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Thursday, May 24, 2007
Larger than life: Today's future legends

By Eric Neel
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Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame.

Catfish Hunter tallied just 224 wins and won only one Cy Young. His Black Ink Test score at Baseball-Reference.com is 20 (the average Hall of Famer's is 40). He never struck out 200 batters in a season, and he gave up 374 home runs in 15 years.

Catfish Hunter
Catfish Hunter's a Hall of Famer, even without earth-shattering stats.
And he's in the Hall of Fame.

Some guys are just bigger than they were.

Some guys are named Catfish by their crazy green-and-gold owners. Some guys have Dylan songs written about them. Some guys coin phrases like, "The sun don't shine on the same dog's ass all the time." Some guys sign landmark contracts. And some guys die way too young.

Some become legends. Some grow in our imaginations. Some who are good (and Catfish was very good, particularly in 1972) feel great, and some who are great seem greater still -- epic, larger than life, chiseled from hills of granite.

Joe Posnanski made this point on his excellent blog, The Soul of Baseball a little while back, while thinking about Bob Gibson. "Doesn't it seem like Bob Gibson gets better every single year?" he wrote. "Sure he was an all-time great pitcher, no doubt about it, I'm not denying that. I'm a very big Gibson fan. But a halo-effect definitely takes hold when it comes to certain players. Joe DiMaggio was a better player in 1965 than he was in '55, better still in '75, better yet in '85. I was just talking to a friend, an old scout, who swears that Mickey Mantle ran a 3.3 from home to first on a bunt."

You could replace Gibson's name above with Sandy Koufax's, Don Drysdale's, or Nolan Ryan's. You could even replace it with Mark Fidrych's and still have the line scan. You also could swap out DiMaggio or Mantle for Cal Ripken Jr. or Kirby Puckett.

Some guys, as Posnanski writes, just have a special quality -- "a rare and beautiful thing," something extra that means they come to exist for us over and above their records of performance, as ideas, as emotional qualities, as mythic heroes. It's hard to explain precisely what that something is. It's idiosyncratic and abstract; a certain comforting stoicism in Ripken, an appealing forthrightness in Ryan, a quiet cool in Koufax, a scary, glary badassness in Gibson. You know it when you see it, when you sense it, when you witness its electric effect on most of the fans and writers who follow the game.

In part it's a function of time. Nostalgia wears rose-colored glasses -- everyone looks better in a rearview mirror. But it's more than that. Iconic guys become iconic because they possess some inherent magic that draws us to them, some undeniable energy that amplifies them and their records. You could make the argument (and I would), for example, that every bit as important as the hitting streak, the career .325 batting average and the pinstripes was the way Joe DiMaggio moved, with long, unhurried strides, to catch fly balls. You could make the argument (and I would) that, over and above concrete numbers, his mythic appeal was an aesthetic thing, a grace thing that rang a soulful bell in us (and in Marilyn, too, come to think of it).

Thinking about Joe D and Gibson got me thinking about today's players. It got me wondering who among them has mythic status or potential. Got me imagining a future in which we're waxing poetic about the days of now.

ALBERT PUJOLS, 1B, ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Even if he never gets out of his current "slump" (which of course he will), even if he fights strained obliques for the rest of his career and plateaus or drops off from here (which I highly doubt), he'll always have that stance -- that measured, buoy-bobbing-in-the-bay pose. He'll always appear to be dangerous, the way a cobra does, with its hood out wide. And he'll always have what he did -- from that stance, with great cruelty and alacrity -- to that Brad Lidge pitch (and what he did to Brad Lidge himself, it seems) in the late fall of 2005. And those things will make him immortal.

Vladimir Guerrero
Guerrero can knock practically any pitch out of the park.
VLADIMIR GUERRERO, RF, LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM
I once walked behind Guerrero heading up the tunnel at Anaheim Stadium while he was carrying four bats. By their nobs. In each hand. It was impressive physically, testimony to the size of his mitts. But it was especially impressive because it didn't look extraordinary at all. Not in his hands. In his hands it seemed like a pitch-perfect image. Like the most realistic representation of what it's like to face him, what it's like to try and get a ball by him as he swings at, and crushes, even the most ridiculous of rising and diving pitches. If you ask around the league, you'll hear stories about balls down at his shoetops somehow impossibly turned around for home runs. You'll hear he hits them out on the one-hop. He makes no sense. He makes guys shake their heads and laugh (to keep from crying).

DAVID ORTIZ, DH, BOSTON RED SOX
It's very unlikely he has enough time left to rack up Hall of Fame numbers. His big jump happened at age 27. The last four years have been tremendous, but he's due to drop off sooner rather than later, and his totals (240 home runs and 800 RBIs as we speak) seem a long way from plaque-worthy. And all I can think is: Who cares? Seriously, when the grandparents gather the little ones at their knees in the years to come, isn't Big Papi -- his wide smile shining and his high flourish follow-through flying -- the first guy they will recall from this era? Isn't he the one who sums up the joy and the drama and the power and the glory of the game they love? Isn't he the guy, more than any other, who makes them say, "Man, you shoulda seen him?"

DEREK JETER, SS, NEW YORK YANKEES
It's not the four rings. It's not the bloody-nose catch of the foul ball. It's not the Jeremy Giambi flick. It's not the cover-boy looks and style. (Though yes, of course, it is all these things.) It's the fact that in New York City, playing for the New York Yankees -- at a moment in history in which sports reporting has become especially mean, relentless and technologically savvy -- he has managed to remain unflappable, unknown, untouched (by scandal, pressure or insight), and undeterred. His numbers (despite some serious and legitimate questions about his defensive effectiveness, particularly as it applies to range) are outstanding, but he can't be reduced to statistics because every swing, every throw, comes to us laden with aura -- with some preternatural, supernatural composure that never fails to amaze (even if, it must be said, it also rarely manages to charm) us.

These are the big four, I think. Cinches to hold seats on the mythical high council of elders long after they're done. Noticeably absent from this group is Manny Ramirez -- who is a delightful character, and an endless source of john-stop-behind-the-Monster stories, and, oh by the way, a hell of a hitter (on the short list of best right-handers all time) -- but who is also someone too often mocked and scorned and lamented about to be considered mythic in the eyes of the general public. Also missing is Barry Bonds -- who is, of course, too universally reviled for his training methods (though I suppose an interesting case could be made that he's been cast as a mythic villain in some way in excess of his supposed crimes -- food for another column). And Alex Rodriguez -- who, for all his grace and power, is widely considered too vulnerable and mannered to rise above (I already can imagine the articles 10 years from now in which my friends and I will have to prop up his flimsy reputation with the rock-solid numbers he's compiled and will continue to compile in the years to come). And Johan Santana -- who, while undeniably great, also is undeniably uninteresting, sparkless, without flair or fearsomeness.

Beyond the elite (winners and losers, myths and men) there are a few others with mythic quality or potential.

ICHIRO, OF, SEATTLE MARINERS
My friend Jim Caple thinks he ought to hit more home runs and be more aggressive on the base paths -- and that's probably true. But I also know he will add up to more than the sum of his hits and steals, and always exist for us and our descendants as some mysterious, stretch-routine madman who came and conquered -- who carried his bat like a divining rod, and who seemed impossibly cool behind the shades.

RYAN HOWARD, 1B, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES
He hangs in the balance as we speak, hurt and struggling with his swing. Up until now his myth quotient was high because he made it look so easy, so fun, so utterly without pretense or calculation. There was in his swing more pop and innocence than any other. God I hope he comes back with all that and then some.

JOSE REYES, SS, NEW YORK METS
He's not unstoppable. He won't steal two bases every single time you walk him. He can't hit a home run every time you dare to pitch to him. He's not 18 years old. It just seems as if these things are true. Every time he steps in the box he brings these impressions with him. Maybe they're a function of his smile and his bright eyes. Maybe they stem from his twisty 'do. Maybe they're a byproduct of his partnership with young David Wright. Whatever it is, this appearance of invincibility -- this is the essence of the thing. This is everything. And he's got it.

Cole Hamels
Hamels is one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game.
COLE HAMELS, SP, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES and JERED WEAVER, SP, LOS ANGELES ANGELS OF ANAHEIM
Funky deliveries. Funky locks. Long way to go, but the pieces are in place.

PRINCE FIELDER, 1B, MILWAUKEE BREWERS
I'm not going to lie. It's the Kirby Puckett, Charles Barkley, Fridge Perry, you-shouldn't-be-able-to-do-that-at-your-size, you-shouldn't-be so-Weebly-and-yet-so-formidable-all-at-once thing that charms me -- makes me value each home run as somewhere on the order of 1.37 runs, and each single as a cause for celebration. Throw in the fact that he is, as Vin Scully so matter-of-factly put it the other night, "named for the enigmatic rock star," and you have something truly special.

HUNTER PENCE, CF, HOUSTON ASTROS
Silly stretch, I know. Just a feeling I have … has to do with some calculations I've been doing -- taking into account height of stirrups, use of first names that feel as if they might be torn from the pages of Austen novels, and distance of home runs hit in first month after big league call-up. The data is raw and unreliable, but intriguing.

DAVID ECKSTEIN, SS, ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
In a country that loves gritty and gutty, he is the grittiest, guttiest cat of them all. He barely can throw the ball across the infield, and he chokes the bat like a T-baller. But he comes up big, comes up swinging, and is humble and gracious about every miraculous accomplishment. The guardians of days gone by like to think they have the market cornered on gamers, but this generation has its Eck. And though little, he stacks up.

And we'll close with the Sandman …

MARIANO RIVERA, RP, NEW YORK YANKEES
Here's what we'll tell our kids: He looked like an alien, and threw like a god. He had one pitch -- and with that one pitch, like David with one rock in a slingshot, he could fell any foe. With that one pitch he could escape any danger. With that one pitch he could intimidate any lineup. With that one pitch he won world titles. With that one pitch he pitched his way to the Hall of Fame. With that one pitch he performed surgery. With that one pitch he wrote poems. With that one pitch he sang songs. With that one pitch he saved souls and converted non-believers, and brought peace to the boroughs and joy to the masses. And we will not be exaggerating.

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.