Baseball has an odd, inexplicable problem. In a poll conducted by Luker on Trends and reported on by Jayson Stark of ESPN.com, not one current major-league player made the list of Americans’ 50 favorite pro athletes.
Oh, there were hints of baseball in there. Three great baseball players were actually on the list, though unfortunately one is retired, one dead and one disgraced. (Derek Jeter was No. 13, Babe Ruth No. 30 and Pete Rose No. 50). And if you count Bo Jackson and Tim Tebow as baseball players (we don’t, though Jackson was darned talented and Tebow is off to a nice start in Class-A – more on Tebow below in the notes) there were actually two more listed.
But in reality, baseball should be in a true golden age, with so many great stars who are in their mid 20s, or younger. So here is my own list of 50 athletes to be admired, revered and/or followed — all baseball players, and all deserving of being anyone’s favorite.
1. Mike Trout. Who else should top this list? The terrific and personable young man has been compared to Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, and that’s probably fair. The only difference is he isn’t playing in New York in baseball’s center field heyday, or for a winner.
2. Clayton Kershaw. He might be the best pitcher since Sandy Koufax, that other Dodgers left-hander, or if this goes on much longer, maybe Lefty Grove, which is a very long time ago.
3. Buster Posey. He’s been the star for a three-time World Series winner that never won in San Francisco with all-time greats Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, who all played together. Very Jeter-like start to his career.
4. Manny Machado. He may be the greatest defensive third baseman since another Oriole Brooks Robinson, or maybe ever. The plays he makes to his right (the line) are not to be believed. He plays shortstop, too. And can hit.
5. Kris Bryant. This clean living Las Vegan is almost too good to be true. He may not be a vegan (just a Las Vegan) but he’s one of the few adults resident of sin city never to have had a drink or placed a bet. Beyond that, he was the College Player of the Year, Minor League Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and N.L. MVP of the Cub’s historic World Series winning year in consecutive years (and should have been the No. 1 overall pick and a unanimous MVP, if not for one GM and one voter; and by the way, the GM who bypassed him made the bigger mistake).
6. Noah Syndergaard. He has the nickname (Thor), the social media game and the repertoire to win multiple Cy Youngs and the hearts of New Yorkers. And how about this stat: according to baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) he’s second to ex-Met Doc Gooden for starts with nine-plus K’s and zero walks before age 25 (10 to 9). Nice touch: stealing the Phillie Phanatic’s car this week.
7. Anthony Rizzo. He overcame cancer, redid his swing and led the Cubs to their first championship in 108 years. Another plus: winning personality, like so many on that team.
8. Madison Bumgarner. He is very likely the best-hitting pitcher and the most clutch player in baseball. The steely stare by itself is enough to retire many.
9. Nolan Arenado. He is the best defender in baseball according to many who play, and a threat to lead the majors in home runs and RBI every year (and he’s already done it).
10. Miguel Cabrera. Statistically, he is the equivalent of Hank Aaron at this stage of his career. Beyond being one of the greatest right-handed hitters in baseball history, he is also at the very top for team-first attitude and toughness. Nothing can keep him off the field.
11. Yoenis Cespedes. He has the style and attitude to have turned himself into a mega star in the Big Apple in almost no time. In terms of tools, there is no one better. (He’s the only player besides Trout who’s an 8 for power and speed, and the only one who’s an 8 for arm, too, so it’s not just the car collection that impresses.)
12. Bryce Harper. The incredible prodigy had a blip of a 2016 season but appears to be making a monster comeback at age 24.
13. Mookie Betts. He has the name, talent and reserved personality that says winner.
14. Paul Goldschmidt. The man they call Goldy has a Clark Kent demeanor, but he can play Superman on the field, with an unususal power/speed combo.
15. Jose Altuve. The little man stands tall. No one can match him for hits over the last half decade, not even close.
16. Corey Seager. His brother Kyle, a star in his own right, named his fantasy team “Corey Seager’s brother.” Enough said.
17. Francisco Lindor. He’s the best fielding shortstop this side of Andrelton Simmons as well as hitting star for a great Indians team. Bonus: He has an amazing personality, too.
18. Giancarlo Stanton. With his power, he has the ability to shoot up this list. He is something to behold. No one hits the ball harder. If not for the injuries, he’d be a perennial superstar.
19. Robinson Cano. He does things easy, but what a magnificent talent, quietly proving doubters wrong. He’s even shown himself to be an great leader, for Team Dominican and the Mariners.
20. Chris Sale. That funky delivery makes him maybe the second best lefty in the game. He can be a little quirky, too, but there’s no question he’s a winner.
21. Carlos Correa. After a slightly disappointing 2016, he has the potential to shoot up this list. One of the great ones in this new Age of the Shortstop.
22. Kyle Schwarber. They guy can get out of bed and hit a ton. Or miss practically an entire season, and do the same. This era’s Babe?
23. Josh Donaldson. The former MVP is quirky and quite a competitor.
T24. Yadier Molina. The Cardinals showed how much they much appreciate him by awarding him $60 million for his seasons from age 35 to 37. One of the greatest defensive catchers of all time, no doubt about that.
T24. Sal Perez. He’s another Yadi, with leadership and an arm. Only differences are he’s taller and more outgoing.
25. Joey Votto. The stat guys love him, and there’s something to what they say. No one has the ability to get on base like this guy. The perfect player for this age.
26. Jose Bautista. Every sport needs a villain, and this guy plays the role well. The Orioles wouldn’t consider him because their fans hate him. And for a long time, we though Bautista’s own bosses didn’t love him, either – until they realized they need him back, anyway.
27. Adam Jones. He played Captain America, winning Team USA’s first EWBC crown with his brilliant over-the-wall catch
28. Javier Baez. He does amazing things in the field, things that have never been done before. This truly may be the age of the Cubs. He even has Javier Baez Way, just a throw and a tag play from Wrigley.
29. Justin Verlander. He has the A-list fiancée, a car collection to rival Cespedes’ and the winning attitude you’d look for . He also has his repertoire back together. Bonus points for not wqhining about the Cy Young injustice last year.
30. Max Scherzer. Repertoire and competitiveness have made him a two-time Cy Young winner.
31. Carlos Martinez. The 100-mph thrower looks like the next pitching superstar.
32. Zach Britton. He turned in the greatest season ever for a reliever, on one pitch.
33. Aroldis Chapman. The 105-mph thrower’s appearances are an event. He obviously doesn’t have the perfect off-the-field record, so it’s understandable if some wouldn’t include him.
34. Addison Russell. Incredible talent almost gets lost among a team that’s like the Beatles.
35. Gary Sanchez. Arm and power should make him a superstar in the Bronx for years to come.
36. George Springer. Intelligent youngster brings power to the lead-off spot (more on that in the notes below).
37. Andrew McCutchen. We still think 2016 was a blip.
38. Jon Lester. Steely resolve overcomes an inability to throw to any base but home.
39.Dustin Pedroia. The little guy is still doing it in Boston. Hall of Famer?
40. Jacob deGrom. He’s back throwing in the high 90s. A plus: great hair.
41. Zack Greinke. Quirky, thoughtful and baseball’s highest-paid player.
42. Justin Turner. The everyman has transformed from utility man to star.
43. Brandon Crawford. Incredible shortstop has been a key to multiple championships.
44. Christian Yelich. The No. 3 hitter for Team USA is on the cusp of superstardom.
45. Edwin Encarnacion. Beloved slugger brings new dimension to great Indians team.
46. Adrian Beltre. Future Hall of Famer is the quintessential leader.
47. Eric Hosmer. Great leader, and he does whatever it takes to win. Throw out those defensive metrics.
48. Kyle Hendricks. Intellectual star of the Cubs rotation.
49. Masahiro Tanaka. International star has pitched just as effectively since a tear in his UCL was discovered.
50. Matt Szczur. Someone for all to admire. If you don’t know the story, he donated bone marrow to a Ukrainian baby girl he didn’t know that was dying of leukemia. She survived, and is well. He risked a career, as was documented on E:60, an ESPN production. Greatest sacrifice in baseball history.
Close/coming/On the bubble: Trea Turner, Kenley Jansen, Alex Bregman, Ryan Braun, DJ LeMahieu, Charlie Blackmon, A.J. Pollock, Starling Marte, Jake Arrieta, Andrew Miller, Freddie Freeman.