Diamond Gems: Best Players of the National League
Recently I named 32 of the best players from the National Football League in history team-by-team. Now, I want to tackle Major League Baseball but this effort will be trickier than picking football players. In the NFL you have very specific positions that require unique talents and a certain mindset to be considered one of the best.
In baseball, the most talented players rise to the top but to do that you either know how to hit, field, or pitch. Additionally, there are players who are not as gifted athletically but just know how to hit a ball, field a ball or throw a ball. In football, it’s about being in shape and having great cardio. With that said, picking the greatest player for each of the 30 Major League Baseball teams is not an easy thing to do.
In football, I used athleticism as the primary indicator of who is the greatest. In baseball, pitchers are normally not good hitters and do not play every day as position players do. Stats will be the bigger factor in naming a player for each club and the teams are listed in alphabetical order.
Let’s throw out the first pitch beginning with Part I, the National League.
In baseball, there are now so many statistics being tracked it’s dizzying. For the Diamondbacks, they’ve been in the league for just 22 years and to this point, Paul Goldschmidt owns most of the statistics for the D’Backs team records. Luis Gonzalez also holds some records but from the mound, Randy Johnson who played 10 years in Seattle and then another eight in Arizona would be the easy choice as greatest Diamondback ever. The “Big Unit” will be famously remembered for throwing his best pitch the fastball on March 21, 2001, and one poor unlucky bird flew right into the path of the ball and was struck with such force it ended the life of the flying victim immediately.
Mention the Braves and one name represents the team…Hank Aaron. For a long time, he was the home run king passing Babe Ruth by and that stood until Barry Bonds went roaring by. Aaron is probably in most minds the best Brave ever but there have been some great ones. Warren Spahn as a pitcher; John Smoltz and Greg Maddux years later as two of the best pitchers in baseball; Chipper Jones a recent inducted Hall of Famer; and the knuckleballing Phil Niekro. But it would be hard to argue against “Hammerin Hank” as the Braves' best player in history.
Until the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016, they had suffered the longest drought of any other baseball team in winning a league title. 108 years to be exact and now it’s been three more years of failing to win another. In their 133 year history, the Cubs have had a multitude of stars. Ron Santo, “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Sammy Sosa, Rick Reuschel, Cap Anson, Hack Wilson, and the famous double-play trio of “Tinkers-to-Evers-to-Chance” that was comprised of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance. Accused of steroid use taints Sammy Sosa’s career while Ernie Banks had so many great seasons never tasting a world title. For me, it would have to be Cap Anson as the greatest Cub ever simply because he played 22 seasons in Chicago, knocking out 3,012 hits, and hitting for an average of .331.
“The Big Red Machine” was the Cincinnati Reds of the mid-1970s and boy were they some great teams. Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, George Foster, Dave Concepcion, Cesar Geronimo, Pedro Borbon, Ken Griffey Sr., Don Gullett, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez just to name a few. The Reds won the World Series in 1975 and 1976 winning 108 games and 102 games respectively in those seasons. Despite having many great players, the choice is easy. It’s Pete Rose all day. The consummate all-around great player, there has never been a harder playing baseball man than was Pete Rose. One thing Rose used to do you will probably never see again is a man running down to first base on a walk. That was Rose tradition. Perhaps in another column, we can discuss his Hall of Fame eligibility but as the greatest Cincinnati Red ever, I believe he belongs in the hallowed halls.
Another expansion team is the Rockies who joined Major League Baseball just 26 years ago in 1993. They’ve already retired Todd Helton’s number (17), but Larry Walker might be their best player in the team’s short history. When it comes to stats, Helton is the leader in just about every offensive category. Therefore, he is the default choice as the best player in Colorado’s brief history.
Los Angeles Dodgers
It’s hard to believe that 61 years have passed since then Dodger’s owner Walter O’Malley moved his team out west to Los Angeles forever leaving the borough of Brooklyn in New York without a Major League Baseball team. O’Malley had his hands in the move of the New York Giants heading west to San Francisco as well. The relocations left New York City with only the legendary Yankees. Obviously, the Mets came along later to call Queens their home turf. But for the Dodgers, they rival the Yankees for the number of superstars throughout the years. Too many to name in a short summary of their best players, but those having had their jersey retired are Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Jim Gilliam, Don Sutton, Sandy Koufax, Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, and Don Drysdale. But putting on the blue and whites for L.A. have been Clayton Kershaw of late, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, Orel Hershiser, Gil Hodges, Fernando Valenzuela, and Carl Furillo. But there is no argument who was the best ever, the man who wore #42 that has been retired throughout baseball and no one can wear that number again, it belongs to the great Jackie Robinson who was not just a great baseball player but even more an amazing athlete.
Beginning as the Florida Marlins in 1993, the team made their official city name Miami in 2012. The curious thing about the Marlins is that in both instances of winning the World Series in 1997 and 2003, management dismantled the team a year later on both championship runs. In 1998 the Marlins won 38 fewer games than they did from their 1997 championship season and dropped from second to fifth place in their division. Five years later after winning 91 games they won 83 in 2004 and finished third. They have not been to the postseason since. They have also lost 90 games or more seven times losing 100 and 105 (2019) along the way. Some of the outstanding players Miami has had on their roster include Gary Sheffield, Miguel Cabrera, and the easy choice for best player in their short history, Giancarlo Stanton.
The “Brew Crew” began to play in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots, lasting just one season there. Milwaukee has yet to win a World Series although when the city of Milwaukee had the Braves from 1953 to 1965, they did get to the series twice and won it all in 1957 led of course by Hank Aaron. The top two players for the Brewers played together and they were Paul Molitor and Robin Yount so the vote here for best ever goes to Robin Yount who over a 20-year baseball career never played for any team other than the Milwaukee Brewers. 3,142 hits in those 20 years don’t quite top Molitor’s 3,219, nor does his batting average (.285 to .306) but his home run total does best that of his teammate with Yount smacking out 251 for his career where Molitor hit 234. But as a Brewer Yount never played for any other team while Paul Molitor played for Minnesota and Toronto.
New York Mets
When the New York Mets entered the National League for the first time in 1962, the season they turned in became one of the worst by any team in history. In 161 games, the Metropolitans lost 120 of those. They finished 60 ½ games behind first-place but low and behold, just seven years later, they pulled off one of the greatest comebacks during the regular season ever and made it to the World Series where they won it all beating the Baltimore Orioles in five games. New York’s pitching staff had two of the best flamethrowers in history taking the mound, Tom “Terrific” Seaver and Nolan “The Ryan Express” Ryan. Determining who the best Met ever boils down to a choice between Seaver, Ralph Kiner, Gil Hodges, Mike Piazza, Dwight Gooden, or Darryl Strawberry. For me, it’s Seaver or Kiner, two players who dominated their era and given Kiner’s consistency, I’d say he’s the best met ever. For Strawberry and Gooden, those two teammates fell victim to drug abuse and if not for that, their careers may have taken a completely different path.
With a history dating back to pre-1900, the Phillies have had a handful of great players that deserve recognition in this column. Most are pitchers with the likes of Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, and Jim Bunning leading the way. Then you have a slugger like Mike Schmidt hitting the cover off the ball and Richie Ashburn with his sweet swing. Dick Allen was a fearful hitter and Billy Hamilton a crafty base stealer. In more recent years Jimmy Rollins became one of the leagues’ best hitters. Representing the Phillies in the Hall of Fame is Chuck Klein, a 300 home run hitter for his career with a nice batting average of .320. On the mound, Pete Alexander won 373 games in his career losing just 208. Steve Carlton was not too far behind with 329 victories but over his career, he struck out 4,126 and became a hall of famer himself. For the purpose of this discussion, it’s Mike Schmidt all day as the greatest Phil ever. 548 round-trippers, 1,595 RBIs, and 1,506 runs scored as well as being an outstanding defensive third baseman.
We’ve reached my hometown and favorite team, the “Battlin Buccos.” These last few seasons were hardly battling but the Bucs do have a long and rich history that included five World Series titles. Think Pirates think Roberto Clemente. But lest not forget “Pops” Willie Stargell, perhaps the most beloved athlete in the history of pro sports in the ‘Burgh. There have been other great players like Dave Parker, Steve Blass, Honus Wagner who owns the most expensive baseball card in the trading card industry. From Pie Traynor to Andrew McCutchen, championship heroes like Bill Mazeroski and Kent Tekulve, the poisonous brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner who became known as “Little Poison” and “Big Poison.” Feats of incredibility turned in like Harvey Haddix’s perfect game loss in 1959. Based on his uncanny ability to get the bat on the ball and given his God-given defensive skills in right field, the choice here is none other than the late, great, and so well respected Roberto Clemente.
San Diego Padres
The San Diego Padres once had the ugliest jerseys in baseball. This from a team that joined the National League in 1969 and in 50 years has been to the postseason just five times losing the World Series to the Detroit Tigers in 1984. The city of San Diego has not had much luck with professional teams recently losing the football Chargers to nearby Los Angeles. For the baseball playing Padres, they have had their share of excellent athletes and players. Tony Gwynn is the first to come to mind but there was also Dave Winfield, big Nate Colbert, and Garry Templeton. But given his athletic prowess, the best Padre ever would have to be Winfield hands down.
San Francisco Giants
The second team moved out of New York City and stolen away from Big Apple fans are the Giants. The move came around the same year as the west moving Dodgers and in 1958 the Giants had their first season in San Francisco where they remain to this day. One of the greatest all-around players in the history of Major League Baseball played almost his entire career with the New York then San Francisco Giants and he was well known as the “Say Hey Kid.” That would be superstar Willie Mays.
Remembered for many things, Mays made one of the greatest catches in history while manning the outfield for the Giants, this on a shot from Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series in the very first game which ended after a sweep by New York in four games. Mays with his back to the home plate made an amazing over the shoulder grab as he had to chase down the ball. With Barry Bonds hitting the most home runs in the history of baseball does that make him a better player than Mays?
Bonds has steroid allegations hanging over his head but even with that aside, he pales in comparison to the skills of Willie Mays at least in my opinion. But the Giants have had numerous superstars in their long history like Mel Ott, Christy Mathewson (one of the greatest pitchers ever), Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey, Bill Terry and Bonds’ father Bobby. Frankie Frisch. There was Will Clark and Gaylord Perry, Cy Young, Monte Irvin, and Orlando Cepeda. Still, Mays rules above all of them, not just an amazing power hitter and average hitter but so smooth in the outfield with speed to run down any fly ball. That makes the Say Hey Kid a giant among Giants better than any Giant before or after him.
St. Louis Cardinals
This is a team with one of the richest histories in baseball and next to the New York Yankees probably have the highest level of success by any team in the National or American Leagues. 23 National League pennants, 11 World Series titles, and 13 retired jersey numbers. Jumping off the page as their greatest players are “Stan the Man” Musial, Bob Gibson, Rogers Hornsby (one of the purest and best hitters in history), Ozzie Smith, Albert Pujols, Dizzy Dean, and Lou Brock, Frankie Frisch, Keith Hernandez, Johnny Mize, and Ducky Medwick. Like the Yankees, how do you pick one player from the aforementioned? With Smith’s defensive wizardry thus his nickname “The Wizard” to the consistency of Musial and the speed of Lou Brock, or the power-hitting of Pujols, these men are just a part of the greatness the Cardinals have experience on their rosters. I’m torn between Musial, Pujols, and Hornsby, but can’t forget about the intimidation, pitching prowess and domination of the great Bob Gibson. As I did with the Seattle Mariners when you get to reading the American League version, I feel forced to name multiple players as the best ever on a team. Because their stats are so close on an average over 162 games a season, I name Stan Musial and Albert Pujols as the two greatest players in St. Louis Cardinals’ history. For the record in the last 19 years, the Cardinals have finished a season with a record under .500 just once in 2007 when their finals record was 78-84. 10 times they won the division in that time frame and second five times. Pretty impressive.
We conclude the National League with a team that used to be the Montreal Expos. I remember watching the Expos growing up playing on their field the old Jarry Park. The stadium (if you want to call it that) had an outfield fence that was more like a chain-link fence. Not anything like what you will see in today’s stadiums. As the Expos, the team made the playoffs just once from the time they began play in 1969 losing in the NLCS in 1981. After leaving for Washington, D.C. in 2004, the now Nationals have made the playoff five times in the last eight years, capping it off with a World Series title in 2019. As for the team’s best players, Montreal is where the great Gary Carter got his start before heading to the New York Mets and eventually landing as the baseball Hall of Fame. Other great players for the team were Andre ”The Hawk” Dawson and the speedy Tim Raines. But choosing the best ever for me would come down to Raines or Vladimir Guerrero who played eight seasons with the Expos while Raines was with the team for 13 years in Montreal. For sure Raines was the more athletic and better base stealer and the two were close in other stats but my choice here is for the more athletic and solid hitting Tim Raines.