A buddy of mine and I were talking sports the other night, and as is always the case, I brought up a baseball topic.
My friend is what you would call a "casual baseball fan"–He checks out the All-Star Game, the playoffs and the World Series, and is never satisfied unless the game is 9-7 in the fourth inning and guys are hitting bombs left and right.
Understanding his lack of baseball knowledge, I never really take his opinions too seriously. But as we sat in our friendly neighborhood drinking establishment, he made a comment that still has me fuming.
"I don't really like talking baseball too much," he said. "To me, it's a sport full of juicers, with records held by juicers. I don't take it seriously at all."
Now most people, including me, will find that comment ignorant. Any true baseball fan could rattle off arguments for hours about how that couldn't be further from the truth.
That being said, the fact remains no matter how many attendance records the sport breaks, and no matter how popular the game appears in our country, the Steroid Era will hover over the game until we finally resolve the Barry Bonds/Roger Clemens situations.
There are still players from the infamous Mitchell Report still playing in the league as we speak. Jason Giambi, Andy Petitte and Paul Lo Duca among others are still in the game, but there's certainly a light at the end of the tunnel.
We are witnessing the dawn of one of the most talented generations of baseball players in the history of the sport. When you add to that players who've been around but are on the verge of achieving Hall of Fame status, it was extremely hard to limit this list to twenty guys.
And you may have 20 different guys you think could make this list, so let the debating begin.
But without further adieu, here's my list of the 20 players that will put the Steroid Era out of both the casual and die-hard baseball fan's minds, in no particular order.
1. Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins: If the Florida Marlins are offering this guy 70 million dollars, you know he must be something special. With his amazing combination of speed and power, Ramirez has established himself as one of the ten best players in the game. His average is down a little this season, but his 15 homers, 61 runs and 17 steals put him in the top 15 in the National League in those categories. With his defense steadily improving, the 2006 Rookie of the Year is a player we'll be watching in awe for years to come.
2. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: If I have a son some day, I'm going to teach him to play like Derek Jeter. He plays the game the right way, and is the ultimate leader in baseball. His average is down this year, but he passed Mickey Mantle on the Yankees' all-time hit list recently. Talk about an amazing accomplishment. He doesn't show significant signs of slowing down, but as the years roll on he'll pass 3,000 and maybe 3,500 hits before he hangs 'em up. As those things start to happen, we'll start to cherish Jeter for what he embodies–everything that's great about the game.
3. Greg Maddux, RHP, Padres: The newest member of the ultra-exclusive 350 win club, it would take four paragraphs to go through all the hardware Maddux has accumulated over his phenomenal career. So I'll stick to perhaps the most important stat of all: If he wins 14 more games, Greg Maddux will be the winningest pitcher in baseball history post World War II. Think about that for a second. He has the opportunity to be the winningest pitcher in the modern era. If he comes back for the 2009 season, it will certainly be one of the biggest stories of the year, and we will have an entire year to watch the pursuit of a seemingly unattainable record by the best pitcher of his generation. If that can't make you forget about the Steroid Era, I don't know what will.
4. Chipper Jones, 3B, Braves: As a diehard Mets fan, it's absolutely killing me to put this guy on this list. But I've got to give credit where credit is due. As Chipper's pursuit of a 400 average shows, he's still an elite player in this league. A great defensive third basemen, Chipper is about to step into some pretty exclusive company with a few more solid years. He's third all-time in home runs as a switch-hitter, only 101 away from passing Eddie Murray at 502. His .310 lifetime average is second all time among switch-hitters. If he stays healthy the rest of this season, he'll be third all-time in runs batted in. With each passing year, Chipper gets closer and closer to becoming the greatest switch-hitter in the history of the game, and helping us to appreciate the career of a guy who did it the right way.
5. Ryan Braun, LF, Brewers: One of the most exciting young players in the game, Braun certainly hasn't experienced a sophomore slump in his second pro season. With 20 homers and 55 RBI in 71 games this season, Braun is doing huge things in his first full year in the bigs. The 2007 Rookie of the Year looks like an All-Star for the next decade.
6. Chase Utley, 2B, Phillies: This guy's the total package. If he had stayed healthy last season he had a great shot to win the MVP, and he's leading the race this season at the halfway point. His 22 homers and 62 RBI's are tops among second basemen, and the all-time records for RBI (152) and homers (42) in a season by a second basemen are well within reach. If he can stay healthy, Utley will make a serious run at the title of Best Offensive Second Baseman of All Time.
7. Jacoby Ellsbury, CF, Red Sox: Thirty-four steals in 66 games? Ellsbury is everything you could possibly want in a centerfielder, and his great World Series performance shows you he can play on the big stage. Once the Sox get blown away by an offer for Coco Crisp, Ellsbury will be the centerfielder in Boston for a long time to come, and will be terrorizing opposing pitchers for as long he wears a big league uniform.
8. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks: His .250 average this season shows he might not quite be ready to be an every day player, but there is no doubting this kid's talent. He's only 20 years old, and has shown the speed, power and arm that will make him one of the elite players in the game before too long. And by elite, I mean quite possibly the best player in the game. That's how much talent this guy's got.
9. Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals: Pujols is currently on the shelf, but no list like this would be complete without putting this guy on it. A .332 lifetime hitter, Pujols is closing in on 1,000 career RBI and 300 career homers, in only his eighth pro season. He's arguably the best all-around hitter in baseball, and if he stays healthy and has a lengthy career, he could challenge all the major offense records. And as he's approaching these hallowed records, we can be certain he's not on the sauce, piece of mind we haven't had recently.
10. Mariano Rivera, P, Yankees: The Sandman has been the best closer in the game for as long as I can remember, but that's only part of the reason why I put him on this list. Seven seasons of a sub 2.00 ERA, and a .78 so far this season, Rivera has been almost unhittable at points in 2008. His 463 career saves put him third all time. Six hundred career saves is easily within the realm of possibilities for Rivera, and we will be able to watch the greatest closer in baseball history reach once unthinkable heights.
11. Manny Ramirez, LF, Red Sox: Easily the most entertaining player in baseball, Ramirez has a very realistic chance to be one of the ten best right-handed hitters ever. The newest member of the 500 home run club, Ramirez has a legitimate shot at 600, and 650 isn't outrageous. More importantly, he's never been mentioned in the Mitchell Report. He played the majority of his career in the Steroid Era and played clean, and mashed the entire way. As he continues to reach milestone after milestone, we can all watch and appreciate Manny being Manny.
12. Alex Rodriguez, 3B, Yankees: We'll call the claims Jose Canseco made about ARod bogus for the sake of argument. This guy has the chance to be considered the best all around player in the history of the game. He's currently sitting at 532 homers and 1,544 RBI for his career, and he shows no signs of slowing down. He signed another huge contract to stay in the Bronx, and no matter what you think of him, we'll all watch in amazement as he approaches–and if he stays healthy, passes–every major offensive record the game has to offer. And you can do it with the satisfaction of knowing he's taking, and passing drug tests along the way.
13. Prince Fielder, 1B Brewers: Chicks dig the longball. And the Prince hits them a country mile. Already with one 50 home run season under his belt, he could be in store for a few more. And he's only 24 years old. He's one of the best young power hitters in baseball, and he'll only get better with experience.
14. Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners: Wouldn't we all love to have this kid's talent. Hernandez has the stuff to be an ace for the next 10-12 years, and he's still only 22. His 2.87 ERA this season shows he's realizing his potential, and if the Mariners can improve, he'll challenge 20 wins consistently as long as he stays healthy. If he stays clear of the injury bug, we could see King Felix challenge several pitching records before his career is over.
15. David Wright, 3B, Mets: Come on, I couldn't get through this whole list and not have a Met on here. Wright is the face of the franchise, and already has a 30/30 season and a Gold Glove under his belt. At 25, he has the opportunity to be an All-Star for the next ten years, and be a perennial 30/30 candidate. He's the second-best third basemen in the game, and he hasn't hit his prime. Hopefully he'll do that in Flushing, or I'll give up on the Mets for good.
16. Troy Tulowitzki, SS, Rockies: Throw out the slow start to this year. Tulo is the second coming of Mr. Derek Jeter. He's the heart and soul of the Rockies at 23 years old, and his leadership was a major reason for the Rockies' run to the World Series. Add to that he's the best defensive shortstop in baseball, and there's no doubt he'll be an outstanding player for years.
17. Evan Longoria, 3B, Rays: One week into his big league career, the Rays signed Longoria to a nine-year contract. The culture is changing in Tampa, and Longoria is a major reason for it. At 22, he has 11 homers and 35 RBI in his first year in the bigs, and appears to be the special player everyone thought he'd be. It will certainly be fun to watch him and the Rays grow up before our eyes.
18. Tim Lincecum, RHP, Giants: 8-1, 2.21 ERA, 1.23 WHIP. And he's only 24. Lincecum is already one of the top starters in the National League in my opinion, and he's only going to get better. He's got electric stuff, and he's won eight games already this season, pitching for a bad team. We'll watch him grow up into a perennial 17-20 game winner for the better part of his career.
19. Jay Bruce, CF, Reds: What a debut this guy's had. He's got power, he runs well, and he's always smiling. Remind you of a guy currently playing for the Reds when he was younger? I'm not crowning him the next Griffey just yet, but Bruce is certainly the real deal, and will have an outstanding career in the bigs.
20. Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers: Besides being a good story, Hamilton is probably the most talented player in baseball. He's a legitimate Triple Crown threat this year, and he doesn't look to be slowing down in his first full big league season. If he can stay on track off the field and stay healthy on it, he could be a great player and have a very nice career. It's a feel-good story, and someone you can root for no matter who your team is.
So there you have it. Some guys are old, some are new. There's some I wish I could have gotten on, but I had to cut it off at some point. All of these guys have one thing in common, though: they are players you can root for, players you can feel happy about when they do well. Because they will do well. They will lead us out from under the shadow the Steroid Era has cast on the game, and we will all be better for it.