Baseball has held a long tradition as the nation’s favourite pastime. It was once the most popular sport in town and since 1845, it’s had it’s share of characters. Before there were talkies (movies with sound), there were home runs and stolen bases. Kids wanted to be Babe Ruth before they wanted to be John Wayne. Nowadays, kids have a plethora of role models to choose from, but what makes baseball unique is how close to “normal” the players are. Thousands of kids had Michael Jordan as their role model even though most would never grow to be 6’6 and dunk from the foul line, but baseball is different. What makes baseball so special is it’s so relatable and the game is so American. We identify as much with the colours red, white, and blue as we do with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” We’re going to look at eight players who have made the game, and us, proud. These are players who have graced the covers of magazines and rubbed elbows with presidents. Their presence and contributions to the game and life outside of it has left a lasting impact on all of us. We’ll also look at the other end of the spectrum with players who have disgraced the game. These are men who could have been (and some were) role models and icons who became cautionary tales and remind us that professional athletes are indeed mere mortals.
8. Proud: Lou Gehrig
Henry Louis Gehrig was quite the ballplayer and perhaps the epitome of what a New York Yankee should be like. Known as “The Iron Horse” due to his durability, he played 17 seasons and 2,130 consecutive games- a record that stood for 56 years before being eclipsed by Cal Ripken Jr. He was the first player in the 20th Century to homer four times in a game, and made the All-Star team for seven consecutive years. He even won the triple crown once and holds a .340 lifetime batting average. But what makes Gehrig so special isn’t his baseball accolades nor that he played for the New York Yankees. What made him such a blessing to baseball was how he treated the game. During a time when men worked hard and long while baseball players got paid nicely to play a kids game, Gehrig put on his hardhat and went to work everyday like everyone else. His streak of consecutive games was ended only after learning that he had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS. It was widely known afterwards as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS forced Gehrig to retire at the ripe old age of 36, and died two years later but not before delivering one of the most iconic retirement speeches ever. While facing the microphone to address the crowd at Yankee Stadium during his farewell speech, he delivered his famous “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” line. If he wasn’t a hero to many before that speech, he certainly was after it. In 1969, he was voted “The Greatest First-Baseman of All Time” by the Baseball Writers Association, and the Lou Gehrig Award is given annually to any player who best exhibits integrity and character.
8. Disgraced: Pete Rose
Charlie Hustle was on his way to Cooperstown. All he needed to do was stay out of trouble which is probably an easy thing to do for most of us. Pete Rose isn’t one of them. It’s not that he looked for trouble but perhaps that trouble always seemed to find him due to his ultra-competitive nature. Baseball’s All-Time hits leader at 4,256 bet on baseball while playing and serving as manager of the Reds. The act of betting while playing (and managing) is so unforgivable that despite being the all-time leader in hits, game played, at-bats, singles, and outs, he still isn’t in the Hall of Fame and may never get there in our lifetime. Professional sports has always frowned upon athletes placing bets knowing where that could lead to and how it can damage the integrity of the game. Unfortunately, Pete Rose may be the best player never to make it into the Hall.
7. Proud: Albert Pujols
Albert Pujols is one of the most feared power-hitters of our modern time. The Anaheim Angels first baseman is a two-time world champion and six-time Silver Slugger (best offensive player at his position). Those are just a few of his many accolades. But what makes Pujols stand out isn’t the monster contract he signed after leaving the Cardinals in 2011 (10 year-$210 million), but his character and approach to the game. His is a tireless worker who brings it every night. He is also a big giver of his time off the field as well. Pujols and his wife have been big supporters of people with Down’s Syndrome (his daughter has it). He was presented with a medal of honour during a non-political Glenn Beck rally and he and his family are highly religious. In 2005, he created the Pujols Family Foundation which promotes awareness of Down Syndrome and helps support families of those who struggle with it. The foundation also aids the poor in the Dominican Republic and seeks to support others with disabilities and life threatening illnesses. When seeking a role model or ambassador for baseball, you wouldn’t have to look much further than Albert Pujols.
7. Disgraced: Joe Jackson
Before there was the Rose baseball betting scandal, there was Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox batting debacle. Nicknamed “Shoeless Joe,” Joseph Jefferson Jackson played outfield for the Chicago White Sox who made it to the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds (ironically the same team Rose managed while betting and playing for). Jackson currently has the third-highest career batting average in major league history and hit .408 in 1911- still the sixth-highest single-season total since 1901 (the modern era). So revered as a player that the Bambino himself, Babe Ruth, modeled his batting stance after Jackson. But his legend and career were tarnished forever after it was learned that he and a few other players were paid $5,000 each to throw the series. News accounts blasted headlines of his involvement supposedly taken from his grand jury testimony leading to one of the most famous quotes of the time, “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” He was issued a lifetime ban which still stands to this day in light of evidence that Shoeless Joe Jackson might have been innocent all along.
6. Proud: Roberto Clemente
When Roberto Clemente’s plane went down, the entire baseball world mourned a true hero. Clemente died on December 31, 1972 after his plane crashed en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He didn’t just cut a check or donate money, he took time to do humanitarian work which is what made him such a baseball legend. On the field he led the Pittsburgh Pirates to two World Championships. He was a fifteen-time All-Star and National League MVP in 1966. He also joined the United States Marine Corps Reserves and was very hands-on when it came to helping out the poor and needy whenever they needed help. He and his wife often delivered baseball equipment and food to citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean. He died with three others while riding on a four-engine plane and their bodies were never recovered. The waiting period for the Baseball Hall of Fame was waived and he was posthumously inducted with 92% of the votes after his last season.
6. Disgraced: Ty Cobb
Nicknamed “The Georgia Peach,” Tyrus “Ty” Cobb was anything but a Southern gentleman. Known as a racist, sadistic, antisocial, and violent man both during and after his playing days, his legend remains somewhat of a mystery. It was Cobb himself who wrote, “I’m legend I am a sadistic, slashing, swashbuckling despot who waged war in the guise of sport.” He was known for sliding feet first with spikes raised up high for anyone caught standing in his way. He played hard and well, played harder. He didn’t have many friends and alienated others to a point that few had anything good to say about him because few even knew him. All of this came from a man who still holds the most batting titles (12), and highest career batting average (.367). He once set 90 MLB records during his career. In spite of his surly demeanor and aggressive play on the field, Cobb was inducted into the Hall-of-Fame in 1936 by receiving 222 out of 226 votes.
5. Proud: Jackie Robinson
What can one say about Jackie Robinson? Robinson transcended all sports and became a national icon. He was known by baseball and non-baseball fans alike by being the first to break the colour barrier in any sport but what makes him great is that he wasn’t just any ball-player, he was a damn good one at that and also a damn good human being. To endure what Robinson went through took a special type of person and he always carried himself with class. Baseball was lucky it was him who became the first African American to play professionally (Negro Leagues aside). Robinson played for ten years, and won the National League MVP in 1949. He also played in six World Series winning it all with the Dodgers in 1955. Then in 1997, Major League Baseball retired his number league wide. That meant that the number 42 was retired and unavailable to any player ever again. Only hockey’s Wayne Gretzky shares that honour. Now MLB has an annual tradition where every player on every team wears the number 42 on Jackie Robinson Day. Many say he contributed greatly to the Civil Rights Movement and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962.
5. Disgraced: Barry Bonds
Barry Lamar Bonds is easily one of baseball’s biggest embarrassments for two reasons. One is that he has baseball pedigree being the son of Bobby Bonds, a well-known and traveled player who was the first to have more than two 30/30 seasons (30 home runs and 30 stolen bases). The other reason is that Barry was a five-tool player coming out of Arizona State University. He had everything needed to become a Hall of Famer, a feat his dad had failed to accomplish. But his involvement with performance enhancing drugs tainted his name, and perhaps the sport, forever. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will ever hit 73 home runs in a season, and if and when they get anywhere even remotely close, you can be sure that speculations about drugs are sure to follow. Our innocence about what is possible has been tarnished by players such as Bonds who didn’t really need illegal performance enhancements.
4. Proud: Cal Ripken
“The Iron Horse” played for 21 seasons- all with the Baltimore Orioles (1981-2001). He was a nineteen-time All-Star, two-time American League MVP and two-time Golden Glove twice (best fielder). But what stands him out above the rest is how he played in 2,632 straight games while others nick their toes and are placed on the 15-day disabled list. Ripken also played part of his career during which performance enhancing drugs were the culture. He may always be known as the man who broke Lou Gehrig’s seemingly unbreakable record of consecutive games played by voluntarily ending his 17-year streak at 2,632 games in 1998. When he broke Gehrig’s streak, fans voted it as one of their most memorable moments. He’s done a bunch of charity work and continues to be an ambassador of the game having purchased three minor league teams. In 2007, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame with the fourth highest vote total of all time (98.53%).
4. Disgraced: Carlos Zambrano
Carlos Zambrano is an enormous man: 6’4 and 275 lbs who threw a little white baseball for a living. But he also threw a lot of fits during his playing days. His outburst were never small samplings of cursing under his breath as he stormed back to the dugout (though there were a few of those). His outburst were often taken out on gatorade coolers with a bat in hand. He was also known to have started fights with teammates, fans, and umpires. Nicknamed Big Z while pitching for the Cubs, he was a feared pitcher whenever he was on his “A-game.” At times when he wasn’t, you never knew what to expect from him. Zambrano was ironically also a terrific hitter- often called upon to pinch-hit which is rare for a pitcher. His 24 career home runs, .238 batting average and 71 RBIs indicates how Zambarano was anything but an easy out. It’s unfortunate that many of his outburst were in full view and often caught on camera.
3. Proud: Ichiro Suzuki
Ichiro Suzuki got his start in the Japanese Pacific League where he quickly drew attention with his command of the bat and timely hitting. Though he stood at just 5’11 and weighing 175 lbs, he was able to dominate the league enough to earn seven batting titles and three straight league MVPs. Then he came to the U.S. and that’s where things really began to heat up for Suzuki. Carrying the far Pacific’s weight on his rather small shoulders, he was able to succeed where many others had failed. He set a rookie record of 242 hits and became a perennial Golden Glover capped by a remarkable throw to nail a speeding Terrence Long of the Oakland A’s who was trying to go from first to third. The gun-down was effectively known as “The Throw.” His play further opened the door for future Japanese players and helped justify the financial investments GM’s made on import players.
3. Disgraced: Lenny Dykstra
Lenny Dykstra is perhaps the most baffling cases of a “rise and fall” athlete. A fan favorite as a part of the loveable Mets teams of the late ’80s who won the Championship in 1986, and nicknamed “Nails” for his hard-nosed personality and fearless play, Dykstra has become somewhat of a head-scratcher. We all missed the signs when even Keith Hernandez, Dykstra’s teammate on the Mets and a past cocaine user, wrote in his book Pure Baseball that Dykstra lived “on the wild and crazy side. ” Once he retired from baseball, that’s when all the craziness really began to happen. He’s been sued countless times, indicted for fraud, placed under house arrest, arrested for drug possession, and pleaded guilty to three counts of grand theft auto charges and one count of filing a false financial report. And that’s just a very brief summary. There have also been charges of sexual assault and harassment, racism, homophobia, indecent exposure, and money laundering. Dykstra rose fast to stardom and fell out of it even faster.
2. Proud: Mariano Rivera
Enter Sandman. Mariano Rivera might one day go down as one of the best Yankee pitchers ever to play for the team. He served as the Yankee’s closer for 17 years and was a thirteen time All-Star. Playing a pressure position for one of the most pressured to win organization makes Mo (as he’s been nicknamed), a well-respected player. But his accolades off the field deserve as much notoriety as his accomplishments on it. While playing, he became the 13th recipient of the Commissioner’s Historic Achievement Award given to those who have made a “major impact on the sport” of baseball. This award is so rare that it doesn’t even have a schedule as to when it will be awarded. It’s all at the Commissioner’s discretion when it will be presented. Now that’s what I call precious and rare. Rivera was given the award based on being such a great ambassador of the game.
2. Disgraced: Albert Belle
In spite of what former Major League outfielder Albert Belle was able to accomplish (five-time All-Star, 1985 American League home run leader), he will always be known for his downright boorish behaviour. His disdain of the media was well-known and his team, the Cleveland Indians, annually billed him $10,000 for damage done by Belle. He also became famous for having a corked bat and sending a teammate to break into the locked umpire’s room to retrieve and replace it with another player’s bat. Belle also once chased a bunch of kids who egged his home on Halloween- hitting one of the vandals with his car. Though feared as a hitter during his time, baseball writers are part of the media and they don’t forget. When first put on the Hall of Fame ballot, he garnered only 7% of the votes and 3.5% the following year. Its safe to say that Belle will never make it to Cooperstown.
1. Proud: Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter’s demeanor, play and leadership set the standard for all future baseball players. Having captained the winningest team in baseball while playing one of the most important positions, Jeter handled it all with aplomb. His accomplishments are without mention: 14 All-Star appearances, five-time World Champion and the 28th player to reach 3,000 hits. We all know what Jeter brought to the field, but he also transcended it where other professional athletes used him as their role-model. Just last year Patriots quarterback, Tom Brady – who plays where the Yankees are despised – Boston/New England, called Jeter his favourite athlete. “You see someone who plays the game the way you think it needs to be played, like Derek Jeter. I love the way he plays the game,” Brady said in a New York Daily News interview. Very few athletes can transcend their own sport the way Jeter did. This makes him the player baseball should be most proud of.
1. Alex Rodriguez
Alex Rodriguez is easily baseball’s biggest embarrassment. A young star in the making with the Seattle Mariners early in his career, he ended up costing the Texas Rangers $252 million which they never really got their return on. It also tied up payroll that could have gone into other much needed positions such as pitching. His deal at the time was the richest in baseball and now that he’s retiring, his contract totals are $410 million. His contracts were nearly worth half a billion dollars and rendered only one World Championship (2006). Though he is part of the 500 homer club and the 3,000 hits club, he might be judged harshly for his failure to produce more Championships for his employers, and also having been caught cheating by taking steroids and other performance enhancing drugs. A-Rod is the current poster-boy of justification for those looking for that payday while willing to take the risk of taking illicit drugs and getting caught. Though he may never enter the Hall and has only one bedazzled ring with W.S. Champion inscribed on it, he has the luxury of knowing that it would take him a very long time to run out of money. Alex Rodriguez will always be known as a player who cared more about himself than the game of baseball and this makes him the ultimate biggest embarrassment to the game.
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