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Thursday, September 6, 2012
The most exciting player in baseball

By David Schoenfield

Mike Trout
Angels outfielder Mike Trout has the tools to be baseball's most exciting player for years to come.
We all have our own favorites, of course, and maybe they change from season to season. Or month to month. That's a little of the beauty of baseball; we don't all have to enjoy and appreciate the same players. The stars aren't necessarily shoved down our throats like a certain sport played with an orange ball.

For me, Mike Trout has been the most exciting player in baseball in 2012. It's completely subjective opinion, of course, but if you think of some of the factors that would be considered for such a description, Trout fits (as do Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Kemp and others):

1. Power. Check.
2. Speed. Check.
3. Spectacular plays on defense. Check.
4. Young. Check. This is kind of like how we get excited over a new restaurant or new girlfriend or new TV show.
5. Looks good in a baseball uniform. Check.
6. Has the It Factor. Hard to define, but you know what it is when you see it.
7. Cool name. Mickey Mantle wouldn't quite be Mickey Mantle if his name had been "Andy Stankiewicz."
8. He's good. Duh. Although I suppose there's a different kind of excitement for players who aren't good.

Pitchers have a slightly different list of criteria, much of which boils down to "He's one bad dude."

The first year I remember following baseball was 1976, the year before the Mariners arrived in my hometown. Leaving out the fact that most of us probably prefer a guy on our favorite team, here's my own list of Most Exciting Player in Baseball since that year.

1976: Mark Fidrych, P, Tigers

There hasn't been anybody like Fidrych since he became a national phenomenon as a 21-year-old rookie. For all the attention given to Trout or Harper this year, imagine if ESPN and 24-hour sports coverage had been around in 1976, when Fidrych was talking to baseballs and shaking hands with infielders after a good play -- in the middle of innings. I remember watching the famous June "Monday Night Baseball" game against the Yankees, that's how big it seemed at the time. Fidrych would start the All-Star Game, complete 24 of his 29 starts and boost attendance whenever he pitched (he accounted for nearly half of the Tigers' attendance that year while making just 18 starts at Tiger Stadium). In Dan Epstein's "Big Hair and Plastic Grass," a history of baseball in the '70s, he writes that other teams begged the Tigers to pitch Fidrych in their parks.

How exciting was he? Here's a clip of that Yankees game; fast-forward to the 2:30 mark and not just for the awesome '70s clothes and fans smoking in the stands. Detroit fans hung out after the game, chanting "We want The Bird! We want The Bird!" When he finally appears from the clubhouse, the place explodes. One of a kind.

1977: George Foster, LF, Reds

Maybe a bit of a one-dimensional slugger, but his 52 home runs that year seemed otherworldly. And maybe they were. It was the only 50-homer season between Willie Mays in 1965 and Cecil Fielder in 1990, Foster waved that menacing black bat and was awesome.

1978: Dave Parker, RF, Pirates

Built like a linebacker, for a few years there Parker was arguably the best all-around player in baseball. He was the MVP in 1978 as he led the majors in batting average and OPS and owned a howitzer for an arm. Plus, this was the year he fractured his jaw and cheekbone in a home-plate collision and returned two weeks later wearing a hockey mask at the plate (quickly replaced by a football-like face mask).

George Brett
George Brett had 85 extra-base hits for the Royals in 1979.
1979-1980: George Brett, 3B, Royals

That sweet Charlie Lau swing. The dirty uniform even though he played his home games on turf. And then the chase for .400 in 1980. But how about this line in 1979: .329, 212 hits, 42 doubles, 20 triples, 23 home runs.

1981-1983: Rickey Henderson, LF, A's

Actually, you could probably give him the whole decade if you want.

1984-1985: Dwight Gooden, P, Mets

In 1984, he was Kid K, the 19-year-old phenom who finished second in the Cy Young vote, helping turn around a moribund Mets franchise. In 1985, he was Dr. K, the best pitcher on the planet -- 24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 strikeouts. He pitched eight shutouts that year with his blistering high fastball and knee-buckling curveball, plus he had two more nine-inning scoreless outings where he got a no-decision. The four games he "lost" he allowed two, two, two and three runs. With a little luck, he could have gone unbeaten. You couldn't watch all the games back then, of course, unless you lived in the New York area, but I'd stay up late to watch the news to see how Gooden fared or devour the box score in the morning paper.

1986: Roger Clemens, P, Red Sox

Twenty strikeouts in a game. Twenty-four wins. Nothing then about needles in the butt.

1987: Eric Davis, CF, Reds

Skinny as a golf club, Davis somehow generated big power from his slight frame and combined that with blazing speed and acrobatic outfield play. In 1986, he hit 27 home runs and stole 80 bases; in 1987 he hit 37 home runs and stole 50 bases (in just 129 games). In a Sports Illustrated story, Reds manager Pete Rose said, "It's like having an atomic bomb sitting next to you in the dugout." Teammate Dave Parker said, "Eric is blessed with world-class speed, great leaping ability, the body to play until he's 42, tremendous bat speed and power, and a throwing arm you wouldn't believe. There's an aura to everything he does." In the long run, he couldn't stay healthy, although he did last until he was 39. If you missed seeing the young Davis, you missed something special.

1988: Jose Canseco, RF, A's

Don't laugh. When he went 40-40 it was a very big deal. But, no, I never called the Jose Canseco hotline.

1989-1994: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners

OK, Barry Bonds was better. He was faster. When you break it down, he was a little better hitter and that was even before Big Barry broke out. But Griffey had the It Factor from the time he reached the majors at age 19 and Bonds never really did.

Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson's heroics in 1995 perhaps saved baseball in the city of Seattle.
1995: Randy Johnson, P, Mariners

Power and might, adrenaline at 100 miles per hour with his long hair flapping behind him, as intimidating a pitcher the game has ever seen. And if you were a Mariners fan in those days, a Johnson game was a treat to be savored. And when he trudged in from the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1995 Division Series, the Kingdome exploded in pandemonium. Without Johnson's spectacular '95 season (remember, Griffey was hurt part of that year), there may not be baseball in Seattle.

1996: Alex Rodriguez, SS, Mariners

The common theory is that A-Rod -- like Bonds -- never managed to connect with the fans on a national scale like Griffey, but that's a little rewriting of history, especially after he left Seattle for his first megabucks contract. In 1996, when he was 20 years old (turned 21 in July), he was, like Mike Trout, a young guy putting up bizzaro offensive numbers -- he'd hit .358 with 36 home runs and 54 doubles. It's too easy to forget now but there was a moment when Rodriguez was a player of our affection instead of a player of derision.

1997: Ken Griffey Jr., CF, Mariners

Griffey's MVP season when he led the AL with 56 home runs and 147 RBIs.

1998: Mark McGwire, 1B, Cardinals ... and Sammy Sosa, RF, Cubs

You have to put them together, no? And, no, you can't rewrite history: The home run chase was exhilarating, thrilling and astonishing.

1999-2000: Pedro Martinez, P, Red Sox

In the midst of the barrage of home runs, Pedro was putting up numbers we'd never seen before from a pitcher. In 1999, he struck out 313 batters in 213.1 innings, an average of 13.2 K's per nine innings ... and he walked just 37. He was Nolan Ryan with command and one unhittable changeup. In 2000, opponents hit .167 off him. This wasn't some reliever throwing one inning at a time. Attending a Pedro game at Fenway during this peak was like going to a religious revival, 35,000 fans believing fervently in the gifts of Pedro. He wasn't a god, but he sure pitched like one.

2001: Ichiro Suzuki, RF, Mariners

I think this list is just making Mariners fans sad.

2002-2004: Barry Bonds, LF, Giants

Are walks exciting? Bonds somehow made them so. Love him or hate him, a Bonds at-bat in this era was must-see TV.

2005: Albert Pujols, 1B, Cardinals

A weird season. Bartolo Colon won a Cy Young Award. Roger Clemens had a 1.87 ERA at age 42. Scott Eyre picked up 10th-place MVP vote. No, seriously, he did. We'll give the nod to Pujols, if only for that 9,000-foot home run off Brad Lidge in the NLCS.

2006-2008: Jose Reyes, SS, Mets

Over those three seasons he hit .292 while averaging 16 home runs, 16 triples and 66 stolen bases per season. Admit it: He was fun.

2009: Hanley Ramirez, SS, Marlins

Maybe should have mentioned him during the Reyes seasons. This was the year he hit .342 with power and speed.

2010: Josh Hamilton, CF, Rangers

He was so good he won the MVP Award despite missing the final month.

2011: Justin Verlander, P, Tigers

With apologies to Matt Kemp.

So that's my list, no slights intended to those I left off. What about your most exciting players? Discuss below ... and enjoy baseball.