The greatest baseball players I ever saw play the game, part two
Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part series. Part one appeared in the May 29-June 4, 2013, issue.
By Doug Halberstadt
I’ve already written a column listing the greatest baseball players I ever saw play the game whose last names began with the letters A-M. This is my follow-up column with the remainder of my list, players from N to Z.
Phil Niekro is the reason to this day that I still try to throw a knuckleball when I’m playing catch. The strange things that guy could do with that pitch was remarkable. Rick Monday was quoted as saying, “It (Phil’s knuckleball) actually giggles at you as it goes by.”
The only guy I know who’s played every position on the diamond during his career is former St. Louis Cardinal Jose Oquendo. For that reason alone, he made my list.
I’m listing Kirby Puckett ahead of Jim Palmer here simply because I knew Kirby when we were at Bradley together. Everyone knew then the guy was a special player. Palmer was my favorite Orioles player growing up.
Even though he looked like he was pitching underhanded, Dan Quisenberry earns the “Q” spot. He led the American League in saves five times (1980, 1982-1985). When he retired in 1990, he was sixth on the all-time Major League save list with 244.
I never really liked the guy, but obviously he’s the best guy I ever saw play the game whose last name begins with the letter “R.” Pete Rose was nicknamed “Charlie Hustle,” and he really played that way. Baseball has denied him a spot in the Hall of Fame because he’s admitted to gambling on the game. Whether you agree or disagree with that decision, you can’t deny the guy could play the game.
A ton of players came to mind for the letter “S.” I immediately thought of Ron Santo, Ryne Sandberg, Mike Schmidt, Tom Seaver, Bruce Sutter and Ozzie Smith. They all deserve consideration, but I have to give it to Willie Stargell. He was the face of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ “We Are Family” years. I always liked him because he was one of the biggest guys playing at the time.
Frank Thomas earns the honors for the letter “T.” He is probably one of my top-five favorite White Sox players of all-time. Another guy who played for them gets an honorable mention spot here, Jim Thome. They both played first base and designated hitter for the Sox. I couldn’t help but think of them at the same time.
Bob Uecker is the first name I thought of for the letter “U,” but I never saw him play, so I had to settle for former Chicago White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe. He anchored the infield when they won the 2005 World Series. He won another World Series ring with the Giants in 2010.
The most dominant pitcher in the 1980s had to be Fernando Valenzuela. He is the only pitcher in history to win the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in the same season (1981). He also led the Dodgers to a World Series championship that same year.
Perhaps my all-time favorite player earns the “W” spot. Sweet swingin’ Billy Williams wore No. 26 and patrolled left field for the Cubs during my entire youth. I have many fond memories of him, and was saddened when he went from the Cubs to the Athletics in 1975.
I can’t come up with the name of any Major League baseball player I’ve ever seen whose last name begins with the letter “X.” Feel free to e-mail me any suggestions.
My “Y” player is Carl Yastrzemski. My second favorite team growing up was the Boston Red Sox, and he was the reason why. He was a perennial All-Star, and played his entire career with Boston. I never saw Babe Ruth or Ted Williams play a game as a member of the Red Sox, so I can easily say “Yaz” was the greatest Red Sox player I ever saw.
When he wasn’t being a hot head, the guy could pitch and hit. I’m talking about Carlos Zambrano. He was an imposing figure, not only on the mound, but also at the plate. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall and 275 pounds, the guy intimidated hitters and pitchers alike. He has the record for most home runs ever by a Cubs pitcher with 23. He was the only National League pitcher to have won at least 13 games from 2003 to 2008.
That’s my complete list, A-Z (except for X) of the best players I’ve ever seen play baseball. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did coming up with it.
Doug Halberstadt can be reached via e-mail at Dougster61@aol.com.
From the June 5-11, 2013, issue