Who's The Best?
By Michael Webb
My baseball fandom extends back to the late 1970s. Players who were rookies when I started following the game, like Paul Molitor and Ozzie Smith in 1978, have grown up, assumed starting jobs, made All-Star teams, became veterans, retired, and ascended to Cooperstown. Players who were born in the early 1970s, as I was, are now creaky old veterans, like Jim Thome and Pedro Martinez, holding on to try and add more lines to a Hall resume.
Like that of all baseball fans during the last hundred or so years, my rooting attention has seen various generations rise and fall. In 1978, giants like Wilbur Wood were passing from the scene, while the year I was born saw the final seasons of Ernie Banks and Jim Bunning. In this way my baseball life extends back to 1953, in a certain sense, though of course I have no memory of baseball before 1978.
While I certainly study baseball history, like many fans do, and can discourse about men like Walter Johnson and Hugh Duffy who departed the scene long before I arrived, I feel I cannot offer any opinion about players who have played much before around 1980. Of course, I am saddened to report that, still, that offers nearly 30 years of players to discuss, making the narrowing to the best I have seen a difficult task.
The word “best,” like the word “valuable,” throws us into another storm of uncertainty. “Best” at what? Winning? Hitting? Pitching? Greg Maddux has the most wins since 1978, while the home run leader is Barry Bonds and the ERA champ (minimum 500 innings) is Mariano Rivera. Being a lifelong Red Sox rooter, I have seen Hall of Famers like Yazstremski, Rice, and Boggs, along with greats like Ramirez and Ortiz, while also watching greats from Reggie Jackson to Rivera don the enemy colors.
Forced to choose, I would offer that the two best players I have ever seen, one hitter and one pitcher, are Derek Jeter and Pedro Martinez.
Jeter, of course, is the captain and shortstop and living legend of Boston’s most hated rival, the New York Yankees. Jeter is one of those “fall into a well” Hall of Famers—if he fell into a well tomorrow, would you argue he was a Hall of Famer? A great hitter and a member of four World Championship teams, Jeter has not only become a star in the media center of the known universe, he has done so with very few tabloid headlines and other nonsense that can accompany athletic stardom in the modern age.
But mainly Jeter impresses me not just with his personal maturity and class, but also with his raw baseball skills. While I have rooted against him from his first day in the majors, of course, he shows preternatural baseball intelligence—seemingly always ready to make the right play or steal a key base to help his team win a game. The Flip Play, to cut down a key run in a playoff game against Oakland, is the most clear cut example of this. His skills are fading with time, as baseball skills do, but he remains the hitter I least want to see at the plate in a key situation, the best hitter I ever saw.
Pedro Martinez, on the other hand, joined my hometown team in 1998, finally leaving as a free agent after pitching for the sainted 2004 team that broke the back of the Curse of the Bambino. While certainly known as a talented pitcher from several fine seasons with the Expos, Martinez ascended to greatness with Boston, dominating the league as no one ever had during a homer-happy age.
Martinez, at the peak of his powers, carved batters up without mercy. Throwing fastballs, curves, and feathery frisbee changeups, sometimes dropping down to throw sidearm, Pedro made baseball into a phenomenon in Boston, filling the streets with buzz for every start, culminating in the 2004 title. For putting up deadball ERAs in a rocketball era, and remaining a fun-loving prankster on his off days, Pedro was the best moundsman I ever saw.
Any list or ranking necessarily simplifies the issue—easy arguments could be made for 20 other hitters and pitchers, and, of course, the fun of being a baseball fan is arguing about such choices. But for me, at least for the moment, Derek Jeter and Pedro Martinez are the best I ever saw.
About the author
Michael Webb began his baseball fandom in 1978, which was a really great year to be a Boston Red Sox fan. Most of it, anyway. He now follows the Sox in South Jersey with his patient wife and son.