Throughout the history of sports, there comes the appearance of a generation of superstars whom along with their clubs, rival each other in terms of team superiority, statistical races and awards chases.
In the NBA, you had Russell vs. Chamberlain in the 1960s, Bird vs. Magic in the 1980s, Jordan vs. everyone else in the 1990s, Kobe and Shaq vs. Duncan and Robinson in the late-'90s and early 21st century and now we have LeBron vs. Carmelo vs. Durant.
In other sports, you have all-time great rivalries like Nicklaus and Palmer, Tiger and Mickelson, Sampras and Agassi, Ali and Frazier and Nadal and Federer.
For its part, baseball has some of the most classic rivalries in the history of sport—rivalries that reflected their respective times.
In the pre-WWI dead-ball era, the two greatest players were Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, and they faced off in the 1909 World Series, with Wagner's Pirates defeating Cobb's Tigers.
In the 1930s and 1940s, a time when America was trying to recover from the Great Depression and WWII, the legendary Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was highlighted by the performances of the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio, and Boston's Ted Williams. Williams may have been the better overall hitter, but Joltin' Joe's Bronx Bombers consistently won it all, and DiMaggio won three MVPs to Williams' two (though voter bias played a role)
Much like the rest of the world did in the 1950s, major league baseball of that era centered around New York City. The Yankees of the Bronx, the Giants of Manhattan and the Dodgers of Brooklyn were at their peak.
Fans of the New York teams looked up to the franchise's three great Hall of Fame center fielders: "The Commerce Comet", Mickey Mantle, "The Say Hey Kid", Willie Mays, and "The Silver Fox", Duke Snider. Snider's Dodgers and Mays' Giants clashed almost annually for National League supremacy, and the Dodgers and the Yankees (led by Mantle) met in the World Series four times in a five-year stretch during the decade.
The chaos of the 1970s was reflected in the magnitude of baseball's biggest events, and the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry became more intense than ever, centering around two clashing catchers, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk, while also being driven by the in-house fighting of Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner.
In the late 1990s and early 21st century, the position of shortstop took center stage in baseball as Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Alex Rodriguez became the central figures of their franchises. While the AL was competitive, Jeter's Yankees dominated—though A-Rod and Nomar put up the numbers and took home hardware for their individual exploits.
Today, there is a clash between the game's newest young superstars: Washington's Bryce Harper and the Angels Mike Trout, both Rookie of the Year award winners in their respective leagues last year.
It seems as if Harper and Trout were destined to be rivals. Harper was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old in Nevada. He idolized and based his game around another Midwestern kid who broke into the big leagues at 19: The Mick. But his cockiness and "I'm better than you" attitude resembles Alex Rodriguez.
The same year Harper was touted as baseball's answer to LeBron James, Trout was a sleeper pick in the late first round out of high school in southern New Jersey. Although growing up a fan of the Phillies, he idolized another legend on East 161st St. and River Ave, Derek Jeter, and seems to pattern his game after Jeter's balanced approach—speed, patience, contact, defense, power...everything. His calmness and humility seems to be inspired by his pinstriped idol.
Both young stars have already made their presence felt in the world of major league baseball.
On his way to winning NL ROY, Harper became the first teen since Ken Griffey, Jr. to mash 20 HRs in a season. He led the Nationals to their first playoff appearance since they were the Montreal Expos. A few weeks in to the 2013 season, his game has only improved: 12 HRs in 139 ABs and a whopping .995 OPS. He can't even drink alcohol yet—not that he would want to, famously.
Trout was just a bit better than Harper last year, finishing as the unanimous AL ROY and the MVP runner-up to Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera in a hotly contested race. He's certainly not suffering a sophomore slump either, posting just under a .300 batting average with a .944 OPS.
On Tuesday, he became the youngest American Leaguer ever to hit for the cycle—21 years and 288 days. Even at Trout's tender age, it may not be too soon to call him the greatest overall player in the game today.
And he'll only get better.
Although the two players will likely not meet until a potential World Series matchup or next year in interleague play, these two new faces of major league baseball seem to be throwbacks to a time before the era of steroids.
Both players, at their peak, could be dominant in every single aspect of the game. Both are very good outfielders; they can average .300-plus; they have plenty of speed (although Trout may be faster); they have excellent throwing arms, and they can crush the ball (although Harper may have even more power). Don't be surprised if one or both accumulates a 40-40 season, a batting title, a 50 HR season, a couple of MVPs and championships by the time both wrap up their careers.
They are both that good. And they are this generation's answer to the individual rivalries that have helped define greatness in major league baseball.