The Major League Baseball All-Star Game (This season's motto: "One year in a row without a tie") is less than two weeks away, and already Bud Sellout's minions and the sport's broadcast propagandists are braying with delight about the alleged "Greatest Outfield Ever Assembled." That's right; if current voting totffals hold, the National League will start a trio of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Junior Griffey against the AL on July 13. Hello, ratings bonanza.
Just one problem: It isn't the Greatest Outfield Ever. It's not even the Second Greatest Outfield Ever. In fact, it's not even this year's best outfield. Sosa doesn't belong in this year's Midseason Classic, thanks to an early-season sneezing injury that kept him out of nearly 20 games and has his RBI total at a not-so-robust 29. And Griffey's rejuvenation may be taking hold in the power area, but his batting average is at a Dave Kingman-like .242. Lance Berkman, Miguel Cabrera and Moises Alou certainly are more deserving than Sosa and perhaps Griffey. Bonds, of course, should be there, although further results from the BALCO investigation may provide a different verdict down the line.
But this isn't about 2004. This is Lifetime Achievement stuff, so forget those current stats. The three sluggers have combined for 1,728 career homers, and in today's longball-obsessed climate, that's enough to warrant a spot at the top of the heap -- unless someone does the necessary research and uncovers a couple better outfield aggregations. El Hombre is that someone. So, here are the best of the All-Star best, outfield division:
1. NL 1957 -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. The Gold Standard. These three combined for 2001 career dingers in the no-steroid, non-juiced-ball, pre-expansion days, when the mound was six inches higher and the inside pitch was applied liberally. Each won a World Series title (Robinson had two) -- no small feat, obviously, since the Bonds/Sosa/Griffey trio has a total of zero. Mays is the greatest center fielder of all time (sorry, Joe D.), while Robinson is the only man to be named MVP in both leagues. And you know all about Hammerin' Henry.
2. NL 1966 -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente. The three have a total of 27 Gold Gloves among them (Bonds, Sosa and Griffey have 16), and the award wasn't even instituted until 1957, three seasons after Aaron and Mays started playing full time. Clemente hit "only" 240 homers during his 18-year career, but he had 166 triples, a .317 lifetime average (none of the '04 crew is over .300 for his career, while all three of these players are) and covered more ground in right field than a pteranodon.
3. NL 2004 -- Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Junior Griffey. A supreme group, to be sure, but it's not worthy of the "Greatest Ever" tag. The lack of championship jewelry, and the time spent smacking post-strike live-wire baseballs from Class AAA arms precludes that.
Honorable Mention: 1942 AL -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Henrich; 1949 AL -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio; 1954 NL -- Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider; 1955-56 AL -- Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Al Kaline; 1961 NL (Game One) -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Orlando Cepeda; 1969 AL -- Frank Robinson; Reggie Jackson, Frank Howard; 1970-72 NL -- Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Willie Stargell. ...
If Houston coach Jeff Van Gundy thought he had problems getting Stevie Francis to play spleen-busting defense and run a halfcourt, Yao-centric offense, wait until he tries to get Tracy McGrady to toe the line. Or feed the post. When a player allegedly among the NBA's top five must promise during a press conference that he will accept coaching, it's not a good sign. Houston can crow about its new dynamic duo of McGrady and Yao, but there is not a worse fit of system and star in the NBA.
Just take a look at what Stevie Franchise did last year. He shot a career-low 40.3 percent from the field and clearly struggled in Van Gundy's highly patterned attack. His comments about how "We didn't really work on running [the fastbreak] in practice enough to feel real comfortable in the games" show just how frustrated he was. Now comes McGrady, who loves the open court and demands clear-outs to "create" off the dribble (NBA code for "go one-on-one"). Think he's going to embrace Van Gundy's style, which requires a pass into the post practically every possession? Sure he is, and Allen Iverson plans to become a pass-first point guard who takes just 10 shots a game. There may be a brief honeymoon, but Van Gundy would be wise to insist on a pre-nup.
Worse, there's the question of McGrady's heart, which came to the forefront during the Magic's putrid 21-61 '03-04 campaign. Once Orlando slid into the abyss during an early-season 19-game losing streak, McGrady lost his drive. As Orlando GM John Weisbrod said Thursday, "I think a superstar is defined by wins, by making the players around him and by making the team better." McGrady did that for a while in Mousetown, but when things got tough, he complained about how hard it was to be The Man and chased his numbers. And don't forget his part in the Magic's memorable playoff collapse against Detroit in '03. With Orlando holding a three-games-to-one lead, McGrady started speculating about the Magic's second-round opponent. Big mistake -- followed by a big choke.
It's funny, but McGrady left Toronto and Vince Carter for the chance to become a headliner. Now he's back to sharing the limelight -- and the basketball -- with a player the NBA would clearly love to see become a world-wide phenomenon. Houston, you have a problem. ...
EL HOMBRE SEZ: Did anybody else catch the picture in Monday's USA Today of Craig Stadler and his son Kevin? They call Craig "The Walrus." Looks like Kevin is "The Manatee." ... It was amusing to watch ESPN analysts Jay Bilas and Dick Vitale promote every available college player during last Thursday's NBA Draft coverage. No hidden agendas there. It's almost as if they were being paid to shill for NC2A hoops, at the expense of objectivity. Oh, you mean they are? Never mind. ...
AND ANOTHER THING: El Hombre hates to say, "I told you so," (OK, El Hombre LOVES to say "I told you so"), but it looks like those Red Sawx are headed for a summer of wild-card mania. Wednesday's loss to the Yankees was another example of how sloppy things are in Boston. Two key errors killed the Sox in a 4-2 loss to New York and pushed them 7 ½ games behind the Yanks. Boston is hitting well and even has a 3.95 team ERA, quite an accomplishment. But the Sox rank 28th in the majors in fielding, a stat that's fine when you're young and emerging but not when you're filled with veterans. The defensive chaos couldn't have anything to do with laid-back manager Terry Francona, could it? Nah, he was a great hire. Just ask Phillies fans about that.