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With Willie Mays dead, is his godson, Barry Bonds, the greatest living baseball player?

Clockwise from top left: Barry Bonds, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Rickey Henderson
Clockwise from top left: Barry Bonds, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Rickey Henderson.
(Associated Press)
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Some of it might be attributed to the naturally elevated status given the recently deceased, but all week Willie Mays has been described as indisputably the greatest living baseball player. Let’s accept that to be true.

Who’s next? No one indisputable.

So let’s dispute.

Choosing the greatest living player now demands parameters. Barry Bondswho happens to be Mays’ godson — amassed the most exceptional batting statistics in the history of baseball and Roger Clemens did close to the same as a pitcher in the modern era. They have by far the most wins above replacement (WAR) of any living players.

Willie Mays, widely regarded as the finest player in Major League Baseball history, died Tuesday afternoon, the San Francisco Giants announced.

June 18, 2024

Yet both are forever stained by their alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. So is Alex Rodriguez, another astounding hitter, who ranks third in WAR among living players.

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Reds' Pete Rose rounds first base after hitting a single to break Ty Cobb's record for career hits
The Cincinnati Reds’ Pete Rose rounds first base after hitting a single to break Ty Cobb’s record for career hits in 1985.
(Associated Press)

Pete Rose is the all-time hit king, yet he’s been banned from baseball since 1989 because he bet on games as a player and manager. Betting presumably didn’t enhance his performance, but it raised questions about the integrity of the competition, questions that are cropping up again because sports betting is now legal in most states and has been embraced as a revenue stream by all major sports.

An “everyone was doing it” rationale can be applied to PEDs, and those who take that route can feel free to rank Bonds, Clemens and A-Rod at or near the top of their greatest living player list.

A quick dive on social media establishes that an equal number of fans refuse to consider the inflated numbers of proven steroid users. Position players jumping to the top of their lists include all-time stolen base and runs scored king Rickey Henderson, the inimitable outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., and slugging third baseman Mike Schmidt.

A 2016 video shows legendary Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully calling Giants great Willie Mays his favorite player, ‘even though you wore the wrong uniform.’

June 19, 2024

Fans with long memories mention Big Red Machine catcher Johnny Bench, Boston Red Sox legend Carl Yastrzemski and “the straw that stirred the drink” Reggie Jackson. Those wanting a more contemporary choice bring up Albert Pujols, Cal Ripken Jr. and Adrian Beltre.

Ken Griffey Jr. drops the bat after hitting the ball
Some fans consider Ken Griffey Jr. to be the greatest living ballplayer now that Willie Mays has died.
(John Froschauer / Associated Press)
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A list of the greatest living pitchers can start with two left-handers: the Dodgers’ three-time Cy Young Award and World Series winner Sandy Koufax and 6-foot-10 flamethrower Randy Johnson, who won four consecutive Cy Youngs and five overall.

Right-handers getting support include Nolan Ryan, who has by far the most strikeouts and walks of all time, and Greg Maddux, whose surgical precision was the polar opposite of Ryan’s intimidating velocity. The jovial Pedro Martinez has his avowed supporters, and Steve Carlton shouldn’t be overlooked just because he was surly.

Readers vote Sandy Koufax’s perfect game as the fourth-greatest moment in Dodger history.

April 21, 2021

Mays was the oldest living Hall of Fame player at 93 when he died. The honor now belongs to Luis Aparicio, a 5-foot-9, 160-pound shortstop who dazzled with his glove and led the American League in stolen bases in each of his first nine seasons.

Again, nothing is indisputable at this point. It’s great fun to revisit the illustrious careers of so many ballplayers, and ranking them is a personal choice that involves research, memory and flat-out fandom. Enjoy the process.

Greatest living player candidates

Sorted by Baseball Reference’s Wins Above Replacement and age

THE BLEMISHED
Barry Bonds, 162.8, 59
Roger Clemens, 139.2, 61
Alex Rodriguez, 117.6, 48
Pete Rose, 79.5, 83

THE PITCHERS
Greg Maddux, 106.6, 58
Randy Johnson, 101.1, 60
Steve Carlton, 90.2, 79
Pedro Martinez, 83.9, 52
Nolan Ryan, 81.3, 77
Sandy Koufax, 48.9, 88

POSITION PLAYERS
Rickey Henderson, 111.1, 65
Mike Schmidt, 106.9, 74
Albert Pujols, 101.4, 44
Carl Yastrzemski, 96.5, 84
Cal Ripken Jr., 95.9, 63
Adrian Beltre, 93.5, 45
George Brett, 88.6, 71
Ken Griffey Jr., 83.8, 54
Johnny Bench, 75.1, 76
Reggie Jackson, 74.0, 78
Derek Jeter, 71.3, 49
Ichiro Suzuki, 60.0, 50

ACTIVE PLAYERS
Mike Trout, 86.2, 32
Justin Verlander, 81.4, 41
Clayton Kershaw, 79.7, 36
Mookie Betts, 68.8, 31
Shohei Ohtani, 38.5, 29

OLDEST LIVING HALL OF FAMERS
Luis Aparicio, 90 years old
Sandy Koufax, 88
Bill Mazeroski, 87
Orlando Cepeda, 86
Juan Marichal, 86
Billy Williams, 86
Tony Oliva, 85
Jim Kaat, 85
Carl Yastrzemski, 84
Tony Perez, 82
Ferguson Jenkins, 81

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