My favorite baseball players

I was recently asked by a journalist from another publication to name my favorite Astros player. When I told him it was Kevin Bass, he was surprised. Actually, stunned would be a more accurate description. I guess he was expecting to hear the name of one of the usual suspects: Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman, Jimmy Wynn, Jose Cruz, Larry Dierker, Mike Scott, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens or Roy Oswalt. Those gentlemen are undoubtedly the best ballplayers who have played for the Astros franchise, but the best ballplayers aren’t necessarily my favorite ballplayers. It’s not that I don’t recognize or appreciate excellence, but excellence alone is not enough, and sometimes it isn’t much when I find myself rooting for a new favorite.

The fantasy that I think most of us have about baseball is that we think (foolishly) that any one of us could go right on out there onto that beautiful, enticing field and play (and we’d do it for free, too. But that’s an issue for another time.) We have had fantasy baseball for years and years, meaning that we have had fantasies about who any particular ballplayer is as a person and we have melded that into his on-field performance and we all like to watch and root for certain kinds of players, and yes, incorporating our projections of his personality.
So, what do I like?

1) I like watching men who are graceful, sure-footed and appear to move swiftly and effortlessly, like a large jungle cat. This means I have a weakness for great fielding outfielders and shortstops who do not do things like dive for balls because they got bad jumps or jump and throw because they got to the ball so late and it’s their only prayer of getting the ball to its target. I also love watching basestealers.

2) I like ballplayers who represent rags to riches stories, guys who were drafted at the bottom of the barrel, expected to be minor league filler, at best, and through persistance and sheer force of dominating will, worked themselves into the major leagues.

3) I like ballplayers who are what I would call “team players” and by that, I mean a ballplayer who actually makes a team better, not just with bat and glove, but with his personality, bringing out the best in the other men. He is the player who gets 25 individuals to turn into a cohesive team. This, by the way, is what I personally think is REAL “leadership” not some guy who happens to be older who bites at some young guy’s heels for the purpose of humiliating him or keeping him in his “place.”

4) Last, but not least, I also happen to like ballplayers who are hot. And how do I define “hot?” I can only offer the Potter Stewart defense: I know it when I see it. And I do not want to hear any complaints from male readers about that particular aspect of my fandom, as I know quite well that you are not enamored of Anna Kournikova’s figure skating prowess or whatever athletic feat it is she is supposed to be performing outside of shaking her booty.

So here are my top 10 favorite ballplayers who I have actually seen play (and yes, I understand that this list must necessarily omit Freddie Patek and Johnny Evers and Rabbit Maranville and Joe Morgan and Hack Wilson and Wee Willie Keeler and Kid Nichols, to name a few …)

10) David Eckstein, aka “That Dratted Pest.” True, he’s neither graceful nor hot. Come to think of it, he’s not the best fielder, hitter or basestealer either. Drafted in the 19th round, released by the team that drafted him, he simply refused to lose and his indomitable spirit triumphed over all scouts’ predictions. After the 2002 World Series, Barry Lamar Bonds expressed his admiration for The Pest’s ability to make so much of so very little. As for me, when I fall into a funk, unsure of my ability to even begin to start to think of doing what needs to be done, I think of The Pest, and I say to myself—if he can play major league baseball, then you can cook that dinner for 18 people tonight (it is too the same thing, and if you weren’t men you’d understand perfectly.)

9) Ozzie Smith. He really was a wizard with that glove, a magician on his feet. I used to hope that every single ball would be hit to short, just so I could watch him. His movements seemed effortless, his throws unhurried, easy, deadly accurate. I never tired of watching him and my only regret is that in those days, so few games were televised. I know he wasn’t really an underdog, and he certainly wasn’t hot, but he exceeded all expectations in every way.

8) Doug Glanville. A beautiful, graceful and very intelligent man. He’s not one of my underdogs, in fact, he was a No. 1 pick who most certainly never lived up to expectations, except for his fielding. I heard many of his interviews and watched him interact with the tough Philly crowd and sooth the troubled waters roiled by manager Larry Bowa, a notoriously irritable man. Doug, to me, is the one person who best defines the word “intangibles,” which is the very definition of Team Leader. Jeff Angus discusses Doug in his wonderful book “Management By Baseball.” He says, “His personal productivity never made him a star, but his demeanor and ability to make a team more effective were invaluable through intangible positives.” Jeff somehow forgot to mention the positive effect Doug had on female fans as well.

7) Brad Ausmus. A tangible positive, smoking hot and extremely intelligent without a hint of either smugness or arrogance. Drafted as an afterthought out of high school in the 48th round, he managed to play minor league ball and attend and graduate from an Ivy League school at the same time. That is simply awesome, the epitome of intellect and perseverance. In fact, I can’t find another major leaguer who has accomplished that. Of course, I didn’t know his history when I first saw him play, but I did know I liked the way he moved and the way he interacted with the pitchers and the other members of the Astros. He was considered by both pitchers and hitters to be such a necessary part of the team that when he was traded after the 1998 season, the pitchers and players lobbied ceaselessly to get him back. After the disastrous 2000 season, with the players practically in open revolt, starting to blame the manager for everything that had gone wrong, the organization reacquired him to pour oil on stormy waters and work with all the new, young pitchers who were to pitch in already notorious Home-Run Field. He will most certainly be in great demand as a manager or baseball announcer, which will be a great loss for the underwear modeling community.

6) Casey Candaele. Yes, you read that correctly. I know he’s a utility guy who was at best a mediocre hitter, had an adequate glove, was an adequate baserunner, and who was neither graceful nor hot. He’s certainly an underdog, a little guy who was undrafted and fought his way to the bigs, managed to play for nine years and always gave the game what little he had, the ultimate gritty, scrappy guy with good quotes the sportswriters love. But he’s one of my all time favorite players because he had the guts to say in public that his mother taught him to play baseball and that if he was half as good as she had been, he’d be in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And in fact, his mother is in that very Hall, in the “Women in Baseball” wing. Her name was Helen Callaghan, she was 5-foot-1 and 115 pounds and she was a center fielder who led the league in stolen bases and hit for average and power. So here’s to a man who was proud to say—I wish I hit like my mother.

5) Adam Everett. He’s so incredibly good with the glove that he never appears on Web Gems. He makes the toughest play look simple, and if there is one thing that Web Gems doesn’t like, it’s a fielder who gets to the ball so quickly, releases it so quickly and throws so accurately that it looks as if it’s merely one more routine play. You wouldn’t think he’d be that good—he’s tall and skinny, neither elegant nor graceful, but he’s lightning quick. Perhaps it was all the years of watching Julio Lugo, Tim Bogar, Cesar Cedeno, Eric Yelding and
Rafael Ramirez that allowed me to really appreciate greatness when I saw it.

4) Roy Oswalt. My favorite Underdog pitcher. He was supposed to be too small to be a right-handed pitcher, but if anyone told Roy that, it went in one ear and out the other. The man is as obstinate as a Missouri mule. The first time I ever saw him, or, in fact, ever heard of him, he was pitching in the 2000 Olympics. I received a phone call from my mother in the middle of the night, telling me to turn on the TV right that minute, that an Astros pitcher named Roy Oswalt was pitching and that he was going to be an ace. I did as she said, and stared, watching him throw unhittable fastballs and curves and I felt an electric tingle go up and down my spine. My mother was right, as usual. Like any other pitcher, he has a bad game now and then, but he is usually as electric as he was that summer night in 2000.

3) Kevin Bass. A solid ballplayer with a very good bat and glove who just happens to be very hot. He was never an underdog, never a star, but he always worked diligently to do his best. And I just liked him because he always seemed like a solid and decent man. He sometimes appears on the Astros post-game shows on Fox and I found to my delight that he is still handsome and athletic and he still seems like a solid and decent man who is a firm believer that if he is going to do something, he is going to do a good job of it. My kind of man.

2) The Natural. Rickey, of course. He was one of the 10 best five-tool ballplayers who ever played in the majors. There just wasn’t anything he couldn’t do well. Pitchers hated to see Barry Lamar at the plate, but they hated to see Rickey on the basepaths just as much. Rickey moved so well, you almost forgot he could hit, too. When Rickey was very young, someone must have told him – don’t think, you can only hurt the ballclub (quoting the famous line from Bull Durham, of course) and he took it to heart. Except for that one time, perhaps, when he was 19 and he turned to Ralph Wiley just before it was his turn to bat and said, “I think I’ll go hit the ball 450 feet.” And he did. I still miss him.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

1) Barry Lamar himself. Only an underdog in his own mind, worrying that his father would never think he was good enough. When I was young, he was movie-star handsome, graceful as a panther, lightning fast in the field and on the bases. When I was grown and he gave up on being a five-tool guy, understanding that only homers commanded money and respect, he was still movie-star handsome, graceful as a panther and just as compelling to watch at the plate as he had been on the field. I’m just as fascinated with him as a grown married woman with children as I was as a small girl. And oh how I’ll miss him. What is that old expression? Often imitated, never duplicated.

Honorable Mention:

Roger Clemens. He’s about as graceful as a cement block and he’s the very definition of a modern prima donna, but every single Astros fan should tip his/her cap to The Roger because he was enough of a star to make Astros baseball the sport in Houston, Texas, a feat which no player, manager, owner or team had managed to accomplish.

David Justice. The Pamela Anderson of ballplayers—great to look at until he opens his mouth.

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