In most sports, we judge a player’s career first and foremost by number of championships. In baseball, however, we tend not to. I say we start, with these four stars still looking for their first ring.
Baseball has always separated itself from the other three major sports in one way; while baseball, basketball, and hockey are all clearly team sports, baseball has always been more of an individual sport disguised as a team venture. In football, you almost always need to have one of the best quarterbacks to win, but you can only do so if he is surrounded by other pieces. In hockey, teams without the consensus top players win championships all the time. Even in the NBA, where you absolutely need a superstar to win, you still need to play as a team to win games; just ask LeBron James during his first Cleveland stint. Baseball, however, has always been a bit different, which has led to what I would consider an odd paradox.
We always talk about basketball, hockey, and football as ultimate team sports. You need to play as a team to score, and to prevent the other team from scoring. You need to be as deep and as balanced as possible; if you aren’t, even the best can’t win it all. Yet despite that need for a complete team, we often judge athletes in the other three sports – basketball and football, especially – by their championships. Whenever a player’s place in history is discussed, the first question is always championships. It’s why guys like Charles Barkley and Dan Marino, no matter how talented, will always have a “yeah, but…” attached to their resumes. It’s why Tom Brady will go down as better than Peyton Manning, without argument. Yet in baseball, by far the most individual of the four major sports, we often overlook this aspect of a player’s legacy.
This isn’t to say World Series wins aren’t important to a player’s overall legacy. They’re what make Derek Jeter an all-time great. They’re what make guys like Pedro Martinez immortal to a city. They’re just not the same focal point as they are in other sports, despite baseball being the easiest game to stand out in as an individual. In the other sports, we often talk about which players “need” to win a title to legitimize themselves. Players without a championship are looked down about, sometimes only slightly, sometimes in a way that jeopardizes their place in the pantheon of their game. Baseball doesn’t really do that…until now.
For whatever reason, we tend not to hold players accountable for their lack of World Series titles. Guys without a championship just don’t get the same outside pressure to win one as those in other sports. Well, I’m here to put guys back on the hook. The following four players have all had spectacular careers, and I expect all of them to be strong Hall of Fame contenders. However, they don’t have a World Series ring between them, and I’m done letting them get by like that. Here are four guys who, whether they truly are or not, should be under intense pressure to win it all in 2015:
Adrian Beltre – 3B – Texas Rangers
Regular-season Games Played: 2424 (2nd amongst active players)
Playoff Games Played: 22
World Series Appearances: 1
Beltre is second to only Alex Rodriguez amongst active players in games played (MLB.com considers Johnny Damon and Bobby Abreu “active,” while I do not). The likely Hall-of-Fame third-baseman is entering his fifth season in Texas and his 18th overall, yet has really only come close to a title once, in 2011 when the Rangers nearly beat the Cardinals (and many will argue they should have). The four-time All-Star and Gold Glove-winner has cemented himself as one of the game’s best third-baseman for better than a decade now, but will turn 36 the first week of the season, and is playing for a team that’s a lot further from a title than he was only a few seasons ago.
Beltre has already been extended through the end of next season, but I don’t see the Rangers winning a World Series in the next two years. After that, we’re talking about a 38-year-old infielder. Beltre’s window is closing, and I don’t think playing in Arlington the next two seasons is going to help his case.
Torii Hunter – OF – Minnesota Twins
Regular-season Games Played: 2233 (3rd amongst active players)
Playoff Games Played: 48
World Series Appearances: 0
With the retirements of Paul Konerko and Jason Giambi, Hunter places just behind Beltre in terms of career games played. He’s also never really come close to a World Series victory; he’s barely come close to an appearance. The five-time All-Star and nine-time Gold Glove-winner has had success at all three of his stops, but has never gotten over the hump. His Twins teams of the early-to-mid-2000s were perennial playoff teams, but made it past the Divisional round only once. Same story at his next stop with the Angels, where he made it as far as the ALCS in 2009. Hunter has spent the past three seasons in Detroit, where once again he made it as far as the ALCS, but will be most remembered for this:
…rather than any kind of serious success.
Hunter opted for a return to the city that made him famous, signing an offseason deal with the Twins. You’d have to figure he did so with the intention of retiring there, which means his chances to win a title are probably close to zero, as the Twins aren’t even close. Shame.
Ichiro Suzuki – OF – Miami Marlins
Regular-season Games Played: 2204 (4th amongst active players)
Playoff Games Played: 19
World Series Appearances: 0
Placing just behind Hunter on the active games-played list is Ichiro. It seems hard to believe the slender lefty has already been around for 14 Major League seasons, but that’s where we are. After spending the first eleven-plus seasons of his career in Seattle, where he appeared in only one postseason, Ichiro finally returned to the playoffs as a Yankee in 2012.
With only two postseason appearances under his belt, the ten-time All-Star and former-MVP has never really come close to a World Series berth, making two underwhelming Championship Series appearances in 2001 and 2012. A two-time batting champion with an outside shot at 3000 career hits this season, Ichiro is in a decent position to make a postseason push with the revamped Marlins, but expects to be a fourth outfielder at best at this point of his career. If his team does win a title, I don’t see him being a huge part of it. Still, it would be nice to see him finally get a shot at the biggest stage in the baseball.
Carlos Beltran – OF – New York Yankees
Regular-season Games Played: 2173 (5th amongst active players)
Playoff Games Played: 51
World Series Appearances: 1
Beltran is probably the most accomplished player on this list, at least as far as playoff baseball goes. Unfortunately, he is also probably the least lucky. His first great postseason chance came in 2004, when Beltran hit .435 with eight homers, but came up just short with the Astros, dropping Game Seven of the NLCS. After moving on to the Mets, Beltran was not only part of some bad end-of-season collapses, he was also on the wrong end once again of an NLCS Game Seven, when he struck out looking to end the game, in a GIF that isn’t included because I promised my Mets-fan father I’d stop using it.
The eight-time All-Star was a member of the 2011 Giants who, of course, won the World Series the year before he signed and the year after he left. Beltran moved to the Cardinals in 2012, who lost in the NLCS to his former team in San Francisco. He got his first World Series action the following year, only to hurt himself in the opening game and lose the series in six.
Now a member of the Yankees, I don’t see him appearing in a World Series this season, but at least he – unlike Hunter – is on a team with an outside shot at a playoff berth. One of the game’s best postseason players ever, it seems almost cruel how close Beltran has come while perpetually coming up short.
Of these four players, I suppose Ichiro has the best shot this season by default. While the others will mean more to their teams, I’d say the Rangers and certainly the Twins are dreaming if they’re looking at a 2015 postseason berth. Carlos Beltran and the Yankees have an outside shot in a down-AL East, but I don’t see them leapfrogging Boston, Baltimore, and Toronto. That leaves Ichiro’s Marlins, who are hardly a lock themselves. Chances are good that all four of these guys could make this list next season too. Lucky for them, they play baseball, where – for whatever reason – we just don’t care about that lack of a ring. Maybe we should.