised in triumph, having hit the most important home run in Toronto Blue Jays history, in the ALCS, against one of baseball’s most feared closers in Dennis Eckersley. The Blue Jays had officially arrived.

When I close my baseball eyes, I see Alomar trotting home from third base, the winning run, mocking the Atlanta Braves’ tomahawk chop. It’s the World Series, and the Blue Jays are about to climb baseball’s highest mountain.

When I thought about who I’d rank first on this list, Alomar or Delgado, I was a bit torn. I wondered which player was more important to me, the one who kept the flame alive during the trying years, or the one who gave me the greatest baseball memories, as a fan, of my life. I don’t believe there’s a wrong or right answer. In the end, I’m simply grateful for the memories.

Image courtesy The Toronto Star. Thanks, Toronto Star.

6 Responses to 'NotGraphs: My most favorite baseball players in the whole wide world, Part II'

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  1. Seeing Griffey play in person for the first time since his return to Seattle was probably the most remarkable (non Jays-related) baseball experience of my life. It was towards the end of the season, the M’s weren’t in contention, and his numbers bespoke a player long removed from his youthful glory.

    And yet.

    As he stepped up to the plate for his first at bat, the entire crowd rose and cheered. I couldn’t believe my ears: he was still using “Hip Hop Hooray” as his entrance music. He flied out. It didn’t matter. The ovation repeated itself for his second at bat. He struck out. Didn’t matter. He was retired on his third at bat, too. Didn’t matter. The man was 0 for 3 heading into his final at bat, batting barely over the Mendoza line in a meaningless game, and the crowd was still united in its love and appreciation for him.

    I want to say that he got a single on his last at bat, but I don’t think that’s true (I honestly don’t remember). In the end, it’s irrelevant. Like the man you met said, he saved ball in Seattle (with a little help from Edgar). It was a case of a huge group of people being fully cognizant that what they were watching wasn’t an isolated moment, but a small portion of a much larger history, and honoring that moment for its part in that overarching narrative, regardless of its own immediacies. I felt honored to have been able to not only pay my own respects, but to have seen such a genuine display of love from so many.

    (Still hoping we get to hear about yr trip to Seattle in full detail someday, BTW.)

    …And of course Robbie’s my #1, too. My Robbie story, hailing a cab for him after an exhibition game here in Van, doesn’t have the resonance of the Griffey one, but it was still a thrill for a 12 year-old still high off last season’s magic against Atlanta.

    contrasoma

    22 Apr 11 at 2:12 pm

  2. Fantastic list and fantastic writing. Loved every minute of the read.

    Robbie Alomar was the best second baseman I ever saw and Jon Olerud was the best first baseman. In his best years, he was better than Keith Hernandez.

    William

    22 Apr 11 at 2:27 pm

  3. Reasonable, refreshing.

    Kroot

    25 Apr 11 at 4:44 am

  4. @ Contra: Epic comment. A pleasure to read. Thank you.

    @ William: Johnny O was a true beauty. Will never forget his helmet at 1B.

    @ Kroot: Your comment reminded me of the Junior Mint Seinfeld episode; “It’s chocolate, it’s pepperment, it’s delicious! It’s very refreshing!”

    Navin Vaswani

    29 Apr 11 at 4:57 pm

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    Andres Linea

    18 Aug 11 at 7:25 pm

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