— The first home run was a laser, a slow-rising 1-iron shot. It looked like it might fly forever if not for the sturdy gray back wall of the Kingdome.
The second blast had a far different feel, but was no less impressive. A high-arcing moon-shot, it seemed to scrape the concrete ceiling of Seattle’s baseball tomb before finally settling into some left-field upper-deck seats not far from the first.
Both blasts came off the bat of Oakland’s red-headed Paul Bunyan, 32-year-old slugger Mark McGwire. Both came in the fifth inning off two different yet equally beleaguered Seattle Mariners relievers. And each of them were halfway to their destination before the sharp echoes of wood crushing horsehide reached my seat in right field.
It was Sept. 22, 1996, the day I saw the most awesome display of individual power I’ve ever witnessed in person. And I’ll never forget it.
Every baseball fan has memories like these. Unforgettable moments of greatness, catching a glimpse of a true legend at the height of his power. For me, growing up in the Pacific Northwest, my feelings of nostalgia harken back to memories of the sweet swing and fearless defense of Ken Griffey Jr., the barely controlled violence of Randy Johnson and the quiet grace of Edgar Martinez. And of course there were the visiting legends, the power of McGwire, the disruptive speed of Rickey Henderson, the intimidating swagger of Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens.
I will share these memories with my kids as they grow up. “I remember when I got to see …” will be a common introduction to another tale of the legends I grew up watching.
But who will leave that indelible mark on the new generation of young fans? What players will my kids brag about to their offspring? Who do you have to see play now, or else miss out on a key part of the game’s history?
There is certainly no shortage of players to choose from, as the new wave of talent is as deep as it is promising. So who better to ask then the players themselves? They know the talent. They know how hard it is to play baseball on an elite level. They know who most deserves our attention.
And time after time, the name that comes up to near universal acclaim is Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals first baseman who is already a three-time NL MVP at age 30. Pujols not only hits for average (.332 for his career), he hits for power (.624 career slugging percentage). And he’s not a free swinger, either, averaging 92 walks in his first nine seasons. Pujols is the best hitter in the game, with the most amazing combination of power and contact, and though in his 10th season, he’s in the thick of his prime. Even his fellow players know that to watch Pujols play baseball is to watch greatness in action.
“What’s impressive for me with (Pujols) is that he’s got the whole package,” said Minnesota Twins designated hitter Jim Thome. “He hits for power and for average, he drives in runs, he runs the bases well, has made himself into a great first baseman, and doesn’t strike out.
“Being a guy that strikes out and who has hit home runs,” Thome said, referring to himself, “you look at a guy like Pujols and go, ‘Wow, he doesn’t strike out.’ Over the long course of a season, you’d think a guy with that much power would strike out. He doesn’t, and that’s impressive.”
Cleveland Indians reliever Chris Perez, who played with Pujols in St. Louis, went even further: “He's the best hitter in our generation overall,” he said. “I think when it's all said and done, he's gonna be one of the most consistent hitters in history. I was fortunate enough to play with him my first year in the big leagues, and I got to see his work ethic and what kind of person he is. I don't think there's anybody better in the game than him, honestly. Thirty years from now, I think it'd be pretty special to say I played with Albert Pujols and watch him strap it up for a season."
Tampa Bay Rays outfielder B.J. Upton also mentioned Pujols, but gave the edge to Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
“I think overall it’s A-Rod,” Upton said. “It just always looks like he’s going to hit it, and it always looks like he’s going to hit it hard. He’s just fun to watch.”
But there is a depth of young talent in baseball that spreads far beyond Pujols and Rodriguez, a class of young players that has already arrived and will have no problem carrying the game’s torch into the next era. Ken Griffey Jr., himself an icon of his generation, expressed admiration for the current crop of talent in an interview just weeks before abruptly ending his 22-year career in early June.
“There are a lot of guys now,” Griffey said. “If we spend all this time talking about what guys did 15 years ago, then you miss out on what these players are doing now. There are a lot of great young players right now, and it would be sad if we didn’t notice how good they are.
“Baseball today is in a lot better situation than a few years ago.”
He mentioned such players as Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria, and the Milwaukee Brewers’ Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun. When asked if there were any pitchers worth seeing, Griffey feigned disgust. “Pitchers!” he snorted, rolling his eyes.
But those same eyes lit up a moment later, and two words popped from his lips: “The Freak,” he blurted, referring to shaggy-haired San Francisco Giants ace Tim Lincecum, already a two-time Cy Young winner at age 26. “He’s undersized and maybe 160 pounds soaking wet. But he’s not afraid to come right at you, and he knows how to pitch. He’s just one of those guys who is fun to watch.”
And while most players seem to be in awe of the home run hitters and the “freakish” pitchers, there are other types of players that also drew praise as must-see talents.
Several players, in fact, mentioned Seattle Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, a wispy player with the most unorthodox of swings, yet who has managed to win a Gold Glove, earn an All-Star nod and notch at least 200 hits in each of his nine seasons in the majors. His peers marveled not only at his on-field success, but his amazing level of focus and preparation.
“He’s got something in mind that he’s going to do, and he’ll do it,” said Mariners second baseman Chone Figgins. “That’s what makes these players great.”
“You could talk about Ichiro,” said Twins catcher Joe Mauer, 27, himself a must-see player as perhaps the best catcher of his generation. “He’s been doing it a lot longer than people realize. He was doing it for 10 years over in Japan.”
Thome compared Ichiro to Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs, with amazing bat control to place hits, seemingly, wherever they want. “They’re that good. It’s like they’re magicians the way they go about it.”
Another magician received praise from multiple players, this one for his mound wizardry —Phillies pitcher Roy Halladay.
“He’s one of those guys who every start will give his team a chance to win,” said Longoria, expressing relief that the former Blue Jays ace had switched to the National League in the offseason. “He’s got four ‘plus’ pitches, and at any time in the game he can throw any of them for a strike. Even if one of them isn’t working, he still has three.”
One thing that seemed common to all the players mentioned was that they had earned respect from their peers not just for their talent, but also for how they handled themselves as professionals. Flashy prima donnas were absent from their lists.
“They go about it the right way,” said Mauer, a clean-cut kid who carries himself like a regular guy despite already having three batting titles and an MVP award on his resume. “They’re not the ‘look at me’ type of guys. They play the game hard and they play the game the right way. It’s not about the flash or things like that, it’s about doing the right thing at the right time.”
Interestingly, that is exactly how Mauer is viewed by his peers.
“Obviously, you know, (Mauer’s) hitting, being able to do what he’s able to do," said Indians reliever Jensen Lewis. “And then just the kind of person he is: He’s so down to earth, humble ... just a guy if you played with him, you’d say, ‘If I’m going to start a team, this is the guy I’d start with.’”
There is something special about greatness. You can see it not only in a player’s performance, but in how he carries himself on the field. Sometimes it’s obvious like a Pujols homer, and other times it’s as subtle as an Ichiro slice to left field. Either way, you know it when you see it, and you can point to the player and tell your son or daughter “See him? He’s a Hall of Famer.”
And if you think the next generation is short on talent, think again, because the players just keep on coming.
“I'm excited to see Stephen Strasburg,” Indians reliever Frank Herrmann said of the 21-year-old pitching phenom of the Washington Nationals. “Everyone's saying he's the next big thing. … He's definitely a guy right now who can't miss.”