So I’m standing at the Pearly Gates, the video of my life playing in the background, a team of celestial functionaries leafing through my file, smirking with ill-concealed amusement at my presumption in expecting a happy outcome as I face the final judgment.
“Ah. there’s not much to go on here,” the senior gatekeeper taps the folder. “No good deeds we missed in compiling this, eh?” I shake my head. “Well you certainly were alive for much of your time on Earth, but in terms of purposeful …” He shakes his head. “You must have done something with the years you were given?”
No need to drag this out any longer. I make it easy for him. “Sports. I watched a lot of sports.”
I’ve got no regrets, for the most part, but I probably don’t need to watch one more set of talking heads beating the same conversations to death. I certainly don’t need to hear a retired athlete celebrated as an authority because he’s got a ring, or three, or five. I don’t need to hear another argument in which an athlete’s legacy is determined by the number of appearances in championship games and the number of championship rings carried away.
The practice of distributing rings dates back to the 1927 Yankees, arguably the most dominant team in the history of baseball. A few years earlier, Yankees had been given pocket watches after a World Series victory, and in subsequent years players asked for more practical tokens of appreciation. Frankie “The Crow” Crosetti, the Yankees’ shortstop from 1932 to 1948 and Yankees’ third base coach until 1968, participated in 23 World Series and took away 17 World Championship rings. It’s no wonder that early on The Crow asked that he might be awarded a shotgun instead.
The greater objection to the fetishising of rings is that many of the most remarkable athletes of their era finished their career without winning a championship, and some of those athletes are in my personal pantheon. I’m not talking about the Charles Barkleys or Sergio Garcias, very good players whose place in the history of their game will be noted among others of equal ability, but the remarkable players – Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Dick Butkus, Ernie Banks, Dan Marino. Barry Sanders retired without a ring as did LaDainian Tomlinson. Some dynastic franchises had a few off years so that Elgin Baylor never won a title with the Lakers and Don Mattingly never with the Yankees.
Oh, and Eli Manning has two rings; Peyton has one. One of them is among the greatest modern quarterbacks; the other has two rings.
This peeve of mine emerges as Spring Training is about to begin again, and Mike Trout may end this season, and the next, and the next without claiming any hardware or jewelry. It isn’t easy for me to admit this after a lifetime of loyalty to Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, and relatively recent loyalty to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but Mike Trout is one of the three ball players I most admire, the other two being Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey, Jr.. What do these three have in common, besides baseball genius? Yup, no rings.
Baseball’s never been better, and there are some notable phenoms playing at a level never seen before. Altuve, and Stanton, and Votto, and Judge, and Ramirez, and Blackmon, and Gordon may end up at the top of the heap by the end of their careers. I love the long ball, the stolen base, the hit-and-run as much as the next person (which reminds me that Rod Carew never bagged a ring, and he’s about as slick a batsman as we’re likely to see), but I’m a particular fan of players who sew up a defense, players whose defensive skill changes the character of a team.
Some names arrive easily and immediately – Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Mike Schmidt, catchers Johnny Bench, Pudge Rodriguez, maybe first baseman Keith Hernandez. Among the less recognized outfielders as fielders, Bonds, Yastrzemski, Richie Ashburn, Al Kaline. Had he not become among the most fragile infielders, there is no doubt Troy Tulowitzki would be in the mix. Kevin Kiermaier’s gonna be a monster fielder, Billy Hamilton too.
My nomination for most undervalued fielder of the modern age is Jim (Jimmy Baseball) Edmonds, a pretty fair hitter as well. He ended up with a .284 batting average and 393 home runs, more than respectable. Any of us who saw him pull certain home runs out of the air, particularly those who remember him as a Cardinal taking away a shot hit by Jason LaRue of the Reds, think of him as the most exciting fielder of his time. LaRue hit a blast to center field, Edmunds turned, his back to the ball, raced to the warning track, climbed the center field wall and somehow stretched well beyond human stretching capacity to rob LaRue of a homer.
I’d take Jim Edmonds with his single ring (2006 Cards), Griffey, Ichiro, and Trout anytime. Meanwhile, we missed our shot with Frankie Crosetti, the most be-ringed if all time.
Here’s Edmonds as a rookie grabbing a Cal Ripken shor: