The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

The team I'd pay to see

One major website recently published an article about players who hustle. That was interesting, but not that meaningful, in my opinion, because like the author of another article stated (paraphrasing here) “everyone can hustle, even I hustle in my own beer league.” Recently though, I had been thinking of putting together a fantasy lineup of guys I would pay to watch (not that that is much of a stretch – I pay to watch baseball plenty often). What was interesting to me is that a good portion of my lineup and the hustle lineup overlap.

Players that I would pay to watch possess one or more of a variety of characteristics: super-star level ability, they actually look like they are having fun playing the game, or they are obviously not the most talented on the field, but have worked hard and have succeeded in the game. You also won’t necessarily see the biggest names in the game here – Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Roger Clemens are not going to top my list – because the biggest names are generally the easiest to see. They are on national television regularly, covered in your newspaper, and on Sports Center so much that it makes you want to puke (and if you do, you can probably buy an puke clean up towel on because some guys are just that commercial). Without further ado, here are my favorite players that I enjoy watching play the most, by position:

Catcher – Choosing a player for this position was a difficult one. In my time, I’ve seen greats who I have liked (Carlton Fisk) and who I didn’t like (Gary Carter), but for the purposes of this list, I’m sticking to current players.

Ivan Rodriguez would be an easy pick. As sad as I was to see him leave South Florida this off-season, particularly with the way the whole contract negotiation went down, I have very much enjoyed watching him play in a Tigers’ uniform so far this year. Pudge is off to a great start and remains a sure-fire Hall of Famer. I didn’t think I would cheer for Pudge anymore after the way he left town, but I think what he has done for Detroit, so far, has turned me around. If he really does contribute to turning them into a winner, he will go down as one of the all-time greats in my book, given his other accomplishments in Texas and Florida.

My pick though for the catcher that I’d pay to see is Mets’ backstop Mike Piazza. Sure, maybe when the Mets come to town Mike won’t be catching anymore, but that’s all the more reason to try to catch a game with him behind the dish. Mike only has so many games left in those knees and each time you see him you know that you will be seeing one of, if not the, greatest catchers of all time. This is even more remarkable when you consider (as Harold Reynolds pointed out last night) that Mike was a 62nd round draft pick. He was, for all intents and purposes, a courtesy pick by the Dodgers, as then Manager Tommy Lasorda was a family friend. Mike, who played briefly (and at second base no less) for the Miami Hurricanes for one season, was probably not even going to stick with the Dodgers’ rookie team until he volunteered to play catcher late in his rookie year. You know where the story goes from there.

First baseman – Initially I thought that I would pick Carlos Delgado as my dream-team first baseman. Delgado is a largely unappreciated superstar, although he is off to a slow start this season. Upon further review though, I came up with someone else…

Todd Helton is one of the best hitters in the game and he has one of the prettiest swings you’ll ever see. Sure, his numbers aren’t hurt by playing his home games at Coors’ Field, but Helton would be an All-Star wherever he played. Plus Helton just goes about his business, doesn’t get into trouble, and seems to be a decent enough guy (not that you ever really know about any of these guys – and for the purposes of this exercise, I don’t really care. I’m just picking baseball players).

Second baseman – There’s a lot to pick from here: Luis Castillo, Ray Durham, Jeff Kent, Bret Boone, Jose Vidro, and Alfonso Soriano, all of whom would be worth selections.

I can’t pick Kent though because he doesn’t even really like baseball, or so he claims. He doesn’t watch games he’s not playing in and doesn’t claim to be a fan of the game. This just rubs me the wrong way. Lie to us Jeff. You’re making millions of dollars to play baseball and that huge salary you receive is largely a bi-product of fans shelling out their money on tickets, cable packages, internet subscriptions, etc. You were willing to lie about how you injured yourself a few years back – riding a motorcycle during spring training, err… washing your truck, so why not let the rest of us think that you don’t mind playing a game the rest of us would love to play?

Bret Boone falls into the same category with me. He is absolutely a great player (although the late in the career power surge is at least as questionable as that of B.L. Bonds), but his smug personality just does not sit right with me.

While I enjoy Luis Castillo and acknowledge that he is a key cog in the Marlins machine, he’s not my top pick at second base.

This leaves us with a fearsome trio of second baseman in Durham, Vidro, and Soriano. I would be happy with any of the three. Durham is probably more a sentimental pick than anything because I enjoyed watching him play so much with the White Sox in the early part of his career. When he left, I was happy to see him traded to the A’s, another team that I enjoy watching. And now that he’s with the Giants, I see him play quite frequently, because I like to watch B. L. Bonds so much.

Jose Vidro is about the opposite of Ray Durham, in the sense that they are both fantastic players who are exciting to watch, but it is difficult to watch Jose Vidro for two reasons. One, Expos games are just not on television very often – apparently it’s expensive to broadcast from San Juan and their television contract with Montreal broadcasters is not the same as what the Yankees or Braves have, to say the least. Also, if you do find an Expos game on the tube or in person, they are not exactly the most exciting team in baseball. While I can do it, I would think that very few semi-serious baseball fans could name five current Expos not named Vidro, (Orlando) Cabrera, (Livan) Hernandez, or (Crazy Carl) Everett. Few fans could probably even name the recently acquired ex-Yankees (Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera). This does not work in Mr. Vidro’s favor, unfortunately, but he will be a free agent at the end of the season, and once the Yankees overpay for him, Mr. Vidro will not be only unconscionably rich, but he will also be unbelievably famous.

This leaves me with Alfonso Soriano, who is certainly not a bad pick. Soriano couldn’t live up to the Yankees expectations, but he should be a 40-40 (home runs and steals) threat for years to come.

Third baseman – This is another tough position to choose, one that is starting to be filled, after a few rough years recently, with some young talent, including: Troy Glaus, Eric Chavez, Scott Rolen, Mike Lowell, and Adrian Beltre.

Beltre is off the list because his production on the field has never lived up to his off the field hype over the course of a season. Lowell’s not a real candidate both because his career year is probably behind him, and he is as un-flashy as he is productive (kind of like a poor man’s Tim Duncan).

Scott Rolen is a heck of a ballplayer, but really doesn’t do much to excite me. I think his upside is better than Lowell’s over the next few years, but in terms of excitement, they rate about the same, so Rolen is out too.

That leaves us with a So Cal – No Cal match up between Glaus and Chavez. Chavez recently signed a $48 million extension which will keep him with the A’s for a few more years. This will probably keep him hidden away from the game’s more casual fans except for the annual All-Star game and an interview after his team loses a decisive game five of the ALDS annually.

My pick here is Glaus, but for un-compelling reasons. I am sure you could argue that Chavez is an all around better player. I wouldn’t really argue back with you; you would be right. But Glaus can mash and I have decided to pick a guy, who in any given at bat, could hit the ball six hundred feet. His eyesight is reportedly better now too, after off season laser eye surgery, so maybe those long blasts will become a more regular occurrence.

(Oh yeah, there’s that guy, but I’m just not picking him because that would be too easy).

Shortstop – The remaining triumvirate of shortstops in the American League (now that has been moved to third base) is Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, and Nomar (that’s his middle name) Garciaparra (when he’s healthy). I’m not picking any of those guys because it would be too easy.

Coming into the year, the fashionable pick might have been Angel Berroa of the Royals. He hasn’t lived up to his rookie campaign so far this year, so he’s not on my team.

The White Sox Jose Valentin could be the pick here too, although his hands of stone, which are so capable of putting runs on the board when he’s at the plate, are also too capable of putting runs on the board for the opponent when he is in the field.

Instead my pick at shortstop is the Angels David Eckstein. I’ve followed Eckstein for some time now, as he played college ball for the Florida Gators (making his selection to my team that much more painful). Honestly, he didn’t even really stand out on a star-studded Gators team, which was led by current Expos jack-of-all-trades Brad Wilkerson.

This is even more remarkable to me because I know that I must have seen Eckstein play in person ten or so times while he was in college, but I don’t remember him in particular at all. Of all the college players now in the major leagues who I saw play in person, Eckstein is the only one who didn’t stand out and distinguish himself in particular on the field.

Coming into last season and during the post-season of 2002 this was a fashionable pick. Eckstein had a down year last year, or more probably a year that we can more fairly expect out of him regularly. Eckstein played over his head in 2002, as is not uncommon on teams that win the World Series. He’s worth watching though because he’s something like the rest of us in the field. Eckstein’s hands are so small that he has to have a special grip on the ball to throw it and the distance from the hole at shortstop to first base forces him to almost shot put the ball across the diamond. While this is not something many of us would want to admit that we can relate to, we can at least empathize with Eckstein’s limitations as they relate to his major league peers.

Left field – There isn’t really even any discussion here. Yes, at other positions I have eschewed the game’s biggest superstars, but at times, exceptions must be made to the rules. This is one of those times. Barry Bonds is arguably the greatest player of all time. If he is not the greatest player, he is definitely one of the top three or five players of all time. Throw the names of Barry Bonds, Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays into a hat and you could argue that whichever name you picked out first was the greatest player of all time.

Yes, there are arguments about career longevity and the impact of the changes of the game (expansion, integration, relief pitchers, etc), but nearly everyone will agree that these are the top four players. You might argue that Bonds would not be on this list if it had been proven that he has taken steroids or some other performance enhancing drug, but that hasn’t been proven yet. It may never be proven. It will certainly never be proven that Bonds didn’t take such drugs – that would be impossible. All we have to go on is the lack of a positive test result and Barry’s word that he hasn’t taken anything illegal. That’s all we have on any of these guys (Bret Boone, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa on down), so that’s what we have to go with.

Regardless though, even if you took away the power numbers (which is ludicrous), Barry Bonds is still a Hall of Famer. With more than 500 stolen bases and eight Gold Gloves, Barry is a speed and defense combination with few peers. He will also likely total three thousand hits over the course of his career, which as far as I know is still worth a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown.

But Bonds does have the power - an unbelievable amount of power. He’s been on a run since 1999 or 2001 that is unmatched in the history of the game. Sure, you might think he’s a jerk or not someone you’d want to date your daughter, but he’s a heck of a baseball player. If you have the chance to see him in person, don’t miss it. I know that I won’t.

Center fielder – Another tough call with lots of qualified candidates, including: Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, and Garrett Anderson.

I through Anderson into the mix because he is receiving so much hype right now that I think it might be the obligation of everyone who writes about baseball to talk about how great he is. Well, I really don’t think that he is. Yes, he’s a nice player and seems to be a nice guy off the field, but that’s about it. His numbers total up well, I suppose, but that’s an incomplete look at the total picture. Garrett has racked up a lot of hits, but he doesn’t walk very often. His RBI totals are impressive, but again, he hacks a lot and thus has a lot of opportunities that guys like Bonds and Frank Thomas pass up for the good of the team. No disrespect to Garrett Anderson intended here. He’s a nice player on a good team, but he’s not the top centerfielder in the game. He’s not even really a centerfielder.

Jim Edmonds is good for highlight reel catches, some power, and lots of strikeouts, but that’s about it. Edmonds lacks the grace in the field of Andruw Jones, and like Jose Valentin before, he’s a little more advanced in age than the other contenders, so he’s disqualified on that regard.

That leaves us with Juan Pierre and Andruw Jones. Surely by now you’re saying “Juan Pierre? Mike’s a homer.” This is possibly true. Juan Pierre is a poor man’s Andruw Jones, which is something like what I intended this team to be about. But it’s more than that. Pierre is kind of like the shadow to a poor man’s Andruw Jones. Don’t get me wrong, I love Juan Pierre’s game and how his dedication to his craft has made him the player that he is today. He simply just doesn’t have the arm or the power (or a lot of other things) that Andruw Jones does.

Granted, Jones doesn’t seem to work as hard as Pierre does, but it also doesn’t seem like he has to. The game comes easily to Jones – or rather, he is simply, extremely talented – as in, all-time great talented. Jones worked very hard to develop his skills by catching coconuts on the beach in Curacao, allegedly – although that seems like it may be more myth than reality, no doubt, but there is also no doubt that Jones is extremely gifted. He is a pleasure to watch in the field and at the plate, and the Andruw Jones show is definitely one that I wouldn’t want to miss (although I would pass on his show at the Gold Club).

Right field – This is another gimmie position where I probably shouldn’t even waste time talking about the other “contenders.” There is only one – Vladimir Guerrero, now of the Angels. Most casual fans have gone unaware of Guerrero over the early part of his career because he played for the Montreal Expos. Now that he is in Southern California with the Angels, I expect that Vlad will become a household name. His natural abilities are, arguably, without equal. He’s not someone you will see interviewed frequently or written about much, mainly because he is not fluent in English and I don’t expect that he’ll be doing much to learn it anytime soon. This is not because Guerrero is slow or anything like that, but rather just one way for him to ensure that he can keep himself out of the spotlight.

Vladimir Guerrero is a baseball player pure and simple. He does not wear batting gloves or study DVDs of pitchers. Reportedly, there are times when he reaches the batter’s box (or at least the on deck circle) before he is made aware of whom that day’s opposing pitcher will be. Others have said that Guerrero does his scouting on future opponents by using the Playstation in the locker room. I find this to be a refreshing departure from the over-analysis employed by Curt Schilling and other stars in the game. This is not to take anything away from the accomplishments of others, but it is just enjoyable to watch Guerrero succeed based on his natural abilities. He is simply a fun player to watch because he plays every game with such reckless abandon. Even during a spring training game he is fun to watch, because he always runs hard and is looking to stretch a single into a double and a double into a triple.

I do wonder though how his brand new Angels helmet is already so covered in pine tar.

Designated hitter – I suppose this argument comes down to Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez. Both are excellent hitters and borderline Hall of Fame candidates. Despite long careers, neither has won a World Series or even done much in the postseason. Frank Thomas has won two MVPs (compared to Edgar’s zero), and if you asked Frank, he would probably tell you that he really deserved five or six awards, if not one for every full season he played.

As I alluded to in the previous sentence, Frank is not widely regarded as a peach of a guy. Given that, and that Edgar Martinez takes batting practice with a weighted bat (usually with a donut or two on an old broken bat), I’m taking Edgar here. I would really like to see Mr. Martinez take batting practice with a weighted bat. You have to be a really good hitter to do that; otherwise I would imagine you could really hurt yourself by mis-hitting a ball.

Starting pitcher – I put this one off as long as I could (you may have noticed that I listed the positions in traditional scoring position order, starting with catcher – going past the pitchers spot). If you’ve ever read this bog before, you know who the pick here will be – no questions asked, no need for other candidates. Dontrelle Willis.

The second year pitcher personifies fun and excitement. He brings a funky delivery to the mound and a solid bat to the plate. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to watch Willis in person, you owe it to yourself to make it out to the park one night when he’s pitching. Normally he tops out in the high 80s or low 90s with his fastball, or so the radar gun will tell you. Now, I’ve never stood in against Willis, but just from watching him from the stands (and I have sat very close behind home plate for a handful of his starts) it always seems to me that Willis’s fastball gets up on hitters more quickly than other pitchers because of his unorthodox delivery. I have regularly thought that Willis was throwing harder than Josh Beckett or Armando Benitez (who top out around 96 or 97 fairly frequently), only to be surprised to see the radar gun display a speed of 90 or so.

Besides his pitching ability, Willis is also quite a hitter. He’s already hit a home run this year (two in his career) and he runs the bases like an everyday player. More than anything, though, the thing that distinguishes Willis from the crowd is his passion and enthusiasm for the game. He plays the game with the spirit that we would all like to think that we did as children. Most of us probably didn’t, but Dontrelle still does. Whether he’s pumping his fist coming off the mound after a big out or signing autographs for fans before the game, Dontrelle always seems to be having a good time.

Relief pitcher/closer – I thought about making this into two separate categories, but when it comes down to it, non-closing relievers don’t see predictable enough activity, nor do they generate enough excitement with me to warrant me being willing to pay to see one of them exclusively (and I suppose that means that I just don’t have enough disposable income). So that leaves us with closers.

I’m taking current and former Marlins closers off the list for a variety of reasons: Benitez – melt down waiting to happen, Looper – melt down waiting to happen, Alfonseca – meltdown waiting to happen, Urbina – too much post game kissing, Nen – injured, and Hoffman – deserving but just not picked.

That leaves some of the game’s top closers: John Smoltz, Mariano Rivera, and Billy Wagner, to name three. Smoltz and Rivera would be too easy to select, so they’re out. Wagner would make for an interesting pick too, if only because he’s not very tall (5 foot 8) but somehow reaches 100 mph more frequently than Randy Johnson (or at least he did last year). Still though, Wagner isn’t that interesting for any other reason than that he throws heat - big time heat.

The guy I would want to see though, and who I might be able to see tonight (although I hope there isn’t an occasion for him to make it to the mound) is Dodgers’ closer Eric Gagne. I have seen Gagne pitch in person before, but that was a long time ago. Way back in the early part of the millennium when Gagne was still a highly touted prospect as a starter (somehow that endeavor failed). Since then, Gagne has turned into a closer with an unbelievable track record. He has now saved more than seventy (70!) consecutive games without blowing a save. Granted, saves are not the best measure of a pitcher’s ability (as few of the generally accepted pitcher’s stats are), but to have saved more than seventy games in a row is an unbelievable achievement. His presence in the Dodgers’ bullpen effectively shortens each game to an 8 inning affair. That might not seem like a big deal to you, but if you were Dodgers’ manager Jim Tracy it would. You’d be happy if you had 11% fewer things to worry about, wouldn’t you? That’s effectively the situation Gagne has created for Tracy. Figure out a way to get a lead through eight innings and Gagne will take care of the ninth.

Well, except for tonight, hopefully. Hopefully Dontrelle Willis will throw a shutout, hit a home run, steal a couple bases, and score a few runs and we can go into the ninth not unconcerned about who might enter the game.


All in all, that’s a pretty good lineup. It’s not necessarily the way you would assemble it in terms of a traditional lineup. I don’t really have a solid top of the lineup guy, but as you work your way through it, there aren’t any easy outs. Here’s how I’d put it together:

1 – Alfonso Soriano, 2B
2 – Vladimir Guerrero, RF
3 – Barry Bonds, LF
4 – Todd Helton, 1B
5 – Troy Glaus, 3B
6 – Mike Piazza, C
7 – Andruw Jones, CF
8 – David Eckstein, SS
9 – Dontrelle Willis, P

I think you’d win a couple games with that lineup.


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