Major League Baseball: The 15 Best Role Models Since 1995
I was born the year the A’s beat the Giants in the World Series. It figures that I’d be born into a place that was teeming with baseball fever. That, combined with a little sprinkle of Mother Nature must have shaken my baby brain into realizing that baseball is the greatest sport on the planet.
Because since the day I was born, I’ve been the biggest fan of America’s pastime you’ll ever meet. From dreaming, to playing, to watching, to writing, baseball has always been on my mind.
I remember the various successes and failings of my A’s and Dodgers throughout the years. I can visualize with complete clarity Edgar Renteria’s walk-off single in 1997. I remember watching that play and being shocked into happiness by the child-like elation displayed by grown men. I can watch Kirk Gibson circling the bases or Joe Carter jumping up and down millions of times and still get shivers.
The Red Sox 2004 comeback. The Yankee three-peat. Scott “my hero” Spiezio. The White Sox awful rendition of Don’t Stop Believin’ in 2005. Tony Womack. Bud Selig’s iron fist. Barry Bonds’ “record.” Syringes and pills. Suspensions. Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez breaking my heart. The league’s fall from grace.
Yes, in my lifetime Major League Baseball has had its ups and downs. But in an era defined by artificial enhancement that bloated half the players’ muscles up to superhero sizes, and home runs that flew out of the stadium at a record pace and record distances, and 84 straight saves by a below-average closer, and hundreds of surprises on a terrifying list, I hung on by a thread. A chain, if you will, of the good guys.
This is my list of the 15 Best Role Models in Baseball since 1995. Why 1995? Well, not to ruin the surprise, but a couple contenders happened to show up that year…here they are. The 15 players who helped growing baseball fans like me believe in something more than steroids and corked bats and stolen signals:
15: David Ortiz
I know I’m going to catch some flak for including Ortiz on this list. After all, he was named in a New York Times Report a few years ago as one of the players who tested positive for banned substances in 2003. This was Big Papi’s response to the report:
"Today I was informed by a reporter that I was on the 2003 list of MLB players to test positive for performance-enhancing substances. This happened right before our game, and the news blindsided me. I said I had no comment because I wanted to get to the bottom of this. I want to talk about this situation and I will as soon as I have more answers. In the meantime, I want to let you know how I am approaching this situation.
"One, I have already contacted the Players Association to confirm if this report is true. I have just been told that the report is true. Based on the way I have lived my life, I am surprised to learn I tested positive. Two, I will find out what I tested positive for. And, three, based on whatever I learn, I will share this information with my club and the public. You know me; I will not hide and I will not make excuses. I want to thank my family, the Red Sox, my teammates, and the fans for their patience and support."
There is a big difference between someone coming clean in a hand-crafted memo-style response and the genuinely open, honest way that Ortiz did. Aside from the one blemish, Ortiz has been a great teammate and player on the field, and an even better person off the field. He is the class clown; I can’t imagine watching the Home Run Derby now without Ortiz and his big, goofy smile on the sideline.
14: Luis Gonzalez
Another one of baseball’s good guys who was on that infamous list in 2003. I will forever remember Gonzo for his looping blooper over the Yankees’ drawn-in infield to win the 2001 World Series. \
When rumors came out that Gonzalez was on that list, he was extremely upset. I am more prone to believe in players like Gonzalez and Ortiz who didn’t grow at alarming rates, like some people.
Gonzo had a way about him when he was playing that just oozed sportsmanship and dedication. He was a power hitter who played his heart out and, like Ortiz, was always smiling and laughing.
Gonzalez seemed to enjoy the game and get along with everyone on the field around him. Overall, a fantastic role model for growing fans like myself; a good, scrappy ballplayer and a stand-up guy to boot.
13: Craig Biggio
Biggio was once a member of the dreaded “Killer B’s” of the Houston Astros. He teamed up with Derek Bell and Jeff Bagwell to create a trio of mashers who wreaked havoc on opposing pitchers. Biggio very subtly recorded 3,000 hits in his career.
He reminded me of the silent genius. He didn’t have much of an in-your-face personality. He was relatively unheard from off the field and seemed to just strap in and go about his business on the diamond every day.
The only difference is, he did it better than most people. He was the singles-hitting leadoff man who could run, play defense and get on base. Biggio was the ultimate role model for players who wanted to be the spark plug for their teams.
A fan favorite, Biggio may have the unfortunate circumstance of playing an old-school style career in the wrong decade.
12: Torii Hunter
Even at the ripe old age of 36, Hunter is still dazzling in the outfield. When I was growing up, he was on the highlight reel every night, robbing a home run or making a diving catch or gunning out a runner trying to advance.
He has been no slouch at the plate either, racking up almost 300 home runs so far. I used to draft Hunter on my video-game teams just because he was so awesome.
And there is no doubting Torii’s superstar status as a role model. He’s an open, honest, outspoken player who will lead by example and doesn’t command the spotlight like many of his counterparts.
You will be hard-pressed to find a player today who combines the intensity and desire in his play with off-field efforts to give back. The Torii Hunter Project is a brilliant, generous idea.
11: Vladimir Guerrero
Oh, Vlad. One of my all-time favorite players. From his near 40/40 days on the Montreal Expos (R.I.P.) to his fading career in Baltimore today, he will still always be the barehanded monster masher who swings at everything and swings hard.
It amazes me to watch such a large athlete who looks so dysfunctional in the field, on the base paths and at the plate, having extreme success in every aspect of the game.
I’ve seen Vladdy hit a ball over 400 feet that was above his eyes. He’s pulled a curveball at the ankles on the outside corner and turned it down the line around the foul pole. In his prime, he had the most dangerous right arm in the business.
He’s another lovable, happy player who never got into trouble and just played his heart out every game. If I could be half the player Guerrero has been and have half as much fun as he had, I’d donate a limb. Well, not my throwing limb.
10: Todd Helton
The pride of the Colorado Rockies, Helton has been one of the most consistent hitters of my generation. He has very quietly put together a resume worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. The big bearded lefty has a career clip north of .320 and has launched nearly 400 home runs. The most astonishing thing to me is Helton’s career on-base percentage (.421).
The closest Helton ever got to being involved in the steroid discussion was when an announcer suggested that Helton juiced in the 1990’s. Well, that announcer is clearly either a heavy drinker or a Giants fan.
Helton is clean, and that makes his role model status even more impressive. He’s one of those guys that I hope stays healthy so he can just keep playing and eventually get that elusive ring that I know drives him to get up and put on his spikes every single day.
#9: Roy Halladay
Is there any better role model for an aspiring young pitcher? Doc has been the most dominant pitcher in the game for quite some time now. He puts the ball wherever he wants to on any pitch to any batter.
Pinpoint control, filthy stuff and amazing endurance make for one of the greatest hurlers of this era. Last year, he threw a perfect game in the regular season and then a no-hitter in the playoffs.
We all know about his accomplishments, but have you ever seen Halladay angry? Or act out in any way? Even after his historic gems last year, he didn’t crack a smile until his catcher jumped into his arms.
He doesn’t show off or make annoying headlines in the media. Halladay truly is the prototypical ace both on the mound and off it.
8: Mariano Rivera
Rivera is one of the most amazing athletes I’ve ever had the privilege to see play. His entire career has been dependent upon one pitch. I know that is a cliché at this point; it’s always stressed when people talk about his career.
But it’s absolutely amazing to think that the greatest closer of all time made one single pitch the focal point of his soon-to-be record save total. By the end of this season, Mo will have the most saves in baseball history. And that cutter will be to thank.
Even more impressive than his numbers is how respectful and driven he has always been. He is the Roy Halladay of closers, if you will.
Originally from Panama, Rivera makes a point to go home and help rebuild his home town every offseason. In interviews, he has been adamant about knowing how lucky he is to be a wealthy, successful athlete and uses what he has earned to give back to the place that created him.
7: Sean Casey
Affectionately known as “The Mayor,” Casey is everyone’s best friend. He was the first baseman who would chat up a storm with every runner when they got on base, and never complained or brawled during the game.
He had pretty solid numbers from the left side of the plate as well. A regular for the Reds, he was a fan favorite and helped nurture the young stars that eventually turned around Cincy’s franchise.
Now, Casey is an analyst for the MLB Network. He’s very good at his job, but you can see rays of his amiable personality shine through the cracks.
By that I mean, even when he has to analyze something where a definitive decision must be made, he tries to treat both sides fairly with excitable but well-chosen words. Sean Casey may never be a Hall of Fame player, but he will always be the nicest ballplayer of his time.
6: Tony Gwynn
The Padres’ big ball of fun was also one of the greatest contact hitters of all time. It was a sad day for me when Gwynn retired. When I was growing up, I would watch the Padres play and literally expect him to get a hit every single time he came up. And sometimes, it seemed like he did.
If you’ve ever seen Gwynn on TV in an interview or in the booth, you can tell how affable the Hall of Famer really is. He absolutely loves the game of baseball and that feeling exudes through his peppiness for what he’s doing both on and off the field.
Gwynn was one of those guys who was the common man’s hero. If anyone didn’t like him, it was simply because they were tired of him beating their team.
#5: Cal Ripken Jr.
I might get crap for this selection too. But only because I listed him at No. 5, when most probably think he should be top three! The Iron Man not only holds the untouchable mark of most games in a row started (2,632 games in a row is more than 16 full seasons!), but he was a 19-time All-Star and is a member of the 3,000 hits club.
Ripken was another quiet superstar who went about his business every day and did it exceptionally well. Whether he was a young shortstop, a peaking third baseman or a grey utility man, Ripken did it all and did it hard.
Since he retired, Ripken has still been involved in baseball at a philanthropic level, starting organizations and clinics to help promote baseball from a young age.
The pride of Maryland always has been and always will be one of the greatest players and role models the game has ever seen. Oh, did I mention he received the third-highest percentage of votes for the Hall in baseball history?
4: Greg Maddux
Maddux looks like your high school math professor. Or maybe your grandfather in his younger days. Whatever image he took on, he still dominated opposing hitters his entire career by putting his 85 mile per hour fastball anywhere he wanted.
The master of control, changing speed and thinking about four pitches ahead of every batter was a true pitching master. Like a mad scientist. There I go with the alternate image thing again.
He won 4 Cy Young awards and had 355 wins in an illustrious career, mostly with the Braves. He teamed up with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to lead Atlanta to a 1995 title.
Maddux could play a little defense too. Let’s just say he had to get a bigger trophy case to house the 18 Gold Gloves he won! Maddux was an all-around good guy and would be a fantastic manager in the future.
3: Albert Pujols
Where do I even begin with Pujols? He has been the picture of consistency for a full decade now. This season has been a disappointment by his standards and he’s still hitting over .300 with 30 home runs and just under 100 RBI.
He should command a $200 million contract in the offseason and anyone who signs him will have the best hitter of the last 10 years. At age 31, Pujols has absolutely owned opposing pitchers to the tune of 446 home runs. If he stays healthy and plays until age 40, Pujols has a legitimate shot at hitting 800 home runs.
The guy is squeaky clean too. The dirtiest thing he’s pulled off all this time happened this year, when he pretended to offer a ball to a Brewers fan and then playfully pulled it away when he reached for it. And it was more funny than anything.
Seriously though, Pujols is a very openly religious man and has shown it 446 times, when he crosses the plate and points to God. If I could be half the man Pujols is, I’d have to be the love child of Gandhi and Mother Theresa. Wow, that is wrong in so many ways.
#2: Ken Griffey Jr.
If there is anyone in the world who dislikes Junior, they are baseball Nazis. The sweetest swing I’ve ever seen, freakish ability in the outfield and the biggest smile this side of Julia Roberts.
It still saddens me that Griffey continued to get hurt after bursting on the scene in 1989 and becoming the pride of Seattle. I honestly think he would have the career home run record by a mile right now if he kept playing.
Considering the guy had 630 homers even though he only played a full season in about half of his 22 major league campaigns, I think it's safe to say he would have had it on lock if only he had stayed healthy.
I always told people that if I ever found out the Kid did steroids, I’d probably move to a Buddhist monastery. And I mean that. Because there was no player I modeled myself after than the hustling, homering, happy-go-lucky Ken Griffey Jr.
He was the best player I’d ever seen, and even Pujols pales in comparison to Griffey’s all-around ability. He was well-liked for his skills, but even more for being a good guy who had a great time playing the sport he loved.
1: Derek Jeter
Surprised? I hope not. Because although I know Jeter is a Yankee, has no personality and made a public issue of his contract last offseason, he’s still the best overall role model I’ve ever had in baseball. And not because he dates beautiful women (though that doesn’t hurt his case).
Jeter has been the Yankee captain since he came up in 1995. He’s got 5 rings and has been coined Mr. November for his heroics in the Fall Classic. Jeter has put up monster numbers, getting his 3,000th hit earlier this summer.
Growing up, I hated the Yankees. Who didn’t? But when I listed all the people I hated involved with the organization, I could never bring myself to even say DJ’s name. He has dealt with George Steinbrenner, Alex Rodriguez and every other Yankee drama queen. He has thrived in the most intense baseball city in the world for years and never lost his cool, even as rumors circulated that he was over the hill.
Jeter is a good guy, a prime example of the prototypical player and absolutely impossible to faze. And best of all, his involvement in the steroid scandal was never even in question.
Let me know what you think about my top 15 baseball role models since 1995. Anyone I forgot? Anyone too high on the list? Too low? Let the comment reel roll!