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Legendary debate: Brady the Babe of football?

MLB.com @JPosnanski

The answer is probably Babe Ruth. It's amazing how many baseball questions lead back to Ruth. Back in the 1980s, when we used to play Trivial Pursuit, my mother would answer "Babe Ruth" to every baseball question she got. She got one out of every three or four right, I would guess.

But in this case, as fun as it would be to come up with someone else, yeah, the answer is probably Ruth. Wednesday, on "High Heat," Chris Russo asked this Super Bowl-related question: What baseball player could you fairly and honestly compare to Tom Brady? The question is fraught with a million problems, at least in part because Brady sparks such intense emotion -- "He's a cheater!" "No he isn't!" "He deflated footballs!" "That's the dumbest controversy ever!" -- but even more because you can't really compare a quarterback to any baseball player.

The answer is probably Babe Ruth. It's amazing how many baseball questions lead back to Ruth. Back in the 1980s, when we used to play Trivial Pursuit, my mother would answer "Babe Ruth" to every baseball question she got. She got one out of every three or four right, I would guess.

But in this case, as fun as it would be to come up with someone else, yeah, the answer is probably Ruth. Wednesday, on "High Heat," Chris Russo asked this Super Bowl-related question: What baseball player could you fairly and honestly compare to Tom Brady? The question is fraught with a million problems, at least in part because Brady sparks such intense emotion -- "He's a cheater!" "No he isn't!" "He deflated footballs!" "That's the dumbest controversy ever!" -- but even more because you can't really compare a quarterback to any baseball player.

A quarterback has so much more control over a game than any baseball player ever could. This is so obvious that it hardly needs explanation, but let's go over it anyway. The quarterback touches the ball on every offensive play. He communicates those plays to everyone. He changes the play if he has doubts. He decides where to throw the ball. There's no position on a baseball diamond even remotely like it.

The closest might be a starting pitcher -- Chris was trying to make the pitch that Madison Bumgarner, at least in the postseason, might be the closest thing to Brady -- but it's just fundamentally different leading a football offense and leading a baseball defense. You can't score a run pitching. But even if you can get past that mind-bending contrast, there's the major problem of playing time. A starting pitcher only starts every fifth day. Starting pitchers throw fewer and fewer innings all the time. Quarterbacks are there as long as they can stay conscious.

Even as amazing as MadBum has been in the World Series -- and he has been amazing -- he has thrown just one complete game in four Fall Classic starts.

But the idea here is to play along, so who else could you compare to Brady? The hot Twitter take was Derek Jeter, naturally, because Jeter is always the hot Twitter take. There is something to this. In Jeter's heyday, the Yankees won four World Series in five years and Jeter was fantastic all those years and fantastic in the postseason.

There's something funny and somewhat surprising about those Yankees teams that is very similar to Brady's Patriots teams: We remember them as overwhelming and dominant, and they were. But not individually. Jeter will almost certainly be the only position player on those great Yankees teams to go to the Hall of Fame (not counting end-of-their-career veteran pickups like Wade Boggs and Tim Raines).

The other day, MLB Network picked the 1998 Yankees as the greatest team of the expansion era over the 1975 Reds. Maybe yes, maybe no. Those Reds had two players who were arguably the best ever at their position (Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan), a third Hall of Famer (Tony Perez), a would-be Hall of Famer had he not wrecked his reputation by gambling (Pete Rose), a near Hall of Famer (Dave Concepcion) and a future National League MVP Award winner (George Foster). Those Yankees had Jeter, a couple of near Hall of Famers (Jorge Posada and Bernie Williams) and a bunch of guys, good guys -- Paul O'Neill guys, but not all-time greats. *

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You would believe then that the Yankees' pitching staff must have been amazing -- and they did have the great Mariano Rivera. But realistically, I'm not sure that Andy Pettitte, David Cone, David Wells, Hideki Irabu and Orlando Hernandez stand out as one of the great rotations in baseball history. That team is living proof that if you have many, many, many very good players, it's way better than having a handful of great ones.

So, yes, you could make a young Jeter-Brady comparison. Jeter didn't win an American League MVP Award, but he had significantly better seasons than the actual AL MVP Award winners in 1998 and '99. He won the World Series MVP in 2000 and was superb in the two Series before that.

The reason the comparison doesn't quite work, at least for me, is that Brady is probably the greatest quarterback in the NFL history -- my PosCast partner Mike Schur will scream at me for putting "probably" in that sentence -- and maybe the greatest player. Jeter is different. He's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, but he's probably not the greatest shortstop ever and definitely not the greatest player. I rated him the 57th best player ever; there were those who thought that was way too low; others thought it was way too high. In any case, it's a quantifiably different echelon from Brady.

There are other interesting comparisons -- nobody won more than Yogi Berra, and he was a three-time MVP Award winner like Brady (assuming that Brady's third is imminent), and he was a catcher, which does have some quarterback-like responsibilities. But Yogi wasn't the best player on the Yankees in his time; that was Mickey Mantle. Then if you argue for Mantle, you see that he wasn't always at his best in the World Series. The thing that separates Brady is that he has always been big in the biggest games.

Sandy Koufax is a possibility; the career was too short, but from 1963-66, he led the Dodgers to three World Series appearances and he was fantastic in them. But, alas, the career was too short.

Bob Gibson? Amazing in his three World Series. Dominant in the regular season. Again, though, Brady's success is so vast and spread out over so many years.

Whitey Ford? He did win 10 World Series games; that's the record. But he lost eight; that's also the record. He has the same problem as Yogi -- he wasn't really the best player on those teams.

The answer, if there is an answer, is Ruth. From 1921 -- when Ruth hit 59 home runs and and the other seven AL teams averaged 49 -- through '32, he led the New York Yankees to the World Series seven times. That's Brady-like. He was ridiculous in those World Series, hitting .341 and slugging .780 with 15 home runs in 39 games.

There were no MVP Awards then, not as we know them now, but I would guess that Ruth deserved to win the award in 1920, '21, '23, '24, '26, '27, '28, '29, '30 and '31. So that's 10 MVP Awards.

Postseason moments? Ruth had the famous called-shot home run against Chicago in 1932. He hit three homers in a game against St. Louis in '26 then had another three-homer game against St. Louis in '28. Ruth hit .625 in that '28 Series. In '23, when the Yankees had lost back-to-back World Series to the Giants and then lost Game 1, he took matters into his own hands, crushing two home runs in Game 2 to bring the Yanks back before hitting another homer in Game 6 to help them clinch.

Oh yeah, there's something else.

Remember that scene in "A League of Their Own" when Marla Hooch's father is throwing some batting practice in the gym and Marla is crushing the ball and all of a sudden he says, "OK, Marla, now lefty," and she switch-hits? Right. In the 1916 World Series, when he was still with Boston, Ruth pitched 14 innings of one-run ball to beat Brooklyn. In '18, he threw a shutout against the Cubs and then threw another complete game to win Game 4. Ruth was 3-0 with an 0.87 ERA as a pitcher in the World Series. Ruth set the record for consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series with 29 2/3.

Even Brady did not play cornerback for two Super Bowls and intercept three passes.

So, yes, this whole thing is just silly fun. But if you're going to try and find a baseball comp for Tom Brady, Babe Ruth is likely the best you can come up with. Of course, my mother would have known that right from the start.

Joe Posnanski is a columnist for MLB.com.