These are Just Some of My Favorite(Baseball) Things–Of All Time

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The other day I talked about some of my favorite things in baseball that get me excited in the current game. But going through all those exciting players made me think of all my favorites from when I was younger. So it seemed only appropriate to visit the past and go through those players I’ve enjoyed over the years. Much like my friend Chuck Samples took a look earlier this year at his favorite starting nine, I’m about to take a look at what a lot of my baseball youth was surrounded by. So here we go–back to the late 80’s/early 90’s for the best of the best(at least in young Sean’s mind).

Barry Larkin roaming the infield

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I was more than overjoyed when Barry Larkin was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I had always felt he wasn’t as appreciated by some because he wasn’t the biggest, wasn’t the flashiest and wasn’t playing in a big market. What he was? A great, complete hitter, a clubhouse leader and a great defender. In fact, if I had to choose one thing I loved the most about Larkin, it was his defense. He was so smooth with the glove. He did it all, as this video bio shows:

Sure, Cal Ripken, Jr. was The Man at shortstop during this period. But Larkin could do more than Ripken, in all honesty. That was why I loved watching Larkin. He was a five tool infielder who made the Reds better because of it.

Lee Smith closing out a game at Wrigley Field

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Growing up, I watched a lot of Cubs games. I mean A LOT! With WGN showing the Cubs almost every day, and them playing mostly day games, I got to witness Lee Smith in his prime. It wasn’t just the fastball that popped in the catcher’s mitt. It wasn’t just the stoic, cold stare that Smith would give every batter. No, what really made Smith fun to watch was a batter stepping in with Smith on the mound at Wrigley Field–with the shadows around home plate. Like it wasn’t bad enough facing this big guy with the ridiculous fastball. No, let’s make it even harder by trying to see all this through the shadows! To say it was scary would be an understatement. All those things added up to another Cubs win…and a ‘Holy Cow’ from Harry Caray!

Bo Being Bo

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When Bo Jackson debuted back in 1986, we had never seen an athlete quite like him. Since then, we still haven’t seen a player who compares to Bo and we might never see such a player. He was a once in a lifetime athlete that I feel fortunate was on my favorite team. Bo would hit home runs farther than anyone else. Bo would run like an Olympic racer. Bo could throw a runner out at home from the deepest parts of the Kingdome. Bo could do practically anything.

Bo’s ability was unlimited, and one wonders just what he could have accomplished if not for the hip injury. I start dreaming about what the Royals would have been AS he got even better…seriously guys, goosebumps. Bo Jackson was so fun to watch and to this day I get giddy just talking about him. We were lucky to get to see him play, even if it was for such a short time.

‘Young’ Barry Bonds

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Before 1999, Barry Bonds was the best player in the game. Not only the best player in the game, but one who could do everything: hit, hit for power, run, and play great defense. He was as close to a well rounded baseball player as I have ever seen. I loved watching Barry make the game seem simple and doing everything on the field. Hell, he stole bases at a higher rate than his home runs at one point! He was what every player wanted to be on the field.

But we all know how this ends. Bonds, after watching Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa steal the spotlight in 1998, decides he can do what they did and Bonds bulked up. He bulked up to the point that he was hardly recognizable. He bulked up so much his defense suffered, he quit stealing bases, and became a home run hitter. Sure, he became the best home run hitter EVER, but everything I loved about watching Barry Bonds went away and I was bored with him. The younger version of Bonds? Loved. The older one? Dull and predictable. But at one point, he was a blast to watch.

Van Slyke’s Hustle

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Andy Van Slyke was never a big star. Hell, he wasn’t even the best player on his own team(hello, Barry Lamar)! But Van Slyke busted his butt out on the field, and I loved watching him do it. Offensively, you would have thought every at bat was his last. Defensively, you would have thought his hair was on fire. He worked for everything he achieved, trust me.

Van Slyke’s career was over by 1995, and injuries took a toll on his body. But those great Pirates teams of the early 90’s wouldn’t have gotten there without him. He was just as important a cog as Bonilla, Drabek and Bonds. It’s too bad he isn’t remembered as fondly as I remember him.

Sabes Shining

Kansas City Royals v Oakland Athletics

The first time my heart was broken was when the Royals released Bo Jackson. The second was when they traded Bret Saberhagen to the Mets in the winter before the 1992 season. He was the Royals ace, the winner of two Cy Young awards, and a no-hitter against the White Sox back in 1991.

Saberhagen was almost unhittable when he was on–which was normally in odd years. Seriously his stats in odd years were great, while they were ‘eh’ in even years. Don’t believe me? Click here. Most importantly, he was OUR ace. He was the guy on the mound when the Royals won the World Series. He was that generation’s Busby, or Leonard, or Splittorff. To me, Saberhagen was just as important as White, or Wilson, or Quisenberry. To me, he will always be a Royal.

Brett: The Best

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George Brett was and will always be my favorite player. George was everything good about the game. He was a great hitter, become an above average defender, and was as clutch as clutch gets. The 1985 ALCS was proof of that.

Brett WAS the Kansas City Royals. Sure, I loved Bo, I loved Sabes, and loved Frank. But George…George was the heart of this team. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I realized despite me watching the latter part of his career, I still saw a guy who went out there and killed himself despite his body falling apart. I have so many great memories of Brett, so here are just a few.

and that’s just what I could find! I remember him sliding into the St. Louis dugout trying to make a catch in the 1985 World Series. I remember his 3000th hit, which happened late at night in Anaheim. It was off Tim Fortugno(I still remember this, like it was yesterday), and capped off a 4 for 5 night for Brett. In fact, I can close my eyes and picture the hit. I was staying at my Grandma Thornton’s that night, and remember being so excited that he finally got it. I also remember the batting title he won in 1990(his third career), which most didn’t expect, as he had an awful first half of the season, but bounced back to claim the title in the second half of the season. I remember betting my PE teacher that he would win it, and of course I won. Brett IS Kansas City Royals baseball. Sure, I’ve heard the stories about him being a jerk, and of him getting drunk and being less than friendly to fans. I’ve heard the Vegas story. But…I still loved watching him play. Maybe the best I will ever see, but I am heavily biased. To me, George Brett is simply the best…and he gave us this.

So there you go, a peak into my youth. I would love to wait another 20 years and see what my son’s list would be. I can only hope he has as fond memories as I have of the best game on earth, America’s Pastime.

 

The Memory Remains

baseball-loses-best-cardinals-slugger-stan-musial-orioles-manager-earl-weaverThis past weekend, two baseball legends passed away on the same day. Longtime Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver and 92 year old St. Louis icon Stan Musial were mourned over this past weekend by many for good reason. Weaver was ahead of his time, pushing a team with great pitching and waiting for the three-run homerun. Weaver would have fit in perfectly in the late 90’s baseball picture. He was just as colorful in interviews and would fit like a glove in today’s soundbite era of sports coverage. Musial has to be listed as one of the greatest players EVER, and the numbers back that up. Musial didn’t get the press of a Ted Williams or a Joe DiMaggio, but he was every bit the player they were and in some ways put up those great numbers for a longer period of time. Both are huge losses for the game, and it will be felt within the baseball community. Both were also before my time, as I only remember Weaver faintly for the end of his managing career. But it did get me thinking; how will I react when the players that I idolized as a kid start passing away? What affect will that have on me?

brett-swings-350George Brett is my all-time favorite player. As a Kansas City Royals fan since I was a kid, Brett was the definition of greatness for those 1980’s Royals team and was THE fan favorite. We all knew how special he was and loved not only his great hitting and fielding, but his hustle and determination out on the field. I have heard many a story over the years about how George wasn’t always the nicest person in the world, but he is still my favorite. He is what I love about the game. To think that someday I will have to mourn him makes me think that a piece of my childhood will die with it. Maybe it will, but then I remember that I will always have the memories. I always think about how Buck O’Neil loved telling stories about the old Negro League players, and I can see the same happening with my generation and the great Royals’ teams we saw. Brett is looked at the same way Musial is in St. Louis; he is a part of the fabric of the community. Brett is an all-time great that won’t soon be forgotten, but it will be a sad day for not only us Kansas City fans, but baseball as well.

cal-ripken-streakOne great thing about being a long time baseball fan is the history you have seen over the years and the players you watched that were just as great of role models as ballplayers. Cal Ripken Jr. is one of those players and one who will go down as not only a great player but one who you would want your kids to emulate. All Ripken did was go out there every game, day after day, injured or healthy, on a hot streak or in a long slump, and played the game as hard as he could. I still fondly remember him breaking the consecutive games streak, and can recall the goosebumps I had while watching him walk around the stadium shaking hands. Moments like that are the ones I love to pass on to my son and I can only hope that someday he can experience the same thing.

Van slykeNow, not all the players I loved growing up were Hall of Famers. Andy Van Slyke was not one of the greats, but a good ballplayer during his time. The thing that I always loved about watching Van Slyke was his hustle. Didn’t matter what part of the game it was, Andy was diving all over the field, getting his jersey dirty and doing everything he could to help his team win. Van Slyke played on some great Pittsburgh Pirates teams, and though he was never the focal point of the team(hello, Barry Bonds!), he was a vital cog in their playoff teams. Van Slyke will never be in baseball’s Hall of Fame, but I’ll always remember him fondly and can remember why he was an easy one to cheer for.

rickeyIt’s never an easy thing to watch your idols pass on, especially those that you have looked up to since you were a kid. But one day it will happen, and there won’t be anymore returns to the field they once graced. No more reunions, no more old-timer’s days, no more celebrations of their great career accomplishments. One day, it will come time to celebrate a life, not a career. In some ways, that is a greater celebration than what these great ballplayers did on the field. You can only hope when that time comes that they will be remembered for everything great they did, and the stories will never stop. Over the last few days, Earl Weaver and Stan Musial stories have been told ad nauseum. That is the true barometer of just how entrenched into the game you were. When the stories stop, that is when you should worry. I’ll have no problem telling stories of the heroes of my youth. I’ll be able to honor them the best way possible; by keeping those memories alive.

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