It's been a rough week. Since the news broke that Ryan Braun would be suspended for the rest of the season, the nation's sportswriters have gone into overdrive complaining about the state of baseball and its players. At times like these, when every story seems to be filled with anger and outrage, sadness and sanctimony, pessimism and pain, I find it best to look beyond the news of the day for a silver lining. After all, if baseball's bad news can cause such a powerful negative response from so many people -- when other sports clearly do not earn the same reaction -- it must be because there is still so much great about the game. You're only hurt by the ones you love.
And it's true. Baseball history is filled with greatness. Whether it's a single performance like Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game, a career of dominance like that of St. Louis great Stan Musial, a legendary stretch of play like the Miracle Mets, or even an architectural jewel like Chicago's Wrigley Field, this sport is never lacking in superlatives.
But what are the best of the best? If a group of aliens from Cygnos 5 showed up tomorrow and demanded to learn about the best game on Earth, what examples would you use to teach them about our favorite sport?
In other words, what are the seven greatest wonders in baseball history?
Here's my first crack at the list. Tell me where I'm wrong.
Babe Ruth's Power
Babe Ruth was almost certainly not as strong as some of the sluggers we've seen in recent years. Athletes just weren't built like that a century ago. Even so, Ruth's power -- 60 home runs in 1927, 714 blasts in his career -- is legendary. He out-homered entire teams! For years, Ruth turned big-league parks into Little League fields. The game was changed forever the moment Ruth put on his jersey for the first time. If there is one piece of baseball history that will impress anyone, it's the power of the Babe.
The Green Monster
There have been many hallowed grounds throughout baseball history. Tiger Stadium. Wrigley Field. Forbes Field. Yankee Stadium. While they all have had their moments and their mystique, the one piece of architecture that has captured a place in the nation's consciousness more than any other is Boston's Fenway Park and, specifically, the Green Monster in left field. Wrigley has the ivy and the recently-retired Yankee Stadium had Monument Park, but neither have the aura associated with the 37-foot wall in Boston. It is quintessential baseball, and a thrill to see in real life.
Nolan Ryan's fastball
It's not the fastest pitch or the most accurate, but it is still the most dominant. Over his 27 years in the majors, Ryan used his fastball to strike out 5,714 batters (nearly 1,000 more than anybody else) and amass seven no-hitters. Sure, he also walked more than anybody else, but that just goes to show how great that fastball was. Even with all of his wildness, hitters couldn't help but hack away at the heat and whiff. And whiff. And whiff.
Many things made Barry Bonds great. His bat speed, his strength, his defense, his speed. These all combined to create perhaps the most feared player in history. But what made that all possible, what made those skills combine into a nearly-perfect ballplayer, was his eye at the plate. If the ball didn't cross the plate where he wanted it, he didn't swing ... and the umpire called it a ball! It was that patience that allowed Bonds to swing at only the best pitches he saw, helping to pave the way to 73 (and 762) home runs.
On the flipside of Bonds' eye at the plate is a pitcher's ability to put the ball exactly where he wants it, to control the plate with a three-inch ball while standing 60 feet away. No one was better than Greg Maddux. The bespectacled Brave painted the corners like a master, the batter frozen as the umpire called out STRIKE THREE. Where Ryan dominated with power, Maddux did it with finesse. Each was beautiful in its own way.
Sandy Koufax's curveball
Greatness among pitchers is measured in "units Koufax". "How high did he fly?" and "How long did he last?" are the first questions anyone asks when assessing a pitcher's career, with each answer compared in some way to the Dodger great. "He wasn't quite as good as Koufax at his peak, but he did it for three years longer" might be a typical answer. It takes something special to become the man everyone is measured up against. For Koufax, it was his curveball.
The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers ranked the pitch as the greatest curveball in baseball history, offering up this description of a typical Koufax at-bat from Roger Angell: "It is almost painful to watch, for Koufax, instead of merely overpowering hitters, as some fast-ball throwers do, appears to dismantle them, taking away first one and then another of their carefully developed offensive weapons and judgments, and leaving them only with the conviction that they are the victims of a total mismatch."
Jackie Robinson's determination
Jackie Robinson's play on the field was superb, of course. But it was Robinson's willingness and ability to endure the threats and abuse, his determination to prove to the world that he belonged in the big leagues no matter the challenges thrown his way, that truly inspired a nation. The mark Robinson left will be felt forever in baseball and on the world.
There are countless other examples of baseball's greatness. Willie Mays' grace in the field. Mickey Mantle's style. Roberto Clemente's throwing arm. Rickey Henderson's jump. Murderer's Row. The Bash Brothers. Ted Williams' square jaw. Ty Cobb's spikes. Pete Rose's bookie.
I could go on.
But if I were to pick the best of the best, if I were to showcase those things that make baseball better than any other sport to some culture who had never heard of it before, these would be my choices. My seven wonders of the baseball world. What would yours be?