Friday, December 14, 2012

Chasing Baseball's Mt. Olympus

By Joe Grimaldi

Center field. A vast, green expanse where fly balls go to die. Where the swiftest, most athletic players thrive and make jaw dropping, awe inspiring plays on a daily basis. Just ask Vic Wertz.

On September 29, 1954, Mr. Wertz hit a prodigious drive out to center field in the Polo Grounds. It looked for sure like Wertz's drive was going to break the 2 - 2 tie between the Giants and the Indians, giving the Tribe all the momentum in Game 1 of the World Series.

But, on the eighth day, God said, "Let there be Mays." Sprinting towards the 483 foot sign on the center field wall, Willie Mays made an unbelievable basket catch. He then proceeded to spin and throw a strike to the infield to prevent Larry Doby from scoring from second. In a moment that is now simply known as "The Catch" (with all due respect to Dwight Clark) Vic Wertz was reduced to a latter day Craig Ehlo, a victim of a superhuman descending to the field. Mays, already the best player in baseball, was vaulted to the status of a god, residing comfortably on baseball's Mt. Olympus, blessing the likes of Torri Hunter and Andruw Jones.

While the Say Hey Kid's reign ended in 1973, his heir apparent was on the way. By 1989, baseball's savior had arrived at the Kingdome, as the baseball gods saw fit to give way to the second coming of Willie Mays. Simply heralded as "The Kid," Junior Griffey had a five year peak that even Mays was hard pressed to challenge.

Given Mays' phenomenal career and Griffey’s firmly in the rearview mirror as well, there is time now to compare two of the greatest players to ever step foot on a ball field.

Willie Mays (1951 - 1973)

- .302 Batting Average
- 3,283 Hits
- 2,062 Runs
- 660 Home Runs
- 1,903 RBIs
- 338 Stolen Bases
- .384 OBP
- .557 SLG
- .941 OPS
- 156 OPS+

- 1951 Rookie of the Year
- 1954, 1965 NL MVP
- 20 time All Star
- 11 Time Gold Glover
- 1954 WS Champ
Mays had one of the most illustrious careers this side of Babe Ruth. If you happen to be like me, and spend your time filling out All - Time All Star Teams, you're basically legally obligated to pencil his name in next to the center field spot (the only acceptable exception being Ty Cobb). Mays' career was marked by consistency and longevity; from 1954 to 1968 Mays played between 141 and 162 games every single year. The Say Hey kid averaged 38 homeruns, 104 RBIs, 19 steals and a rung up a .311 average, totaling 583 homers, 1,563 ribbies, and 288 steals. Those numbers alone would've made Mays a first ballot Hall of Famer, but he just had to go the extra mile and hit 77 more home runs, drive in 340 more runs, and steal 50 more bases. Show off.

Anyway, Mays won his first MVP award in 1954, and was deprived from winning another till 1965, one of baseball’s greatest travesties. On seven other occasions, Mays had numbers that surpassed or equaled those of his MVP seasons, including 1955, where he may have put up his most impressive individual effort, amassing 51 round trippers, 127 runs batted in, 24 steals, 185 hits, 123 runs scored, 79 walks to go against just 60 strikeouts, and a .319/.400/.659 slash line. With all due respect to Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, and Ernie Banks, none deserved to finish above Mays in the MVP voting that year.

No one had separated themselves from the field as much as Mays did from his competition since Ruth. A true five tool player, Mays had five years where he went 20/20 with a .300 batting average, and would have had three more if not for stolen base totals of 18, 18, and 19.

Mays Monoply on Golden Gloves

And of course, there was the fielding. Dodgers executive Fresco Thompson said it best, "Willie Mays and his glove. Where triples go to die." From 1957 to 1968 Willie Mays had a monopoly on Gold Gloves. Literally. He won every single year, and had the award been given out beginning in his rookie year (1951), it's safe to say he would've won even more. Perhaps the greatest way to sum up Mays' fielding would be to say that he was elected to the All - Time Rawlings Gold Glove Team with 23% of the vote, the most for any outfielder. As a matter of fact, the only player who got within 13% of Mays was the immortal Roberto Clemente, who received 21%.

While Mays' teams were never spectacular, he couldn't be blamed. Overall during his career, his teams had a .566 winning percentage making the playoffs five times, and winning once in 1954 (not coincidentally the year of his first MVP). Mays unfortunately got the short end of the stick. Had he been with the crosstown Dodgers during their excellent 1950 run, they, not the Yankees may have ended up with five consecutive championships during that time.

An anonymous SABR member once said, "There are 499 Major League Baseball players. Then there's Willie Mays." Well said, sir, well said.

Ken Griffey Jr. (1989 – 2010)

- .284 Batting Average
- 2,781 Hits
- 1,662 Runs
- 630 Home Runs
- 1,836 RBIs
- 184 Steals
- .370 OBP
- .538 SLG
- .907 OPS
- 136 OPS+

- 1997 AL MVP
- 13 time All Star
- 10 time Gold Glover

Think about this. As a nineteen year old rookie in 1989, Ken Griffey Jr. had 16 more home runs and steals than you likely ever will. True story. From then on Griffey asserted himself as the best young player in the American League from 1990 to 1992, and then in 1993 put up an outrageous 45 home run, 109 RBI, 17 steal, .309/.408/.535 line. Keep in mind, this was at the tender age of twenty three, when most kids are still trying to find a job out of college. The Kid had arrived.

Griffey: All Star, Golden Glove, Silver Slugger Era 

From 1993 to 1999, Griffey put up numbers that defied logic. During the seven year span, Griffey went yard 311 times, drove in 808 runs, scored 752, and churned out a .297/.387/.613 line. During that span he was an All Star each year, won a Gold Glove each year, and won the Silver Slugger in every year but 1995 in which he was sidelined for 73 games with a broken wrist suffered while making a home run saving catch. He led the league in home runs four times and RBIs once during that span, coming away with an MVP Award in 1997.

Griffey seemed poised to break Hank Aaron's home run record, along with his RBI record and very possibly the runs scored record. With his sweet swing, smooth gait (which gave him the illusion of a speed he never really had, with a single season high of 24 stolen bases and a career total of 184), and bright, captivating smile, he seemed to be the savior baseball was longing for. The 1994 strike had left a scar on the sport, and the Kid came and took the baseball world on his shoulders, provided the sport a much needed face, and thrived in Seattle.

However, he expressed interest in moving to Cincinnati to spend more time with his family, and his request was granted. Griffey had one spectacular, yet un Griffey-like year in 2000, posting a line of .271 40 118 .387 .556, then completely, inexplicably and unfortunately broke down. From 2001 to 2004, Griffey only played in 317 games, succumbing to a various slew of hamstring injuries. His 2005 - 2007 seasons with Cincinnati were mildly successful, yet he only managed to play in 381 games, and at midseason in 2008, he was dealt to the White Sox.

Finally Griffey returned to his (baseball) home in Seattle. His precipitous decline took him from being on pace to become the best player in baseball history to the quintessential coulda, woulda, shoulda story. Despite all of the injuries, Griffey still places fifth on the all-time home run and 16th on the all-time RBI list, a far cry from where we all thought he'd end up.

Ken Griffey Jr. played the game with such flair, such an aesthetically pleasing style, that he captivated everyone who saw him play. His swing is easily the most perfect I have ever seen. Sorry Joe Mauer. Sorry Robinson Cano. Sorry Rafael Palmiero. Sorry Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols. Try again next year.

He played the outfield with such grace. He didn't run, he glided. His long, graceful strides were poetry in motion, and watching him chase down fly balls was an absolute treat. He slung the ball from a nearly three quarters arm slot, and the ball shot out of his hand like a rocket, after bringing his arm through so effortlessly. Oh yeah, and the third outfielder on the Rawlings All - Time Gold Glove team? Griffey. Griff made the game seem so easy.

As the last few grains of sand trickled down his proverbial hourglass, Griffey's illustrious career can actually be viewed as a disappointment. Not by this writer however. While Griffey may have never taken the torch from Mays (let's be honest, if he ran with it he probably would've torn his hamstring), he served as the only person who could have been a worthy successor for Mays. Griffey served admirably, but there’s only one Say Hey Kid. Just ask Vic Wertz.

Joe Grimaldi is a junior at St. Thomas Aquinas College majoring in communications and a member of the college's baseball team.

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