Gotta love the entertainers
A position-by-position breakdown of the players who grab your attention and make you watch their every step.
We are often reminded that baseball is a business rather than a game. We are also told it is part of the entertainment business -- the same line of work that includes fire eating, naked Shakespeare and playing in Bay City Rollers tribute bands -- although far more lucrative for the participants than those pursuits. If such is the case, then aren't we all -- myself included -- a little too hung up on things like "value" and "success?" What about style? Doesn't that count for something?
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Along these lines, I have -- through a grant underwritten by the Chubby Group (a consortium of overweight men with nothing better to do with their money) -- developed the MEP Awards. MEP stands for Most Entertaining Player. These are the awards for the players who are the most fun to watch.
The very concept of "fun to watch" is completely subjective, of course, and that's just the point of this exercise: to throw the stats out the window and award those who thrill us. The important thing to remember about the MEP Awards is that a player doesn't have to be any good to win one! That's right; if you find something inherently entertaining about somebody struggling to do their job, give him an MEP!
For instance, let's say a third baseman has to dive for everything because he has no range. Don't give him the Gold Glove then, but give him an MEP because it's fun to watch him hit the dirt on every play! A bizarre batting stance is producing a .224 average? So, no Silver Slugger Award but how about an MEP for amusing us with a peculiarity?
This isn't to say great players can't win MEP Awards as well. Competence can certainly be fun, too. That's the great thing about the MEPs: they are a reflection of what amuses different people. If you asked 100 people to pick a lineup of the best players, some sort of consensus would be reached. With the MEPs, however, the results would contain far more many names because different people find different things amusing.
To show the wide range of what can be valued as entertaining, I asked a few of my colleagues at ESPN.com to give me their input as to some of their favorites. The ones I did not insult at the company picnic last July all responded, I am happy to report. Rob Neyer, Alan Schwarz, Page 2's David Schoenfield and my colleague at MLB Insider, Jerry Crasnick, all chipped in with some suggestions and the rationale behind their choices.
I was on a softball team with a guy named Pete who was a pretty talented player. The problem with him was that he had no control over his game whatsoever. He would swing at everything that left the pitcher's hand. I would try to tell him he would do better to be patient (especially since this was the New York book publishing league which played with no umpires so you could pretty much wait for your pitch) but he wasn't one to listen. Besides, he was a fairly tough guy, one of our ringers who were guards at Riker's Island, so I didn't want to push my patience agenda too hard.
The thing of it was, though, he was fun to watch. Along these same lines, Randall Simon is very entertaining. There is something fascinating about a player who honestly believes he can hit any pitch -- or, failing that -- who simply cannot help himself from swinging at any pitch. As Schwarz says of Simon, "He looks like he'll dislocate both shoulders reaching for pitches in the opposite dugout."
Says Neyer of Pokey Reese, "I think he's the best fielding second baseman since [Bill] Mazeroski." On the other end of the defensive rainbow is Alfonso Soriano, about whom Schwarz opines, "He goes to the right worse than Ralph Nader." Three or four years ago, this would have been Roberto Alomar's award without a second thought.
David Eckstein amuses both Crasnick and Schoenfield for his, er, unique way of getting the ball across the diamond. Says Crasnick, "I love watching Eckstein because of his pacing back and forth in the on-deck circle -- the guy just can't stop -- and the way he shot-puts his throws to first base. It looks like he's never going to get the ball there, but he usually does."
Nomar Garciaparra's pre at-bat routine would be amusing if it weren't so ... routine. The only blessing is that he swings so early in the count that we don't have to sit through it as much as we would if he were a more patient hitter. Watching him tighten the gloves and knock his shoes tighter makes the layman think he might need to be medicated.
Schwarz loves Derek Jeter's jump-and-throw from the hole, calling it "the most aesthetically beautiful act on the field today, baseball's version of the Michael Jordan tongue-wag." Says Neyer of Alex Rodriguez, "he's not the flashiest, but there's a singular thrill in knowing that you're watching one of the two greatest shortstops who ever played the game." If Cristian Guzman starts smacking triples again at the same rate he was back in 2000-01, then he'll climb to the top of my list. Triples are baseball's most exciting hit and Guzman was on his way to being the latter day King of the Triplers before being slowed by injuries.
Crasnick says he chose Scott Rolen, "... because a man that big has no right to be that quick at third. And he's got the best, most businesslike home run trot in the game. He just puts his head down and motors -- like he's embarrassed he just hit one out and can't wait to get back in the dugout." Adds Schwarz, "The most underappreciated, fundamentally-ideal player in the game." Just about everyone mentioned Eric Chavez and the spectacular things he does around third base.
There's somebody for all tastes in left field. There's Barry Bonds, of course. The potential he brings to the plate and the way his presence in the batter's box affects the behavior of the other team like no other player in the game -- that is entertaining in and of itself. His behavior after connecting might not be to your liking, or it might be -- Bonds has a certain polarizing air about him.
Then there's Manny Ramirez, whom Schoenfield finds the most entertaining, but "... only when he plays with the water bottle in his back pocket." Adds Schwarz, "If I forget how many outs there are, all I need to do is watch Manny -- if he tosses the ball into the stands, the inning's still alive." Ramirez might be the 21st Century heir to the whacky territory trailblazed by Rube Waddell of the Philadelphia Athletics one hundred years ago. For fans who are entertained by old school, rock solid and (squeezing in one more cliché) hard-nosed play, there's Brian Giles.
Reminiscent of the immortal Mickey Rivers, Crasnick says of Juan Pierre, "I've always been intrigued by guys who look like they're in pain when they walk, then go from first to third in the amount of time it takes to blink your eyes." Schwarz went so far as to name him the most entertaining player in the National League, writing, "You never know what you're gonna get. He might bunt or swing away, and always puts the ball in play. He might steal or simply dance off first. He might catch the ball or throw it off-line. A bundle of energy and passionate commitment to the game."
Had Ichiro Suzuki come along in the early '60s or during the Dead Ball era, he wouldn't have made as big a splash because what he does was more commonplace then. That he showed up and excelled in the muscle-bound baseball of the early 21st Century is what makes him so exciting. Playing a style of baseball so out of sync with the times is something to behold. Says Crasnick: "There's something special about a 160-pounder with the ability to dominate a game." Adds Neyer: "Overrated, but still fascinating."
Speaking of fascinating as well as entertaining, has anybody figured out how Gary Sheffield does what he does with a bat? What is the first thing you learn in Little League? That's right, keep the damn bat still. Were our elders lying to us? Is it really OK to wag the bat like Shef does? Yes, but only if you have the unique ability to flash the lumber the way he can. The rest of you youngsters out there listen to your coaches and keep that damn bat still. Does anybody hit a ball harder than Sheffield? I mean anybody in the entire world?
I have always found catchers with monster arms to be highly entertaining which is why -- even at age 32 -- Pudge Rodriguez is still the most fun to watch for me. Those flip throws behind the runner at first base never cease to amuse. At the plate, he is finally becoming more disciplined, but that is beside the point in regard to an MEP.
There are two types of free swingers: the ones who can get away with it and the ones who can't. Because he can hit bad pitches well, Pudge -- along with Vladimir Guerrero -- is in the former group. As big a fan of plate discipline as I am, I have to admit that watching somebody swing at a pitch a foot off the plate and drive it with authority is pretty darn entertaining. Schwarz likes baseball's most cantankerous backstop, A.J. Pierzynski. He writes, "You never know if someone's gonna step out of the batter's box and pull a Juan Marichal on him."
From the standpoint of delivery, the choice would have to be Dontrelle Willis, the most fun pitcher to watch since players were still leaving their gloves on the field between innings. On the other end of the spectrum is Steve Trachsel. As Schwarz says, "when he's on the hill, I can watch an entire West Wing between pitches."
You know you've got something above the ordinary when a pitcher looks faster than everybody else from the upper deck of the soon-to-be-late Veterans Stadium, perhaps the highest vantage point in the game. That would be Billy Wagner, a pitcher with such incredible velocity that he would be fun to watch soft tossing on the sidelines. As we are often told, speed isn't enough at this level, which is what makes Wagner that much more devastating, he's got the movement thing, too.
For variety, there's always Byung Hyun Kim, about whom Schwarz surmises: "Roller-coaster delivery, roller-coaster results." (I like the Kim choice because I've always been transfixed by sidearmers and submariners.) If you like your closers unpredictable and are amused by the uncertainty of their appearances, can there be any choice other than Armando Benitez -- especially in the postseason?
Disagree? Of course you do. That's the very point of the Most Entertaining Player Awards, their total and complete subjectivity. A player can appeal to you for the quirkiest of reasons. It can be his swing, the way he wears his uniform, the angle of his cap, the size of his chaw, his gait -- anything and everything under the sun. It is that -- and perhaps that more than any other factor -- that explains baseball's continued hold on us all.
Jim Baker writes Monday through Friday for ESPN Insider.
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