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Baseball's Best Building Block
The argument has been fought in ballparks, barbershops and bars since the days of the Babe. If you were starting a baseball team, who's the first player you would take? We posed the question to baseball's general managers and got an astonishingly consistent response. We heard from 11 American League teams and 11 National League teams but got 26 votes because four general managers couldn't pick just one player. The runaway winner was Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, who was named on nine ballots. He was followed by Mariners centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., who got five votes, and Pirate outfielder Barry Bonds and Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett, who both got two.
Larkin, 27, did especially well with the people who see him play the most. He was the selection of seven National League general managers. Said one, "There are two or three positions that you think of primarily: shortstop, catcher and maybe centerfield. Having said that, and considering youth and performance, it's Larkin. And he just keeps getting better." At week's end Larkin was batting .300 with 17 homers, 51 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.
Said another National League voter, "Larkin is a great fielder, a great hitter and has speed. I don't think you could go wrong with him. So much happens in the middle of the diamond, shortstop is a good place to start. It would be difficult to select a pitcher because he only goes every four or five days."
Said one American League general manager about Griffey, "He can run and throw, hit, and hit for power, and he's also still young. And the fact that he gets voted onto the All-Star team from Seattle is astounding."
But Griffey, 21, has his detractors. One American League manager marveled at his ability, but said, "I hate him. If he did some of the things he does 20 years ago, he would have been hit in the head five times by now." The manager added that Griffey is too much of a hot dog and doesn't always run hard on routine groundouts. A columnist for the Seattle Times alluded to those charges in a piece he wrote during the All-Star break and challenged Griffey to be the best player he can be. Since then Griffey has been a terror, hitting .413 with four homers and 24 RBIs to raise his season totals to .309, 13 and 60.
Among those who got one vote were the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez, 21, whose supporter said, "He looks like he's made the adjustments in his first year and will only get better. He's hitting the breaking ball the second time around. He has power, he'll start stealing bases, and his defense will only get better. He'll be like [teammate Ruben] Sierra, only better."
Texas catcher Ivan (Pudge) Rodriguez, who has been in the major leagues for only six weeks, also got one vote, from an American League general manager, who said, "You need strength up the middle, and good catchers are more difficult to find than any other position. And he's only 19."
The same logic applied to Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., 25, who was picked by a National Leaguer, who said, "If you're building a franchise, what better place to start than with the best all-around young catcher in the game? He has a reputation as being a leader. He has power potential, and he can shut down the running game."
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