World Cup 2010: Which MLB Players Could Have Been Pro Soccer Stars?
Soccer is the most popular youth sport in the United States. In 2002, 17.5 million American kids played in organized soccer leagues, not to mention the countless other children who gather for street scrimmages or spontaneous exhibition matches. Compare that to the classic pastime of Little League baseball, which had only 2.2 million participants in 2006.
But while soccer dominates the amateur market, most serious athletes in the U.S. have to switch sports if they plan to play professionally.
Let's be honest: American soccer is a joke compared to baseball, football, basketball, and even hockey.
It's not nearly as lucrative, either. David Beckham, the most expensive player in American soccer, is earning $6.5 million this year. By comparison, the Houston Astros are paying Carlos Lee nearly triple that to hit .223.
With all the excitement of the World Cup, it's only fitting to think about athletes who might have been soccer superstars had the sport been more popular in their home countries—not just in the U.S., but in places like Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.
In this slideshow are the 10 current or recent MLB players who I think would have been most successful in professional soccer. Each player on this list has some combination of skills and attributes that are important in the game the rest of the world calls "football."
There's no way to predict with certainty what would have happened had things been different. But it's still worth a try.
No. 10: Cal Ripken, Jr.
From a physical standpoint, the biggest difference between baseball and soccer is that, in the latter, players are almost always moving.
It's the difference between running a 100-yard dash and competing in a cross-country marathon.
Ripken was never a speed demon—far from it. But unlike most baseball players, the Iron Horse would have the stamina to make it through a game of footy.
No. 9: Nomar Garciaparra
Nomar would be a great soccer player for one reason: his potential personal trainer.
Garciaparra is married to women's soccer legend Mia Hamm, who I'm sure would be happy to show him the ropes.
By that time, it might've been too late for Garciaparra to switch sports. But that didn't stop Michael Jordan...
No. 8: Craig Biggio
Playing soccer takes a certain degree of toughness. No MLB player is afraid of the ball, but not many players consider getting beaned to be an almost everyday occurrence.
In his career, Biggio was hit by 285 pitches—by far the most ever.
Soccer players have the ball bounced off just about every part of their bodies on a regular basis. Biggio would be happy to oblige.
No. 7: Vladimir Guerrero
In his prime, Vlad was fast and strong, but that's not why he makes this list; he'd be best used as a goalie.
Why? Because he has incredible range with his hands. Guerrero has never been a very selective hitter because he's never had to be.
If he can hit a pitch off the plate, he'd have no trouble blocking a ball over his head.
No. 6: Albert Pujols
I have no proof that the Machine would be good at any other sport. He has no obvious skills that would transfer well to soccer, and there's no telling what he would do if he wasn't playing baseball.
But I have faith in his superhuman athletic abilities, and I bet he could've been the next Pelé if he had put his mind to it.
No. 5: Franklin Gutierrez
Franklin "Death to Flying Things" Gutierrez has made quite a name for himself chasing down balls in the open outfield grass.
It would take some adjustments for him to become a successful soccer player, but it probably wouldn't take too long for him to figure it out.
No. 4: Kenny Lofton
Maybe my memories of Lofton's legendary leaping grabs seemed more dramatic because of my young age, but in my mind's eye he is the master of the amazing catch.
If he could jump into the padded walls of Jacobs' Field to rob a double or home run, he could definitely dive in front of a soccer ball to save a goal.
No. 3: Rickey Henderson
One of the fastest players in the history of the game, it's not just Henderson's blazing speed that puts him on this list.
Henderson was the most aggressive baserunner of all time. He had 1,741 steal attempts in his career, beating the previous leader, Lou Brock, by nearly 500.
It's not just speed that matters in soccer; it's how you use it.
No. 2: Pablo Sandoval
Say what you want about a man with Panda's girth playing soccer. Yes, it's surprising, but it's not as crazy as you think.
If Sandoval can do with his hands what he does with a bat, he'd be quite a goalie. Like Guerrero, he has the ability to connect with balls way out of the strike zone. Plus, the bigger the goalie, the harder it is to score.
He's surprisingly agile for his size, too. He's at least a solid fielder, and they call him "Kung Fu Panda" for a reason—namely, because he jumped over a catcher's tag as a rookie in 2008.
Sure, he's a bit of a stretch. But come on, isn't everyone on this list?
No. 1: Carl Crawford
Crawford is well known as one of the fastest players in the game, and his speed alone would be enough to put him on this list. But that's not why he's tops on this list.
Crawford is probably the best player in the game at avoiding fielders' tags. He wasn't successful in the steal attempt pictured here, but I think it's still a good illustration of what he can do.
It's not quite the same as dribbling around a defender, but it's the same principle, and a very important skill for a soccer player to possess.