Sports Illustrated’s Peter King said the best player of his lifetime is Derek Jeter. My first impression was the King should stick to what he knows best (the NFL). But with a little digging, I found King is not so far off. And maybe, just maybe, Jeter is more than a great player who benefits from playing on a moneyed team that buys other top players to reach the playoffs.
I started following baseball in the mid-1970s, so my options are numerous, listed here alphabetically: Wade Boggs, George Brett, Rod Carew, Steve Carlton, Ken Griffey Jr., Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken Jr., Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, and Robin Yount.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and any other performance-enhancing drug (PED) suspect doesn’t count. Are some unknown PED guys on my initial list? Possibly, but I don’t think so.
Other potential candidates either have played too few seasons (Albert Pujols and Ryan Howard) or their best years occurred just before my baseball-following time (Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays).
I love high-average hitters, but if we’re looking for the best overall player, there has to be more. Sorry, Boggs, Carew, and Gwynn. Also, for me, top everyday players trump pitchers so that eliminates the best two pitchers I’ve seen (Carlton and Maddux) as well as Johnson and Ryan.
That leaves Brett, Griffey Jr., Henderson, Jeter, Ripken, Schmidt, and Yount. Schmidt (three-time MVP and five-time top-five finalist) beats Brett (one-time MVP and four-time top-five finalist).
Two-time MVPs Ripken and Yount, unlike Schmidt and Brett, never led their league in any of the three major hitting categories. Neither has Jeter, who has never been an MVP and only finished in the top five twice.
Griffey Jr., a one-time MVP, had nine outstanding seasons and finished in the MVP top-five five times. But injuries curtailed his career; his first 11 seasons were stunning, but he dramatically tailed off after the 2000 season. And Henderson, a one-time MVP and two-time top-five finalist, is right there with Rose as the greatest leadoff hitters of all time.
But I’m going with Schmidt as the best player of my lifetime. He was the best offensive and defensive third basemen in baseball history. He led the NL in homers eight times, in RBIs four times, won 10 Gold Gloves. In 14 seasons, from 1974 to 1987, Schmidt had just one sub-par season (1978) and was named to 12 All Star teams.
Here’s my personal top five: Schmidt, Brett, Jeter, Carlton, Carew.