Newspaper reporters don’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) buy anyone’s act whole, and looking back I can see I always was cut out to be one. As a kid I used to go early to Chicago Cubs’ games to watch batting practice, but when my pals gathered along the low brick wall that separated the stands from the field to plead for player autographs, I didn’t join them in latter part of the exercise. I simply wasn’t interested in that sort of thing.
One summer day in 1950 the 12-year-old me was standing along the wall when Ron Northey, an erstwhile Cubs’ slugger, broke a bat in the cage. Carrying it back to the bench he spied me and thrust the injured instrument into my hands. Initially I was pleased with my prize and the attention it brought, and sat with it on my lap throughout the game that followed, but it occurred to me quickly enough that a broken bat had limited utility. I put it in a trash container on my way out of Wrigley Field.
But while I’ve never had heroes I’ve always had favorites, and do to this day. I admire good play, of course, but to make my list an athlete has to bring something other than skill to his or her games. Following are my five favorite current baseball players, and the reasons I’ve selected them for the honor.
MARK BUEHRLE-- Ray Miller, the old Baltimore Orioles’ pitching coach, used to pitch three rules to his charges: Work fast. Change speeds. Throw strikes. Unsaid was another rule most people might have added: Throw hard. ‘Twasn’t necessary if you did the other three, Miller believed. And besides, “what are you going to do if throwing hard doesn’t work—throw harder?” he’d say. “That’s the quickest way to get arm trouble.”
Nobody in the present-day game personifies Miller’s dicta better than Buehrle. The 36-year-old Toronto Blue Jays’ left-hander never has broken a speed gun but he’s compiled 213 wins including two no-hitters in his 16 big-league seasons, which is about as good as it gets in this era of five-man starting rotations. He’s as good today as he was when he was 25 or 30 years old, and the winningest pitcher (his record is 14-7) on his division-leading team. With his easy delivery and efficient outlook there’s no reason he shouldn’t be good for three or four more similar seasons, which would put him in Cooperstown range.
What mostly endears Buehrle to me, though, is his adherence to Miller’s Rule One. His approach to pitching is simple: Get the ball, throw the ball. Two-hour games, once a relic, are possible when he starts. Working fast dictates the pace of a game to a pitcher’s advantage and keeps his fielders on their toes. It also keeps fans’ attentions from wandering, the upshot of the game’s too-slow woes. Oh that there were more like him!
ANTHONY RIZZO—Yeah, he’s a Cub and a talented one, and I’m a Cubs’ fan, but I like Rizzo especially because he has an old head on his sturdy, 26-year-old body. Only in season five of what promises to be a long career, he’s by necessity a team leader of a playoff-bound Kiddie Korps that has five rookies among its eight position players some days. How far the Cubs go in October (not far, I fear, because they’re green, strikeout-prone and pitching-short) will depend largely on him.
Whatever he does or doesn’t do in the clubhouse, Rizzo obviously leads by example. He’s an honest-to-gosh power hitter, with 85 home runs to show for his three years as a Cub regular, but unlike most of this ilk he doesn’t aim for the bleachers with every swing. With two strikes or in close-game situations he’s been known to choke up on his bat, shorten his swing and move up in the batter’s box, the better to make the contact needed to start or sustain rallies. Some of his hack-happy teammates should take note.
BRANDON PHILLIPS—He’s accumulated a nice collection of All-Star Game selections and Golden Gloves in a 14-year career, 10 of them with the Cincinnati Reds, but the second baseman stands out for me because he enjoys playing and spreads the joy around. He’s bouncy on the bases, will chat up whichever player comes his way and smiles or frowns as the game situation warrants. His sunny demeanor is a welcome contrast to that of the lunch-box-carrying millionaires who make up baseball’s sullen majority.
Better, he bears adversity well, at least sometimes. In a game about a month ago against the Cubs he was fanned in a critical situation by the effusive Pedro Strop, who greeted strike three with a leap and a whoop. Instead of taking offense, as most players would, Phillips gave Strop a grin and a thumbs up, one hot dog to another. Pass the mustard.
YAVIER MOLINA—When it comes to this guy, I have to take back what I wrote a few paragraphs up. He’s so good on the field that his qualities there alone qualify him for my faves list.
The St. Louis Cardinals’ catcher is the best player on baseball’s winningest team, playing the game’s toughest position, and in his 12 seasons has established himself as one of the best defensive catchers ever. Moreover, although I’m not privy to the inner workings of the Cardinals’ manager-pitching coach-catcher collaboration, he certainly deserves some credit for guiding the pitching staff that’s been among the game’s best these past half-dozen seasons.
Molina throws out attempted base stealers at a 44% rate, well above the general run of less than 30%. His 52 career pickoffs leads all active catchers. After a slow start he’s made himself into a better-than-average hitter, and his mien radiates fire across the diamond. Every team wishes it had a player like him.
SAM FULD— Sam gets my over-achiever award, hands down. A little man (5-9, 170 pounds) in what’s increasingly a big man’s game, and lacking much batting power, he’s cobbled together an eight-year, four-team (Cubs, Rays, Twins and A’s) Major League career on sheer chutzpah. He’s the quintessential fourth outfielder, someone who can be inserted into any OF position any time and, somehow, throw out a runner or come up with a single or stolen base. He’s a kamikaze fielder whose eye-popping catches make a great YouTube video.
He has an interesting biography for a ballplayer. He’s from New Hampshire, where the summers are about six weeks long. His dad is a university professor and his mom is a state legislator. He went to Stanford U., where he not only played baseball but also got a degree in economics. He’s been diabetic since age 10 and must monitor his blood-sugar levels continually.
And he’s Jewish, so he probably knows what chutzpah is. As Joe Paterno once said about an Italian football player, “I don’t like him because he’s Italian, I like him because I’m Italian.”