A stroll down baseball's Walk of Fame
Ranking the biggest and brightest stars in Tuesday's Midsummer Classic
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As an All-Star second baseman for the Texas Rangers, Ian Kinsler gets to hang out in the American League clubhouse with New York Yankees icons Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. It's a sweet fringe benefit. But when he sifts through his big league memory trove, Kinsler can recall only one celebrity encounter that made his brow sweat and his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth.
"For some reason when I met Ken Griffey Jr., it's like I was 12 years old again,'' Kinsler said Monday. "I watched him growing up -- climbing walls and hitting home runs and doing all the things he did on the field. He's probably the only player who made me feel a little bit star-struck.''
Star appeal is funny that way. One player's baseball card might be superior to another's, but there's no pinpointing why certain players make us feel the way they do when they step in the batter's box or take the mound and stare in for a sign. Cachet can't necessarily be gauged by Q' ratings or "wins above replacement'' totals.
Ten years ago, at the All-Star Game in Atlanta, the star quality was overwhelming. Do the names Cal Ripken Jr., Edgar Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Mike Piazza resonate? They were all coming off the bench that night.
Quietly and without much warning, baseball has entered a transitional phase. Over the past two years, we've seen the departure of many players who, for better or worse, personified the game since the early 1990s. The list includes Bonds, Randy Johnson, Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa and Jeff Kent. Griffey called it quits a month ago, and Chipper Jones is thinking about retiring at season's end.
So which players still active have assumed the most prominent roles on baseball's reconfigured Walk of Fame? Given the 2010 locale in Southern California -- in the shadow of Hollywood -- this year's theme is "star appeal.'' We combed through the 81st All-Star Game rosters, tried to judge players based on talent, track record, personality, fan appeal and intangibles, ran the idea past a dozen All-Stars and -- presto -- came up with the following list of 20 names.
Sorry, Stephen Strasburg: You don't appear here because you're spending the 2010 All-Star break at home. Your turn comes next year.
1. Derek Jeter, Yankees
Pros: Jeter has passed Lou Gehrig as the Yankees' career hit leader, and now he's 153 hits short of 3,000. He has five championship rings, and he's managed to survive 16 seasons in New York without a whiff of scandal or a major personal misstep. Jeter runs out every grounder, says all the right things, and plays the game the way fans and purists believe it should be played. When his every at-bat is still accompanied by a Bob Sheppard soundtrack, it's the ultimate seal of approval.
"I know when we go to New York, the media is a handful there for a visiting club,'' said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria. "I can't imagine what it's like for Jeter day in and day out. The way he handles things shows his real character not only as a baseball player, but as a human being.''
Cons: Jeter is 36 years old, and he only has so many innings left in him at shortstop. Ozzie Smith and Barry Larkin had difficulty coming to grips with their declining range, and they experienced some tense moments with management. If Jeter comes across as peevish or hyper-sensitive in his twilight years, he won't be doing his legacy any favors.
2. Albert Pujols, Cardinals
Pros: He's a three-time MVP and the best player of his generation.
"He's like the face of baseball,'' said Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. "If you have to pick a guy, he's done it all. The batting titles, the MVPs and the Gold Gloves. When he walks in the room, everybody's like, 'There goes Pujols.' Everybody knows who it is. And he deserves it.''
Cons: Not a whole lot. Pujols went through a phase when he seemed uncomfortable with the attention. But he's more comfortable in the spotlight now, and nothing validates a man's endorsement stature like a "Milk Mustache'' ad. Unless somebody tracks down a birth certificate that shows he's 33 or Pujols does an hourlong special on ESPN to announce he's leaving the Cardinals to sign with the Chicago Cubs, he's got the whole icon thing nailed.
3. Alex Rodriguez, Yankees
Pros: He's a 13-time All-Star, and about to become the seven member of baseball's 600-home run club. And he finally shed that "postseason choker'' tag when he hit .365 in October and danced with Jeter and Mark Teixeira in the Yankee Stadium infield after the World Series clincher against the Phillies.
Cons: A-Rod's accomplishments will never be viewed in the same light after his steroid admission, and he has a reputation as insecure and image-obsessed. On the plus side, the man sure is a lightning rod for opinions. Nobody could have done a better job selling "Get Off My Mound'' T-shirts.
4. Joe Mauer, Twins
Pros: Mauer is a three-time batting titlist and a guy who cares as much about the team ERA as his personal achievements. When he signed that eight-year contract to remain a Twin, it made him a fitting heir to the Cal Ripken Jr.-Kirby Puckett legacy.
"I couldn't imagine Joe Mauer being anything but a Minnesota Twin,'' said White Sox reliever Matt Thornton. "And believe me, if I'm staying in Chicago, I wish he would go to the National League.''
Cons: Mauer's a great guy with fans and teammates, and polite and well-spoken in front of the cameras, but he's generally blander than the Bemidji skyline. Hey, it never hurt Ryne Sandberg.
5. Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
Pros: Ichiro is a hit machine, for starters, with 2,148 knocks in 9½ seasons. He's made the All-Star team 10 straight years -- the longest active streak in the majors -- and he's the source of endless fascination in Japan, where a pack of reporters still follows his every move. That was readily apparent at Monday's media availability session in Anaheim.
"When they opened the doors, there were like 40 people sprinting over to his table to talk to him,'' said Matt Thornton. "Jered Weaver and I were cracking up.''
Cons: Ichiro doesn't hit home runs and he plays for a team that hasn't sniffed the playoffs since 2001. While his cryptic manner helps cultivate an air of mystery, he reveals so little of himself that he leaves his most ardent admirers wanting more.
6. Mariano Rivera, Yankees
Pros: The lockdown postseason reputation, the 546 career saves and, of course, the "Enter Sandman'' theme.
Cons: Rivera turns 41 in November and has only so many cutters left in that right arm.
7. David Ortiz, Red Sox
Pros: Ortiz has one of baseball's most likable personas as a rule, and as Monday night's Home Run Derby showed, the old "Big Papi'' swagger is back. Nobody can pull off designer sunglasses and bling as deftly as Ortiz.
Cons: That little steroid episode took a bite out of his reputation, even if Ortiz appeared to have a plausible explanation. And if he gets off to a slow start again next year, it's inevitable that someone will observe that he's "finished.''
8. Ryan Howard, Phillies
Pros: Howard has a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP trophy and a World Series ring in his portfolio, and he leads the majors with 215 homers since the start of the 2006 season. He has a big smile, an endorsement deal with Subway and one of baseball's most underrated nicknames -- "The Big Piece'' -- courtesy of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. Teammates Chase Utley and Roy Halladay are so consumed with their routines that they rarely give the public a glimpse of their true personalities, but that's never been a problem for the Big Fella.
Utley fans might contend that he belongs somewhere on this list because of his broad fan appeal and wonderful all-around game. But Utley makes such a supreme effort to be bland off the field, he would probably thank us for not including his name.
Cons: Howard's five-year, $125 million contract extension was widely criticized, because players with his profile aren't known for their longevity. If it's 2014 and he suddenly looks like the second coming of Mo Vaughn, he might not be so popular in Philly.
9. Josh Hamilton, Rangers
Pros: Who isn't inspired by the story of the fallen phenom who overcame his personal demons and rose to the top? There was a mythical, Roy Hobbsian quality to Hamilton even before he peppered the bleacher seats with bombs at the 2008 Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium. If he leads the Rangers to the postseason for the first time since 1999, it will be another wonderful chapter in his resurgence.
Cons: In the past three seasons, Hamilton has appeared in 90, 156 and 89 games. All the talent in the world won't mean much if he can't stay on the field.
10. CC Sabathia, Yankees
Pros: Sabathia is extremely durable and very likable in a way that can't be faked. He's also lived up to his end of the bargain since signing that $161 million deal with the Yankees.
Cons: How much can a guy stand out playing on a roster with Jeter, A-Rod, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte? And if you believe what you hear, Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford will be joining the Yankees in time for the 2011 season. Sabathia is just one star in a crowded galaxy in the Bronx.
11. Tim Lincecum, Giants
Pros: "He looks like he's 12 and he just dominates,'' said Padres closer Heath Bell. Lincecum is the only pitcher ever to win two Cy Young Awards in his first three seasons. "The Freak'' is a heck of a nickname, and that video game commercial with Randy Johnson was an endorsement classic.
Cons: He's listed at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, and lots of scouts are either waiting for him to break down or keeping their fingers crossed that he won't.
12. David Wright, Mets
Pros: Wright's a wholesome, good-looking kid -- the son of a police offer -- who personifies hard work and accountability in one of the most demanding markets in sports.
Cons: Wright's become a little less accessible and open in his dealings with the media, a sign that he's worn out from his role as the Mets' resident stand-up guy. While he's a very good player, you wonder how brightly his star wattage would burn if he played in, say, Kansas City.
13. Torii Hunter, Angels
Pros: There's not a more fun-loving -- not to mention fan- and media-friendly -- player in the game than Spiderman. He's a nine-time Gold Glove winner, a charity machine, and one of the few players in baseball who's willing to speak his mind on the sensitive issue of race.
Cons: On the Baseball-reference.com Web site, Hunter's closest career comparables are Cliff Floyd and Jermaine Dye. He's a wonderful guy. But if your team has designs on a championship, it's probably for the best if he's your second- or third-best player.
14. Evan Longoria, Rays
Pros: Endorsers seem to be warming to him, and he just made his third All-Star Game in three years. His national profile will take another upward spike if the Rays can emerge from the AL East and make another deep run into October.
Cons: The Rays have the second-best record in baseball and rank 23rd in attendance, and Carl Crawford isn't long for St. Petersburg. Unless Longoria continues to get help -- and the Rays keep winning -- he'll be fighting a publicity vacuum.
15. Ryan Braun, Brewers
Pros: He's media-savvy and entrepreneurial off the field, and puts up huge numbers every year. Braun is the first Brewer ever to be an All-Star starter three years running, and he's got a hammerlock on the Jewish vote.
Cons: Braun is under contract with Milwaukee through 2015, so his national exposure is going to be limited to an extent during his prime playing years.
16. Jason Heyward, Braves
Pros: Heyward was elected to the All-Star Game by the fans as a rookie, so he's quickly captured the public's imagination. He's helping to sell tickets in Atlanta, and he's a welcome arrival for a game that's short on young African-American stars.
"He has all the intangibles you don't expect from a 20-year-old,'' said Braves catcher Brian McCann. "He's very mature. He handles himself in such a professional way. He comes to the ballpark ready to play every single day, and his physical attributes are amazing. He's 6-5, 240. He can fly. He can throw. He's got a game plan. You don't find those guys anymore.''
Cons: Heyward turns 21 in August and has 71 big leagues games on his résumé. If he enjoys a smooth ride for the duration, he'll be the first.
17. Hanley Ramirez, Marlins
Cons: He's always had a reputation as a high-maintenance guy, and it doesn't help his image that people think he paved the way for manager Fredi Gonzalez's firing with that sorry display of non-effort in May. Ramirez will be 27 in December, and it's getting progressively tougher to rationalize his lapses with the explanation that he's "immature.''
18. Vladimir Guerrero, Rangers
Pros: There's bound to be some fascination over a guy with a Russian first name, a Latino last name and a knack for hitting line drives on pitches from neck height all the way to his shoelaces. The language barrier has prevented Guerrero from attaining a higher profile in the U.S. But he's equally fun to watch in English or Spanish.
Cons: Before Guerrero showed up in Arizona this spring and started spraying line drives all over the place, a lot of people figured he was washed up at age 34. The Angels have to be wondering why he didn't get in this kind of shape when he was on a long-term contract in Anaheim.
19. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
Pros: In any conversation about the game's best hitters, Cabrera's name has to be mentioned among the top five. In a down year for offense, he's ready to take a serious run at the American League Triple Crown.
Cons: His reputation took a hit in September when those drinking revelations came to light. But Cabrera addressed the issue with admirable candor and accountability, and his career appears to be the better for it.
20. Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
Pros: Any guy who grows a mullet for a kids' charity wins points in our book. Tulowitzki is ready to take the leadership mantel from Todd Helton on a Colorado team loaded with athletic, entertaining players.
Cons: Tulowitzki might only be the second-most dynamic player on his own team. Ubaldo Jimenez throws 98 mph, has a no-hitter in the bag this season and might be on his way to 25 victories.
"Just to see how much he's grown and the pitcher he is now speaks volumes about his work ethic and how fare he's come,'' Tulowitzki said. "He's a great pitcher and I'm glad he's on my team. Talking to some of these American League guys, I know they're not too excited about facing him.''