- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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With apologies to everyone who ever thought they saw Elvis at the mall, there is no better proof of reincarnation than the great sport of baseball.
OK, so we know Jaret Wright, Jose Mesa and Ruben Sierra weren't exactly dead, in the technical sense, before they dropped out of the sky to be astonishingly productive players this year. But they weren't exactly on the cover of the Sports Illustrated baseball issue, either.
So as we unveil this year's amazing All-Back From The Dead team, we confess we're not using that expression 100 percent literally. But admit it: The careers of all the players to follow were either dead, on life support, relocated to Mexico or candidates for a very special episode of "Without a Trace."
And now we welcome them back to baseball's land of the living by naming them to our first annual All-Back From The Dead team.
TEAM CAPTAIN (AND DH) -- RUBEN SIERRA, YANKEES
Sierra isn't just the cleanup hitter on this team. He's the captain, the poster boy and the inspiration for inventing this team in the first place.
You can't even use the word, "comeback," to describe him anymore. This guy has had more incarnations than Freddy Krueger.
It's now 12 years since Sierra officially stopped being a star the first time -- an event commemorated by his late-season 1992 trade for Jose Canseco. That led to a trek through six teams in six years. Which was followed by an entire season in the Atlantic League, a month in the Mexican League and 500 trips to the plate in Oklahoma City before he even made it back to the big leagues.
We remind you that when the Yankees traded for him in June of 2003, the manager (Joe Torre) didn't even want him. And now here Sierra is a year later, at age 38, with 48 RBI and 14 homers in only 232 at-bats. Which means he has about the same RBI ratio as Gary Sheffield and a better home run ratio than Vladimir Guerrero.
After watching this guy swing the bat, it might never be safe to say anyone is washed up again.
FIRST BASE -- DARYLE WARD, PIRATES
If you just travel in that time tunnel back to 2000 and de-tunnel in Houston, you'll get reacquainted with a period in which Ward looked like the Astros' next big power bopper. He hit 20 homers in only 264 at-bats that year. And he sure did seem built for Enron Field.
Uh, never mind. He then hit 21 home runs in 666 at-bats over the next two years. And got shuttled off to the Dodgers the next winter. And then made the Dodgers proud by compiling the lowest on-base percentage (.211) and OPS (.403) of any National League player who got 100 or more at-bats last year.
So of course, this year, just as we all expected, he surfaced in Pittsburgh and (through Tuesday) had a higher OPS (.845) than Jeff Bagwell, Shawn Green or Nick Johnson. But this alert: He was 25 for his last 121 (.207 average) going into Wednesday. So his reincarnation apparently didn't come with a six-month guarantee.
SECOND BASE -- RONNIE BELLIARD, INDIANS
The man who supplanted Mark Loretta in Milwaukee didn't quite sink low enough to go play in Taiwan, try out for the Winnipeg Gold Eyes or take a job delivering pizzas. But considering the path Belliard's career was taking, he wouldn't have been our first choice for Most Likely to Lead the Major Leagues in Doubles, either.
Two years ago, Belliard hit .211 and got non-tendered by the Brewers. Last year, it was on to Colorado, where he just missed leading the league in errors (15), hit a mile-high .277 and got released by the Rockies.
So this year, he became an Indian, ostensibly to keep second base occupied until Brandon Phillips got his act together. Instead, naturally, this guy made the All-Star team. And he's on pace to hit more doubles (56) than any AL second baseman since 1936 (when Charlie Gehringer hit 60). Heading into Wednesday, he was also leading all qualified AL second basemen in batting (.301) and total chances.
Which has helped qualify Brandon Phillips to make this team next year.
SHORTSTOP -- DEIVI CRUZ, GIANTS
"Released by the Devil Rays" is never a good line to stumble across on anybody's transaction history. But it's the story of how Cruz wound up as the Giants' shortstop.
Cruz never exactly disappeared, either. But he has been employed by five teams since 2001. And anybody who turns into the starting shortstop for a contender -- in the same season he was out of work for a week because he didn't fit the Devil Rays' program -- is right up this All-Back From The Dead team's alley.
We're betting those Devil Rays didn't anticipate that Cruz would be a guy who would get a hit in eight straight at-bats in one stretch this year. Or would have a batting average (.300) that would be 25 points higher than all the Tampa Bay shortstops. Or would actually be heating up as the summer wore on (with a .324 average in August).
But he has done all of that. So since it's federal law that every All-Star team needs to include somebody named Cruz, we appreciate that Deivi now has this team covered.
THIRD BASE -- BRANDON INGE, TIGERS
We knew Inge belonged on this team somewhere. We just didn't know where to put him -- until last weekend.
Then, on Saturday night, he made a flying, sprawling, horizontal, backhand Web Gem special that looked like it belonged on a Brooks Robinson highlight reel. And our All-Back From The Dead team had itself a third baseman.
Inge's career as a Tigers catcher was clearly pronounced dead upon the arrival of some guy named Pudge Rodriguez. But Inge kept himself in the big leagues by proving versatile enough to become the first player since 1980 (Derrel Thomas) to start games at catcher, third base, center field and left field in the same season. And now he has essentially replaced Eric Munson as the Tigers' regular third baseman.
What's really back from the dead, though, is Inge's bat. He had a .198 sub-Mendoza career average as a catcher. But he went into Tuesday with amazingly similar numbers (.485 slugging percentage, .844 OPS) to Aubrey Huff (.477, .825) and Casey Blake (.481, .834). And that will get a guy a spot on this team any day.
CATCHER -- ROD BARAJAS, RANGERS
This pick would have looked a lot better a couple of months ago, back when Barajas was hitting .280 and leading all AL catchers in homers. But what the heck. This guy still deserves his spot, since he almost never had a career in the first place.
The Diamondbacks once signed him out of a tryout camp. He spent three seasons in Arizona, not doing much more than catch Miguel Batista every five days. He was then non-tendered by a team that is now closing in on 50 games under .500. And now here Rod Barajas is in Texas, doing most of the catching for a possible playoff team.
OK, so he's hit about .160, with one homer, since the end of June. You think it's easy coming back from the dead to catch every darned day?
LEFT FIELD -- MATT LAWTON, INDIANS
Until this year, you had to go all the way back to 2000 to find a time when Lawton was an All-Star, a .300 hitter and an extra-base-hit machine. But now, whaddaya know, he's back.
In between, he had to survive getting traded to the Mets for Rick Reed, then getting dealt to Cleveland for Roberto Alomar, then missing 100 games with injuries the next two years and trying to justify a big contract while not even hitting .250.
But it's amazing what a little health will do for a guy. He batted over .300 in three straight months to start the season. He's fifth in the league in runs scored. And among AL hitters with 300 at-bats out of the leadoff hole, only Ichiro has a higher on-base percentage than Lawton's .390.
When teams like the Indians get good faster than anyone expected, it takes a surprise or two. Matt Lawton's turning back into the igniter he used to be, at age 32? That qualifies.
CENTER FIELD -- WILY MO PENA, REDS
If you had told any Reds fans six months ago that their starting center fielder in August would be good old Wily Mo, they'd have said: "Uh, when did you say the Bengals' season starts?"
But after all these years of voided contracts, unrealized potential, a 2003 season in the baseball witness-protection program (12 starts all year before September) and hundreds and hundreds of strikeouts, Pena has officially busted out.
He still has his Manny Ramirez-style adventures in the outfield. But the more he plays the more interesting he gets. Going into Wednesday, Pena had as many homers since the All-Star break as Barry Bonds (12). He has knocked in 34 runs in his last 37 games. And every time he swings the bat, you expect him to hit a baseball that comes down in Dayton.
We don't know where this is all leading. We just wanted to say we had a guy on this team who was once traded for a Cowboys quarterback (Drew Henson) and then replaced Junior Griffey in the lineup. Can't beat that for back-from-the-dead trivia.
RIGHT FIELD -- MICHAEL TUCKER, GIANTS
When the Giants let Jose Cruz Jr. take a hike last winter and signed Tucker to replace him, the reaction of most folks was: Huh?
But after nine years as your basic middle-of-the-road .250-ish, 12-homer-ish, 50-RBI-ish man, Tucker has turned into one of the Giants' most dependable players. He's actually heading for career highs in home runs, RBI and runs scored, at age 33.
Among Giants regulars not named Barry, he has the highest on-base percentage, he's tied with Ray Durham for the lead in runs scored, and he's the only Giant within 120 walks of the team leader (guess who).
Every year, the Giants reincarnate somebody's career to help propel them to the playoffs. This year, they're paying Tucker and Deivi Cruz a combined $2.2 million for that CPR. Great work if you can get it.
STARTING PITCHER -- JARET WRIGHT, BRAVES
It was precisely a year ago this week that the Padres ran out of patience with a certain right-handed long man with an 8.74 ERA and dumped him onto the waiver wire. Where the Atlanta Braves claimed him. And proceeded to turn him into the pitcher he was supposed to become six years ago.
They didn't really know that a year later, Wright would have more wins (12) than Tom Glavine or Kevin Millwood. Or that he'd have a lower ERA (3.17) than Curt Schilling or Pedro Martinez. Or that he'd have a better strikeout ratio (7.6 per 9 IP) than Barry Zito or Bartolo Colon. Did they?
But Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone saw something in him from Day One that the Padres never saw. They turned him from a guy with a way-too-straight four-seam fastball into a guy with a swing-and-miss or pound-it-into-the-ground two-seamer. And the rest is classic back-from-the-dead-team history.
CLOSER -- JOSE MESA, PIRATES
We're going to do Mesa a favor and ignore his recent work (three blown saves in his last four opportunities and a 7.71 ERA this month). Instead, we'll remind you just what a disaster he was a year ago.
The good news last year was that he saved 24 games for the Phillies. The bad news was, he had the highest ERA (6.52) of anyone in history with that many saves. And his second-half implosion (10.50 ERA) just about assured his team of missing the playoffs for the 10th straight year.
But this guy's whole career has been marked by twists and turns just like this. One team decides it can't stand to watch him throw another pitch. Then he lands in some place like Pittsburgh and looks like Mariano Rivera for months at a time.
It may not be the upset of the year that Mesa was an untouchable at the trading deadline, while he was still employed by a team in last place. But it sure clinched his spot on the All-Back From The Dead team.
REST OF THE ROSTER
Manager -- Phil Garner.
Special team award -- the Tigers (all of them).
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The National Pastime is also the sport of reincarnation. How else do you explain Ruben Sierra's season?