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Friday, June 4, 2004
Masters with the glove

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

It's hard to say where defense would rank on the list of things men would pay to see. But it's safe to assume it ranks somewhere behind Home Run Derby, the Super Bowl and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Nevertheless, earlier this season, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa told us one day that one thing he'd love to witness in his lifetime is a game in which all 27 balls were hit to the most charismatic defensive player on earth, Scott Rolen.

"That," Rolen's manager pronounced, "would be as exciting as a no-hitter."

That also got us to thinking. Rolen would top our own personal list of guys we would pay to watch just play defense. But who else would be on that list?

Scott Rolen
Little, if anything, gets by Scott Rolen at third base.

So we've been tossing that question out there, over the last couple of weeks.

We ran it by three dozen players, coaches, GMs, scouts, broadcasters and other assorted baseball people. And the amazing news was, there were actually players who got votes at every position. We even had votes for two utility infielders (Juan Castro and John McDonald).

So apparently, while we'd all concede that defense may not be baseball's No. 1 attraction, it at least ranks somewhere above watching the grounds crew rake the infield.

Still, we wonder: Would anyone actually pay to watch it?

"This is 2004, not 1974," said White Sox GM Kenny Williams. "No one goes to games to see great defense. ... But a good defensive play can mean the difference between a 'W' or an 'L.' "

"Face it," said Padres bench coach Tony Muser. "Babe Ruth put baseball on the map. The home run is really the attraction of baseball. It is today. And it was back then. But to play winning baseball -- to win a championship or get into the playoffs -- you've got to catch the ball."

"The thing about defense," Muser chuckled, "is that you never really notice it until you have a hole in your defense. ... So for people to come out and watch you play defense, you've really got to be good. You've got to be extra special."

So are there nine guys out there who are special enough to qualify as official Human Web Gems? Turns out there are wayyyyy more than that. Believe it or not, 83 different players got at least one vote. Heck, 15 different shortstops got at least one vote.

But it's the winners who constitute our first-ever All-We'd-Pay-To-Watch-Him-Catch-The-Ball team. And here they come:

First base: Derrek Lee, Cubs
Six first basemen got votes. But this turned out to be a two-man duel between Lee and the Giants' J.T. Snow, with Doug Mientkiewicz a close third. Curt Schilling called Snow "a shortstop playing first base" who "saves his infielders 30 to 40 errors a year." And Mientkiewicz had his fan club, too ("very athletic").

Derrek Lee
Lee

But it was the underrated Lee, once described by Marlins coach Bill Robinson as being "as good over there as Keith Hernandez," who pulled away in the end.

Among the reviews: "Aircraft-carrier range," said Pirates GM Dave Littlefield. ... "No weakness," said Expos GM Omar Minaya, "especially because of his size." ... "As good as there is," said the Mets' Todd Zeile. ... "Makes it look so easy," said Lee's former teammate, Montreal infielder Andy Fox. "Put (a throw) anywhere in the stadium, and there's a pretty good chance he's going to pick it."

Second base: Bret Boone, Mariners
Of all the positions we tossed out there, second base, surprisingly, turned into the biggest free-for-all.

Robbie Alomar might be the most fun second baseman to watch ever. ("Back in his prime," said one GM, "he played second base like no one else.") But he has slipped so much, even his own teams had a hard time watching him the last couple of years.

Bret Boone
Boone

Still, he almost won this poll. And so did Florida's Luis Castillo -- who might form (with Alex Gonzalez) the most magnetic double-play combination out there. ("The footwork and hands are amazing," said Marlins broadcaster John Sciambi. "They're like dance partners.")

But the winner turned out to be Boone, who has won Gold Gloves in each league -- and, in fact, has beaten out both these guys to win one.

"In his heyday, you'd pick Alomar easy," said one scout. "But Robby's not a very good player anymore. And Castillo can be real good, but some people don't even like him at second very much, because he can be so up and down. So I'd take Boone. He has that flair, that arrogant cockiness about him. And he's really quick on the double play."

"I love Boonie," said Mike Cameron, his former teammate in Seattle. "(Bill) Mazeroski is supposed to be the best ever at turning the double play. But if you ask Boonie, he'll tell you he's three times better than Mazeroski."

Shortstop: Omar Vizquel, Indians
Judging by all the guys who got nominations, shortstop is still the coolest defensive address in baseball. Heck, half the starting shortstops in the big leagues got a vote -- including a guy who wasn't even employed a month ago (Rey Ordonez).

Omar Vizquel
Vizquel

The up-and-comers to watch, even though they didn't even make the top two in this survey, are clearly Houston's Adam Everett ("most exciting young shortstop in the game"), Pittsburgh's Jack Wilson ("plays the game all-out on every play") and San Diego's Khalil Greene ("really works at it," said teammate Brian Giles. "You should see him in the weight room, jumping over chairs and sliding.").

If this had been three years ago, Vizquel would have won in a stampede. But several of our panelists said he's finally feeling his age. Which opened the door for a surprising amount of support for Florida's acrobatic Alex Gonzalez ("makes plays that you shake your head at," said Red Sox special assistant Craig Shipley).

But in the end, nobody could outpoll a man with nine Gold Gloves. Among Vizquel's reviews: "A gymnast over there," Muser said. ... "A magician," said one GM who didn't want to be named. "His hands and awareness are second to none." ... "Best barehand ever," said Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. ... "When Vizquel and Alomar were together," said Williams, "it was just ridiculous."

Third base: Scott Rolen, Cardinals
Yeah, Vinny Castilla ("never seen him make a bad throw"), Eric Chavez ("can demoralize teams" with his defense) and Mike Lowell ("very underrated") got some mentions. But the astounding Rolen got more votes (20) than any other player at any other position.

Probably the best we'll see in our lifetime. So agile, so big, so quick.
Ruben Amaro Jr., Phillies assistant GM, on Scott Rolen

Mike Schmidt, who won more Gold Gloves than any National League third baseman in history, has prounounced Rolen to be "better than me." And an ex-teammate of Brooks Robinson once told us Rolen is "better than Brooks." So judging by the reviews, it will be fun to count the Gold Gloves and think seriously about that debate in about 10 years:

"The best athlete I've ever played with," said Schilling. ... "Probably the best we'll see in our lifetime," Amaro said. "So agile, so big, so quick." ... "Awesome," said Yankees GM Brian Cashman, a man who actually voted for Alex Rodriguez. "Both A-Rod and Rolen are essentially shortstops playing third base, with the range and the arms they have." ... "The best defensive player I've ever seen," said Phillies broadcaster Larry Andersen. ... Combine his offense with his defense, said Giants assistant GM Ned Colletti, and "he could be one-third of the way to the Hall of Fame."

Left field: Nobody
A half-dozen left fielders got a vote. But believe it or not, nobody got more than one. So given all the center fielders our panel raved about, we'd be nuts not to play at least two center fielders in this outfield.

Center field: Andruw Jones, Braves and Torii Hunter, Twins
We should be fined, if not suspended, for leaving Mike Cameron off this team. ("His jumps are amazing," said teammate Joe McEwing. "When I'm playing short and a ball is hit between us, I'll turn around and take my first step, and he's five or six steps into his jump already. Plus, he doesn't even have to look at the ball. He knows where it's going.")

Torii Hunter
Hunter

Andruw Jones
Jones

But we're not fielding any Pay-To-Watch-Defense teams that don't have Ichiro on them. So while we petition the commissioner for an extra spot -- maybe a Designated Fielder -- we'll let our group wax eloquent about Jones and Hunter.

Jones, not surprisingly, got more votes than any player at any position except Rolen. When people start arguing that any center fielder is in a league with Willie Mays, you know you've got a living defensive legend on your hands.

Jones' reviews:

"Makes the hard plays, makes the easy plays," said Padres center fielder Jay Payton. "And makes the hard plays look easy." ... "Best center fielder I've ever seen," Amaro said. ... "Takes away more extra-base hits than anyone in the game," said Indians assistant GM Chris Antonetti. "Gets to balls you're sure are in the gap." ... "Could catch balls in the parking lot," said Shipley. ... "Since I've been playing, nobody effects the game defensively more than Andruw," said Aaron Boone. "He's gotten me to throw my helmet too many times." ... "Uncanny jumps," said Braves assistant GM Frank Wren, "and diving ability like no one else." ... "When I watch him on TV," said one AL executive, "makes me wish I had Tivo."

But Hunter is right there with Andruw -- and some argue he has even passed him. Check out his reviews, especially from other center fielders:

"Torii has probably robbed more home runs than anyone ever," said Payton. ... "I love watching Torii play defense," said Cameron. ... "At least one highlight-reel play a series," said Expos pro scouting director Lee MacPhail. ... "Plays the Baggie with ease in the worst playing facility in baseball," said one GM who preferred anonymity -- a GM who, incidentally, added that until last year, Jones would have been his "runaway No. 1 -- but nagging injuries have affected him."

Ichiro
Ichiro

Right field: Ichiro Suzuki, Mariners
Vladimir Guerrero ("just watching him throw is worth the price of admission") got some votes. Richard Hidalgo ("no one has a more accurate arm than he does") got some support. But there was only one choice here -- because Ichiro is the most electrifying right fielder since Roberto Clemente. The reviews:

"A no-brainer," said Cameron, who played beside Ichiro in Seattle for three years. "I've seen him, on a dead sprint, leap in the air like a ballerina -- he looked exactly like the Michael Jordan symbol -- catch the ball, then hit the ground throwing, and damn near turn a double play at second base." ... "Never makes a mistake," said Minaya. ... "I love nothing better than to see a stud in right field shut down an opposing team's running game," said Cashman. "And there's nobody better than Ichiro at this."

Pudge Rodriguez
Rodriguez

Catcher: Pudge Rodriguez, Tigers
Oh, Pudge has his detractors. No doubt about that. ("One thing I know about Pudge," said a player who is well aware of Rodriguez's fondness for throwing out runners over all else, "is that if I'm the hitter and there's a guy on first, I'm getting fastballs to hit.")

But with apologies to the Brad Ausmus ("I'd take him over Pudge any day") and Mike Matheny ("one of the best ever blocking pitches") Fan Clubs, about the only thing people would pay to watch a catcher do is throw. And it's hard to think of any catcher who has ever been more fun to watch hop and fire than Pudge.

His reviews: "Best ever," said Minaya. ... "The way he bounces around behind the plate is exciting in itself," said Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski. "But his throwing to the bases to attempt to pick runners off is unchallenged in recent memory." ... "Best catcher I ever saw," said one longtime scout.

Greg Maddux
Maddux

Pitcher: Greg Maddux, Cubs
Nine different pitchers got a mention. But how do you argue with Maddux and his 13 Gold Gloves? This man is the Nikolai Khabibulin of baseball out there:

"I'd pay to watch him pitch and field his position so well," said Mets GM Jim Duquette. ... "He finds a way to catch so many balls hit back at him," laughed Zeile, "he just ticks you off as a hitter." ... "For 18 years, Maddux has had the best, cleanest, most effective delivery in the game," said Colletti. "Puts himself in the perfect position to make a play. That, coupled with his athleticism and knowledge of the effect of his pitches on the particular hitter, makes him the perfect fielding pitcher."

Juan Castro
Castro

Utility man: Juan Castro, Reds
For a guy who isn't even a regular player to get as many mentions as Castro got, you know he isn't just a fine little leatherworker, he's a show unto himself. So since it's our team, we're bending these rules -- to include the best glove man you've never seen.

"There's a guy," said Payton, "that I would love to get to see play every day." ... "People don't talk about him," said Zeile. "But he's about as good a fielder as there is."

Second team
When you take a poll and more than 80 players get votes, you don't like to leave anybody out. So here are all our runners-up, followed by every darned player in the whole darned sport who got a mention from anybody:

1B: J.T. Snow
2B: (tie) Robbie Alomar and Luis Castillo
SS: Alex Gonzalez
3B: (tie) Vinny Castilla and Eric Chavez
LF: Six-way tie
CF: Mike Cameron
RF: (tie) Vladimir Guerrero and Richard Hidalgo
C: Brad Ausmus
P: (tie) Mike Hampton and Livan Hernandez

Honorable mention (everyone who got a vote)
1B: Doug Mientkiewicz, Todd Helton, John Olerud, Carlos Pena
2B: Orlando Hudson, Junior Spivey, Luis Rivas, Placido Polanco, Marcus Giles
SS: Khalil Greene, Adam Everett, Pokey Reese (also got votes at 2B), Jack Wilson, Rey Ordonez, Cesar Izturis, Edgar Renteria, Jimmy Rollins, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, Orlando Cabrera, Miguel Tejada, Alex (The Cub) Gonzalez
3B: Eric Chavez, Mike Lowell, Alex Rodriguez, Hank Blalock
LF: Hideki Matsui, Pat Burrell, Brad Wilkerson, Jose Guillen, Brian Giles, Barry Bonds
CF: Steve Finley, Juan Pierre, Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Endy Chavez, Scott Podsednik
RF: Juan Encarnacion
C: Mike Matheny, Jason Varitek, Mike Lieberthal, Damian Miller, Brian Schneider, Joe Mauer, Ramon Hernandez, Dan Wilson
P: Kenny Rogers, Mike Mussina, Brian Anderson, Jason Jennings, Woody Williams, Kirk Rueter
Utility infielder: John McDonald

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.