Ten baseball seasons ago the game was on the verge of a strike from which, in the eyes of many fans, it has never completely recovered. What the ugliness of the labor problem obscured, though, is the fact that the game itself, the one on the field, was going through a golden age.
The 1994 American League All-Star squad featured nine players—Roberto Alomar, Albert Belle, Wade Boggs, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken Jr., Ivan Rodriguez, and Frank Thomas—who are either now in the Hall of Fame or make excellent candidates. So did the National League, with Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Tony Gwynn, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux, Fred McGriff, Mike Piazza, and Ozzie Smith.
That doesn’t include Roger Clemens, Tom Glavine, Rickey Henderson, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Tim Raines, and Ryne Sandberg, all of whom for one reason or another failed to make the team that year. Or Mark McGwire, who was injured for much of the ’94 season, or Sammy Sosa, who would make his first All-Star team the next year, or Jim Thome, who was just starting to get on track, or two-time defending home-run champ Juan Gonzalez, who was having an off season in ’94, or Rafael Palmeiro, who simply got lost in the shuffle. All in all, there were at least 30 players with superb Cooperstown credentials, most of them in or approaching their prime, who were active in the strike year.
Within a couple of years, most of them would be joined by Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Pedro Martinez, Mariano Rivera, Alex Rodriguez, Larry Walker, and Bernie Williams, to mention just a few of the most prominent, creating perhaps the greatest concentration of talent baseball has ever seen.
Near the end of the ’90s, baseball analysts would often play the “Two Deep Game,” matching the best player at each position with the best player at the same position from any other decade, and then, if the current best player seemed to surpass or equal, going on to the second best. That’s how deep the talent went. As ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer once put it to me, “The only problem was in deciding who was first or second best among the current players.”
Who was the most valuable catcher? Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time, or Rodriguez, maybe the best all-around catcher of all time? Who was the most valuable first baseman, McGwire or Frank Thomas? Or was it a better all-around player, such as Jeff Bagwell? How about Palmeiro, McGriff, or John Olerud?
Who was the better second baseman of the decade, Alomar or Biggio? Through the second half of the ’90s, everyone argued about who was the best of the Three Shortstops: Alex Rodriguez, Nomar, or Jeter (though the only shortstop to win a MVP Award was Barry Larkin in 1995). Only at third base was there no argument; the AL had no one to match Chipper Jones, who was on a pace to match Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Eddie Mathews. In the outfield, you could choose among Bonds, Sosa, Larry Walker, Gwynn, Griffey, Juan Gonzalez, Bernie Williams, Belle, and Manny Ramirez.
You could select a rotation of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Roger Clemens, and stock a bullpen with Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, and Troy Percival.
I’m not talking about Babe Ruth’s era or asking where Joe DiMaggio has gone or even getting nostalgic for Mickey, Willie, and the Duke. I’m asking where the great young players of today are. A few days before this year’s All-Star game, fans and writers were asking why the established greats—Clemens, Sosa, Frank Thomas, Pedro Martinez, Pudge Rodriguez, et al.—weren’t there. What they should have been asking is, where are the young superstars who are going to make us forget the older guys?
In 2002, we were asked to believe that Jose Vidro, Jimmy Rollins, Shea Hillenbrand, A.J. Pierzynski, Randy Winn, Robert Fick, and Junior Spivey were genuine All-Stars. This year, we were asked to accept Carl Everett, Melvin Mora, Dmitri Young, Javy Lopez, Mike Williams, Mike Lowell, and, God help us, Rondell White and Armando Benitez.
Of course, one can always find relatively undeserving players on any All-Star team. But try to find the superstars, particularly the ones under 30. Search both rosters, and you’ll find one established superstar under the age of 30 in the starting lineups: A-Rod. Maybe Alfonso Soriano, though he can’t draw a walk and plays second base only slightly better than Chuck Knoblauch. Albert Pujols, though he can’t run the bases and play either third base or left field with any distinction, might become a Triple Crown winner. Among pitchers, Oakland’s Mark Mulder looks like the best, but with just 61 career wins at age 26, would you want to bet on his chances of becoming the next Greg Maddux or Randy Johnson by 2010? Even if you project them as future Hall of Famers, can you spot 15 or 18 or even six or seven future immortals on this year’s teams?
Has baseball’s talent well suddenly run dry? Or are we perhaps not viewing baseball in 2003 from the right perspective? Is it possible that baseball’s problem isn’t too little talent but maybe too much?
Don Sutton, who saw most of the previous generation of players from the pitcher’s mound before retiring in 1988 and who has seen most of the new ones from the Atlanta Braves’ broadcast booth, suggests that “with so many good Latin and now Oriental players, the talent level might well have grown so, even in the past few years, that it’s harder for anyone to rise above the pack. We might not know the real greats for another 10 years or so.”
Jim Bouton is a bit more pessimistic: “I’m afraid what we might be seeing in the last couple of years is the result of baseball’s having stressed the home run too much 10 years ago. About the only complete ballplayers with sound fundamentals I’m seeing these days are coming out of Japan.”
Perhaps greatness is in the eye of the beholder. In that case, try playing this game: Take the All-Star rosters from just about any season before this century and compare them with this year’s team. See how many players from the 2003 squads you think could crack the lineups of the earlier squads.