PLAYER OF THE DECADE:Albert Pujols, CardinalsLook at these numbers: .314 batting average, 40 doubles, 34 homers, 127 RBIs, 118 runs. Those numbers make up Pujols' worst season this decade. Pujols' story is already legend. He was a 13th-round pick of the Cardinals in 1999 ... meaning he was even passed over 17 times by his hometown Kansas City Royals. Eighteen months later, he began one of the great rookie seasons in baseball history (.329, 37 homers, 130 RBIs, 129 runs). He has found something to improve every season -- he cut down his strikeouts, he honed his home run swing, he improved his defense, he worked on his baserunning. In 2009 Pujols stole 16 bases, walked 115 times and hit 47 homers -- all career highs. It seems impossible, but he's getting better.
BEST MANAGER: Joe Torre, Yankees and DodgersHe is the only manager to take his team to the playoffs every year this decade, and he did it with two different teams. After all his success in New York, he led the Dodgers to consecutive division titles. The Dodgers had won the division only once before in the decade. Torre's strengths seem to be his ability to balance egos and keep distractions out of the clubhouse. He did lose some of his postseason magic, though, ending up on the losing side of the great 2001 World Series, the 2003 World Series and the remarkable 2004 ALCS.
BEST GM: Theo Epstein, Red SoxIt was a decade in which the White Sox won their first World Series since 1917, the Angels won their first World Series and the Rays reached the World Series the year after finishing with the worst record in baseball. But the decade's big moment was the Red Sox -- after 80-plus years of angst and drama -- finally winning the World Series and then, just three years later, winning it again. Epstein was at the heart of things, blending various talents (including author Bill James and former Royals GM and scout Allard Baird), making bold moves when they felt right and hiring Terry Francona as manager.
Click here for Joe Posnanski's complete All-Decade team
BEST FRANCHISE: YankeesIt doesn't hurt to spend $50 or $60 million more than any other team, but this is the way the game is structured and the Yankees use their market, popularity and history better than any team in sports. They reached the playoffs nine out of 10 years, won four pennants and two World Series and got a $1.5 billion stadium built. It's one of the best decades in Yankees history, and that's saying something.
WORST FRANCHISE: RoyalsThe Pirates had a losing record every year, which made them a strong candidate, but no team in baseball lost as much as the Royals. This actually looked like a promising decade for Kansas City baseball. The 2000 Royals had Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon,Jermaine Dye and Mike Sweeney, four of the brightest young stars in the game. But three were traded away, Sweeney got hurt and the Royals fell into a deep sleep. The lowlight was a 19-game losing streak in 2005, and the lowlight of that was when they blew a five-run lead in the ninth when left fielder Chip Ambres dropped a fly ball.
BEST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 2009 YankeesThis shocked me: The 2009 Yankees were the only team in the decade to win 100 regular-season games and the World Series. In fact, the last three teams to win 100 and the World Series are: 1. the 2009 Yankees; 2. the 1998 Yankees; and 3. the 1986 Mets. So you have to go back 25 years to find a team outside of New York that won 100 and a World Series -- that would be the 1984 Tigers.
WORST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 2003 TigersThose Tigers, who scored the fewest runs in the league and allowed the second most, won five of their last six games to finish with 119 losses, one fewer than the famed expansion Mets. Here's a stat I love: The Tigers' top four starters were 6-17, 9-21, 6-19 and 1-12, respectively. And Franklyn German led the team in saves... with five.
BEST REGULAR-SEASON GAME: Twins-Tigers, Oct. 6, 2009The beautiful thing about baseball is a great game doesn't necessarily have to be a well-played game. The Twins-Tigers tiebreaker to decide the AL Central had blunders, errors, pickoffs and all sorts of confusion. But it was loaded with drama. The Tigers had a lead going into the bottom of the 10th inning. The Twins tied it up and had a chance to win, but Alexi Casilla was thrown out at the plate by Ryan Raburn. The Tigers had the bases loaded in the 12th but could not score. The Twins scored in the bottom of the 12th to win 6-5. Sometimes sloppy, sometimes brilliant, always exciting -- that's baseball at its best.
BEST POSTSEASON GAME: Yankees-Diamondbacks, Game 7, 2001 World SeriesThis was a decade filled with memorable postseason games. There was Game 6 of the 2002 World Series when the Angels came back from a five-run deficit in the seventh and eighth innings, the big blow being Scott Spiezio's three-run homer. There was Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS when the Red Sox (down three games to none) scored the tying run in the ninth against Mariano Rivera and won in the 12th on David Ortiz's home run. There were Games 4 and 5 of this very 2001 World Series when the Yankees came back from two-run deficits in the ninth on back-to-back days against Byung-Hyun Kim. But Game 7 of that Series has it all. It has Derek Jeter winking at Curt Schilling to start off the game. It has Schilling and his hero Roger Clemens each pitching six shutout innings. It has the Diamondbacks taking the lead, the Yankees tying and then taking a lead of their own on Alfonso Soriano's home run. And finally, it has the Diamondbacks coming back against the seemingly invincible Rivera in the bottom of the ninth. This isn't just the best game of the decade; it's one of the best games ever played.
Click here for Cliff Corcoran's top 10 games of the decade
BIGGEST TRADE: Hanley Ramirez to Florida; Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell to Boston; Nov. 24, 2005Beckett was a huge part of Boston's World Series title in 2007, when he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting. And Lowell (considered a salary dump by many) had a tremendous year in 2007, too, hitting .324 with 120 RBIs. Meanwhile, Ramirez in just four seasons has had two 50-stolen base years, led the league in runs and won a batting title. He's one of the best players in baseball.
BEST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: David Ortiz, Red Sox; Jan. 22, 2003There wasn't much fanfare about Ortiz before the 2003 season. The Twins had released him, and Ortiz was signed for about $1 million plus incentives. It turned out to be the best deal of the decade. Ortiz had five terrific years (.302/.402/.612 with 208 home runs), and his clutch hits played a big part in Boston winning two World Series.
WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants; Dec. 28, 2006It wasn't just the price -- seven years, $126 million -- but also the timing. By the time the Giants signed Zito to the richest pitching contract ever, Zito's career was clearly on the downswing. Scouts talked openly about how his stuff was declining, and anyway it had been three years since he had pitched like a No. 1 starter. The Giants signed him and, predictably, Zito's performance has been a huge disappointment. He is 31-43 with a 4.56 ERA since arriving in San Francisco. The real problem, though, is not what he's done... it's what is ahead. Zito turns 32 in May, and he has four years and $76 million left on his deal.
BIGGEST DRAFT STEAL: Ryan Howard, fifth-round pick by Phillies in 2001Other great picks include Brandon Webb (8th round), Kevin Youkilis (8th), Dan Uggla (11th), Jason Kubel (12th), Jason Bartlett (13th), James Shields (16th), Russell Martin (17th), Ian Kinsler (17th) and Jason Bay (22nd). But Howard changed the entire landscape of Philadelphia baseball when he was drafted out of Southwest Missouri State (now Missouri State). His rookie year -- when he hit 22 homers in 88 games -- he met the great Negro leagues player and manager Buck O'Neil. "I heard you have some power, son," Buck said. Howard nodded shyly, and Buck said: "Don't be ashamed of your power, son!" The next year, Howard hit 58 home runs.
BIGGEST DRAFT BUST:Matt Bush, No. 1 overall pick by Padres in 2004Justin Verlander was the second overall pick in the 2004 draft. Others to go in the first round: Jeff Niemann, Jered Weaver, Billy Butler, Stephen Drew and Huston Street -- and a little shortstop in the second round named Dustin Pedroia. When the Padres took Bush, a local shortstop with lesser demands, it was mocked immediately by the entire country. Then again, the Twins did more or less the same thing in 2001 when they took a local star, Joe Mauer. The Padres' pick did not work quite as well. Bush was suspended for getting into a fight before he ever stepped on the field. And his career has never really gotten better from there.
Click here for Jon Heyman's views on the decade in trades, free agency and the draft
CINDERELLA: 2008 RaysThe feeling around baseball is that the AL East, like Casablanca, is a place that has outlawed miracles. Teams might be able to get lucky in the AL Central or the NL West or something -- but the East, with the Yankees and the Red Sox spending money in their own cold war, precludes any other team from contending. Then in 2008, the Rays of all teams -- a club that was the worst in baseball one year earlier -- came out of the East and won 97 games and went to the World Series with a combination of speed, power, solid pitching and a powerful home-field advantage.
SIGNATURE PLAY: Albert Pujols' homer off Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCSThis was a decade filled with signature plays -- Jeter's flip to get Jeremy Giambi at the plate, Jeter's home run after midnight in the 2001 World Series, A.J. Pierzynski's run to first, Ortiz's homer to win Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS, Curt Schilling's bloody sock performance. But the singular moment happened when the singular player of the decade, Pujols, faced one of the great relievers of the decade, Lidge, with two outs in the ninth in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. There were two men on, the Cardinals trailed the Astros by two, and Pujols hit one of the longest home runs in postseason history. That home run was so massive; it was one of those moments that made people all across America jump out of their recliners. And dead silence fell over the Houston ballpark. In the end, the Astros won the series. Lidge's career crumbled for a time, and then he re-emerged. And Pujols was the player of the decade. It was all there.
BIGGEST CONTROVERSY: SteroidsWell, of course. The consequences of the Steroid Era are still being felt, mostly in Hall of Fame voting and with the periodic stories that come out and name names. The crescendo of the steroid mess came not during the congressional hearings (when Rafael Palmeiro waggled his finger and announced he did not use steroids or when Mark McGwire refused to talk about the past) but during the Barry Bonds home run chase, when baseball sheepishly tried to celebrate Bonds passing the classy Hank Aaron for the all-time record. Commissioner Bud Selig, a good friend of Aaron's, looked mortified the entire time. But recently, when McGwire joined the Cardinals as batting coach, Selig announced that it was great to have him back in the game. Just goes to show you that nobody really knows what to make of the time.
MOST OUTSTANDING SINGLE-GAME PERFORMANCE: Randy Johnson's perfect game against the Braves on May 18, 2004You could argue that Shawn Green's 6-for-6, four-homer performance for the Dodgers against Milwaukee in 2002 is as good as anyone can be. Alex Rodriguez and Garret Anderson each had 10-RBI games. And there's Schilling's one-hit, 17-strikeout game against Milwaukee in 2002 and Mark Buehrle's perfect game against the Rays in 2009. But Johnson's perfect game against a good-hitting Atlanta team is the best of the decade. He struck out 14, including future Hall of Fame Chipper Jones three times. He threw 117 pitches -- 87 for strikes.
Click here for a gallery of memorable performances in the decade
BIGGEST VILLAIN: Barry BondsWho else? In the decade, Bonds became baseball's single-season home run leader and baseball's career home run leader. And he somehow did this while making almost no one like him. The steroid allegations that constantly swirled around him were part of the story, but the truth is that people generally did not like Bonds for a long time. It's a shame because Bonds really was a singular player who could be extremely charming when the mood struck him. Which, obviously, was not often enough.
BEST TEAM RIVALRY: Yankees vs. Red SoxSure, it has been overplayed -- and it has been relived in countless books. But that doesn't make the rivalry any less real. New York and Boston are natural rivals as cities, the Yankees and Red Sox have a long and entertaining history, and they are also two of the biggest spenders in the game. And this was the best decade in the history of the rivalry -- the victories went back and forth throughout. The Red Sox came back from 3-0 down. But the Yankees won the famous Pedro Martinez game. But the Red Sox were one of the few teams that had some success against Rivera. But the Yankees got A-Rod. And so on.
BEST INDIVIDUAL RIVALRY: Moneyball vs. TraditionMoneyball -- despite what many may think -- is not really about on-base percentage or not giving away an out with a sacrifice bunt. It is about a new way of looking at baseball and trying to find market inefficiencies. And this rivalry of old vs. new was the overriding theme of the decade. Some teams and fans embraced whatever new theories and information was out there; others clung to tradition and long-held beliefs about what makes a baseball team win. Both sides had their victories, though it does seem that on-base percentage, at least, has moved its way into the mainstream.
OUTSIZED PERSONALITY: Manny RamirezYou can knock the guy as much as you want, but MannyBManny has still never played on a losing baseball team. He hit .317/.419/.599 for the decade, slugged 348 home runs, was suspended for using an illegal substance, was caught on many occasions loafing in the outfield and he demanded to be traded or treated with respect often. But inside the batter's box, Manny is pure genius. He's one of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history.
PYRRHIC VICTORY: The Marlins' 2003 World Series title.Sneak into playoffs, win a World Series, trade off players, slowly build up your team while few in South Florida watch, sneak into playoffs, win a World Series, trade off players ... wash, rinse, repeat.
BEST NEW STADIUM: PNC Park, PittsburghThe Pirates have not finished on the good side of .500 since 1992, when they still had Bonds. But PNC Park on the north shore of the Allegheny River is a gem of a park with a great view of the field, and of downtown, all lit up by old-fashioned light fixtures that are built to look like old Forbes Field.
BEST INNOVATION: PitchFXThese days, you can go to MLB.com and know everything you want to know about every pitch -- the speed, the break, the type of pitch and so on. This does make it tough on radio and television announcers, who have been getting by for years with vague pronouncements like "an off-speed pitch," or "that's a breaking pitch" or "he pulled the string on that one."
WORST INNOVATION: Not showing close calls on stadium video boardBaseball obviously does not want to show up its umpires, but you simply cannot get away with making sure that the only people who do not know what happened on a play are the ones who paid good money to get into the park.
BEST COACH: Dave Duncan, Cardinals pitching coachNo coach is better at coaxing talent out of young and old pitchers. He's the only pitching coach in baseball who did not pitch -- which makes you wonder if baseball executives should think more out of the box. Greg Maddux, for instance, would make an excellent hitting coach.
BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Red Sox not acquiring A-RodThe Red Sox had a great decade -- their best since Babe Ruth pitched and Harry Hooper played in the outfield -- but how much better would it have been had they completed the trade for Alex Rodriguez? The trade was done... and then vetoed by the players' union. Since then, the Red Sox have had five different Opening Day shortstops.
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