WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It is always the big fun of any sport, especially baseball, when you try to decide who you think is the best of the best, whose best is better than everybody else's. It is not just part of the fun of being a fan, but
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It is always the big fun of any sport, especially baseball, when you try to decide who you think is the best of the best, whose best is better than everybody else's. It is not just part of the fun of being a fan, but an essential part of the conversation, one as old as the game: Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams? Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays? And it goes all the way to the conversation now about young talent as rich and deep as any in the game's history -- Michael Trout or Jose Altuve? Or Bryce Harper or All Rise Aaron Judge? Or Manny Machado or Giancarlo Stanton?
I look at it this way:
If you put all the best players on a field and were choosing up sides the way we all chose sides when we were kids, who would you choose first? In an imaginary draft like that, who would go No. 1 among the position players?
The simple answer right now would be to take Trout, who is young and strong and exciting and has so many good numbers across the board you think he might be able to do something about the deficit, too, and the GNP. And if you don't take Trout, then maybe you take Altuve, the reigning American League MVP Award winner, who has led baseball in hits over the past several years. And he has been so good and durable and gifted that, as another great small player, Joe Morgan, told me once, it is ridiculous to only talk about Altuve being a great small player any longer -- just someone who might be on his way to having one of the great careers in baseball history.
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Altuve, No. 27 of the Astros, is just 27. Trout doesn't turn 27 until August. Judge is 25. Harper is 25. Machado is 25. The young talent in the game right now is the envy of all the other major professional sports in this country.
So whom would you pick first?
There was a time, over 20 years ago, when the National Basketball Association was celebrating its 50th anniversary. And there were all kinds of anniversary lists, and anniversary teams, and panels and committees were assembled to assemble those all-time teams. But I decided to cut through that and call Red Auerbach, who had been around the day the league opened for business and was still around -- someone I considered to be not only the best coach in NBA history but the best executive, having built a championship three times in Boston, first around Bill Russell, then with Dave Cowens as his center and finally in the 1980s around Larry Bird.
So I called Auerbach and asked him: If we brought all the best players of the league's first half-century into the gym, who would he take first, Russell or Michael Jordan?
There was a pause at the end of the phone, and finally he said, "Jordan."
And I said, "Wait a minute. Russell won you 11 titles in 13 years, and that included a couple he won after you stopped coaching, and Bill Russell became the Celtics' player coach."
Auerbach laughed and said, "You gotta be realistic."
And then he explained what he meant, he wasn't looking at this as just coach, he was looking at it as a businessman, too.
"I gotta sell tickets, too," he said.
It is why, if you lined them all up right now, Trout and Altuve and Judge and Stanton, Harper and Machado; Kristopher Bryant and Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa and everybody else -- and as much as Altuve, the little big man at second for the Astros, is probably my favorite player of all time -- I just might take Judge.
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The big guy, one his former manager Joe Girardi called a defensive end, is still figuring it out as a hitter, and he had a sore left shoulder for a lot of last season. He still managed to hit 52 home runs around more than 200 strikeouts, in a sport where just about everybody would trade that many strikeouts for that many home runs; in the baseball world informed by the old golfer John Daly:
Grip it and rip it.
"I look at it this way," a Yankees fan I know, not unbiased on this subject, told me on Saturday when I told him the subject of this column. "Judge is the guy who made casual fans want to watch him hit."
Even in a season when Stanton -- now Judge's teammate at Yankee Stadium -- hit 59 home runs and chased 60 all the way until his last at-bat of the regular season, the one at-bat that people wanted to see was All Rise Judge.
I know this is about more than a guy who can hit big flies. I know that of all the players being discussed, maybe Machado, now moving to shortstop, will have more of a defensive influence on the game he is playing than anybody else.
"You can't evaluate [Machado]," Buck Showalter was saying to me the other day in Jupiter, Fla., "without evaluating what he did at third base for us, and what he's going to do at shortstop."
It is why Showalter, if you pinned him down, might take his own guy first, even ahead of Trout. Everybody understands that even playing as close to Los Angeles as he does, people just haven't seen Trout enough lately, because of how mediocre the Angels have been. Everybody knows he has only made the postseason once, played three postseason games, gotten one hit, a home run. This isn't basketball. You can't put Trout on a team and have him do for it what LeBron James has done on every team on which he's played.
Trout might be getting better. Altuve might be getting better. And Machado and Harper, and Bryant, too, and Anthony Rizzo and well, keep going down a list filled with kids reaching for the sky. But so might Judge, who is 25, and who already has a 50-home run season in the books, and happens to be a terrific outfielder, too.
I'm not saying he's a better all-around baseball player than some of the other guys in the conversation. I have no idea if he is built to last. I know Russell won more than Jordan. I'm not comparing Judge to Jordan, either. I'm just saying if you give me the first pick right now, I'm picking him. Not a Yankees thing. Not a New York thing. You gotta be realistic. Discuss.
Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.