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

Steve Henson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Baseball

LOS ANGELES — 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. (And let's not dispute the use of dispute as an imperative verb. It's indisputable.)

Choosing the greatest living player now demands parameters. Barry Bonds — who 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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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