Well, enough of that. This is it. On to the team . . .
Catcher: Jason Kendall
Why don't we start out with a bit of a surprise? Jason Kendall is one of the guys who once played for the Cubs, but he was not primarily a Cub. Kendall became a favorite of mine for one main reason: he was a catcher who could run. For three straight years, from 1998-2000, Kendall stole over 20 bases. My second team catcher, recent HOF inductee Pudge Rodriguez, stole over 20 bases once in his career. In fact, if you remove all players who started their careers before 1920, Jason Kendall stole more bases than any other catcher. His 189 steals beats the closest competitor, Carlton Fisk, by 62. And Fisk played in almost 500 more games than Kendall! While his running ability caught my eye, Kendall was no slouch behind the plate, either. He ranks 2nd all-time (behind Pudge) in putouts by a catcher. After he left Pittsburgh at the age of 30, though, he started to fall off, as catchers are wont to do. Still, I think for a guy who spent 15 years in the Majors, he doesn't get enough credit for being the great player he was.
1st Base: Todd Helton
Now we get to the infield, where every player would probably be a Cub if I hadn't restricted myself. Barring Cubs, Todd Helton is my favorite first baseman of all-time. I have a soft spot for the Rockies, as they were the closest team to my town as soon as they entered the league. Put that together with the fact that Helton played college football, and you have a player that I will likely follow. Helton had two of the qualities I like to see in a first baseman, power and contact. Helton may have hit a lot of home runs, but he was also a good contact hitter. He posted 12 seasons with an average over .300, and even flirted with .400 in 2000 while leading the league with a .372 average. Once again, I think I gravitate toward players that I feel are a bit underrated.
2nd Base: Chase Utley
As I mentioned in my 2nd-Team post, this position was difficult for me. In the end, I decided on Utley because I have always admired his grit and tenacity while playing at a high level. I know that this will be a controversial decision due to Utley's reputation as a dirty player, but I think he plays hard more than he plays dirty. I know the blogs lit up a couple of years ago over Utley and his takeout slide on Ruben Tejada, and I know of some bloggers who defended him and some who took great personal offense over his actions. Let me just say that yes, I believe Utley crossed a line on that play. The slide was late and hard, and he caused a serious injury. I don't believe his intent was to injure, but he was absolutely in the wrong. That said, 13 years of scrappiness and 6 All-Star appearances before that play had already solidified Utley in my mind as a great player.
3rd Base: Chipper Jones
Chipper was kind of a no-brainer here for me. This position could change in time, given the tremendous amount of talent at 3rd base right now, but Chipper is a big part of my adolescence. I remember I had a friend in junior high who was obsessed with Chipper and the Braves. I never became a Braves fan, but he piqued my interest in the player and I always respected the way he played the game. There was no flash and fanfare--just a consistent "do your job" mentality. He finished his career with a .303 average and just shy of 500 homers. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in a few years.
Shortstop: Cal Ripken, Jr.
Cal Ripken had the persona that was everything good about baseball to me. As a kid, I admired his consistency and his great play. I remember magazine articles about how he would spend more time than anybody else signing for kids before and after games, and he was always so nice about it. I don't have any firsthand experience with this, unfortunately, but I do remember the impact it made on me to read it. He is one of the main reasons the All-Star Game became a tradition in my family and that I decided to collect All-Star MVPs. We were watching when he won the MVP in 1991, and it has more or less stuck since. When Cal was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2007, he received 98.5% of the vote, the third-highest percentage ever received.
Left Field: Rickey Henderson
Purely coincidentally, my top three outfielders just happen to make up a pretty good outfield without playing out of position. Rickey will take left field for me. I remember distinctly when I first started to learn who some baseball players were, and Rickey Henderson was one of the first that I really liked. One of my favorite mental images from my childhood is that of Rickey Henderson holding up the bag after breaking the stolen base record. And though I've always admired guys who look like they're just out there having fun, Rickey seemed to me like he was all business. I admire that too.
Center Field: Mike Trout
Trout is the youngest player on this team, and one of only a handful of active players that I considered. My honorable mention list is filled with active players, but most of them haven't overtaken the older guys yet. I have a couple of thoughts on why this would be. My first thought is that they haven't proven themselves yet. They are talented, but I don't know if I've seen enough of them to call them all-time favorites. The second thought is that it's hard to beat nostalgia. Whether I'm considering a player who I remember fondly from those days when baseball players were more than people or from the days of my early adulthood when I started understanding the nuances of the game better than I had before, I think those players have a leg up on the guys who are younger than I and play similarly to anybody else I've ever seen. Mike Trout transcends all those thought processes. I grew up hearing about how there were just a special few players in history who could do everything and do it well. Ty Cobb was one. Willie Mays may have been the best. From all I've seen of Mike Trout in his relatively short career thus far, I believe that he could be the best ever. He does it all, and better than most that I've seen. Coming in after some of the haze of the Steroid Era, and after so many of its players had left, Trout represents a new generation to me, and I'm even more impressed that he is not under suspicion for using the PEDs that helped so many players of my childhood accomplish more. Plus, he's just having fun, doggone it. He is currently my favorite player, apologies to all my fellow Cubbie faithful and my boys in blue.
Right Field: Tony Gwynn
When I was in 7th grade, I gave up baseball. I wish now that I had kept playing, but at the time I was super frustrated after having played 8 years from T-ball and up and having the same problem: I couldn't hit the ball! I was a decent fielder. I was tall for my age, so my reach gave me some advantage at first base, especially with all the errant throws of little league. But I struggled to make contact consistently at the plate. I was tired of batting 8th or 9th every game, and I "retired" with exactly zero home runs. Why do I mention this? Because it adds to the mystique of Tony Gwynn in my mind. How could somebody make contact almost every single time? He was the master hitter of my childhood. He hardly ever struck out, it seemed. Seriously, the man spent 20 years in the Majors and only struck out 434 times. That doesn't even put him in the Top 1000 of career strikeouts. After two decades! To add some perspective, the newest member of the 3000 Hit Club, Adrian Beltre, reached Tony Gwynn's career strikeout total midway through his sixth season, almost 15 years ago. I'm not saying anything against Beltre here; rather, I'm using his stature as a pretty good hitter himself to show just how rare it was to put Gwynn out on strikes. The card above sums up feelings for Tony Gwynn completely: RESPECT.
Right-Handed Pitcher: Nolan Ryan
By the time I started to gain an interest in baseball, Nolan Ryan's career was winding down. He was over 40 years old, but that didn't stop him from throwing a baseball harder than just about anyone and even pitching a no-hitter. Plus, I had a card of him wearing a cowboy hat and working a ranch. Now, I come from a rodeo family; my mother's brothers and sons were all professional bronc and bull riders at some point. The point of familiarity with Ryan's lifestyle solidified my fandom. In recent years, it has been re-fortified by the documentary Fastball. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend checking it out on Netflix. Nolan Ryan's longevity, durability, and toughness are mind-blowing. As the documentary points out, Ryan was pretty much his own reliever. For decades. The man is almost super-human.
Left-Handed Pitcher: Randy Johnson
I love two things about Randy Johnson. First, I love the fact that he battled control problems early in his career and overcame them. I like success stories like that. Second, the bird. Man, I don't know how many times I watched the video of The Big Unit just smoking that poor bird in one of the most bizarre cosmic coincidences I've ever seen occur on the baseball diamond. By that time, I already recognized him as one of the top pitchers of my era, but a memory like that will stick in the mind of an adolescent boy.
Relief Pitcher: Dennis Eckersley
Eckersley was a Cub, but I never knew him as a Cub. I don't think the Cubs are the first team many people think of when they think of Eckersley. He was also a good starter. But that was before I knew Dennis Eckersley. When I first became aware of Eck, he was a dominant closer for the A's. I loved watching him pitch. He had that intimidating "don't mess with me" glare and a distinctive throwing motion that I really liked. For me, he was the first closer that I knew, and he was good one to know.
Designated Hitter: Jim Thome
I mentioned before that I'm a National League guy. I don't care much for the DH. But, just as I decided to use it on this team so I could fit Frank Thomas on the team, I couldn't leave off one of the players that I respect the most. Jim Thome was a model of consistency and quiet greatness. For years he just did his thing and never garnered the accolades he probably deserved. I remember in 2011 win he hit his 600th home run, and I couldn't believe that he had hit that many. His final total of 612 currently sits at 7th all-time. All the while, I would have never guessed that Jim Thome would have ended up in the top 10 by the end of his career. Quiet greatness is an attribute I greatly admire.
So, there you have it. The All Bump and Run Baseball 1st Team. These may not be the best players ever, but they are all guys that I have seen play in my lifetime and admired for some reason or another. Now it's your turn. Who are your favorite players from your lifetime?