At the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, homage was paid to a frail Ted Williams by a generation of power hitters, who otherwise were rendering archaic the elite hitting standards that had been defined by the Splendid Splinter and other Hall of Famers. Among those who crowded around Williams, seated in a golf cart on the infield grass at Fenway Park, were Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa--all of whom have since pushed Williams and his 521 homers further down the alltime list. � But in the plate tectonics of baseball, even as those sluggers surrounded an icon, the summer of '99 marked the beginning of a shift in the game that wouldn't fully register until the last few seasons.
Eleven days before that All-Star Game, on July 2, the Florida Marlins, then the worst team in baseball, gave a $1.8 million signing bonus to a powerful 16-year-old infielder from Maracay, Venezuela, who was being likened to a young Alex Rodriguez. At the time it was the most money ever paid to sign a ballplayer from that country. His name was Miguel Cabrera.
One month later the St. Louis Cardinals signed their 13th-round selection in the draft that June, a stalky, less-heralded 19-year-old Dominican infielder at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo., for $60,000. That represented a significant raise from the club's initial offer of $10,000. His name was Albert Pujols.
Cabrera and Pujols reported to Florida that summer to play in the same instructional league and struck up a friendship built largely on their ability to hit a baseball. Six years later they not only hit like nobody else of their generation but are also friendlier than ever. "We talk a lot," Cabrera says, "and people always ask me what we talk about. Hitting. That's the only thing we talk about. Hitting, hitting, hitting and hitting."
The seismic shift is obvious now as baseball moves into a new era and distances itself, however awkwardly, from a period that literally defies belief. The next time McGwire, Palmeiro and Sosa assembled would be on March 17, 2005, in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., to answer questions from Congress about steroids.
That hearing, combined with season-ending injuries this season to Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome and possibly Juan Gonzalez, signaled the end of the sluggers' hegemony. The game belongs to a new generation. Above all, it belongs to Cabrera and Pujols, two righthanded batters who hit for power and high average. They are the most dominant among SI's picks for the best 25-and-under player at each position, the players who will define the new era.
By performing at an elite level under a drug policy that mandates multiple random tests and suspension upon a first offense, these players could restore credibility where suspicion has raged for more than a decade. "I wish I could hit 70 home runs," says Pujols, who had a career-high 46 last year and 33 at week's end. "I just thank the Lord I don't need [steroids]. I'm a young star in this game. It will be interesting to see where I end up in 10, 15 years--as long as God lets me play."
At 22 Cabrera already has a portfolio of major league superlatives: youngest player to hit a walk-off homer in his first game; one of only eight players to have 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 100 runs in a season before his 22nd birthday (his buddy Pujols is another); the only player to hit home runs off Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens in the 2003 postseason (the last a World Series opposite-field dinger that came one pitch after Clemens had sailed a fastball past Cabrera's nearly hairless chin); and, with a .341 average through Sunday, a shot at becoming the National League's youngest batting champion since Hank Aaron, in 1956.
" Cabrera is like Vlad Guerrero," says San Diego Padres general manager Kevin Towers, invoking the free-swinging rightfielder of the Los Angeles Angels and last year's American League MVP. "When he's hot, forget it. You're just not going to get him out. He hits the ball so hard so often, and it doesn't matter what you throw him."
Says Marlins senior vice president Fred Ferreira, "There's a very small group of guys who you can tell are hitting by the sound of the ball hitting the bat. Vlad is one. Miguel is another. There could be 10 guys hitting in a cage, and if I turn my back to the cage I can tell by the sound when Cabrera is hitting. It's that loud. He's the kind of hitter who could hit 50 home runs and win a batting title."