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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Who now ranks as the greatest living Hall of Famer?

Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants hits his 756th all-time career home run during the fifth inning in a game against the Washington Nationals in San Francisco on Aug. 07, 2007 to pass Hank Aaron as Major League Baseball’s career home runs leader. Bonds’ connections to performance-enhancing drugs have kept him out of the Hall of Fame. (Peter DaSilva/The New York Times)

By Tyler Kepner

It’s a sad reminder of baseball’s runaway steroid era that none of the three greatest living players are members of the Hall of Fame. Willie Mays had been the undisputed holder of that mythical title until his death Tuesday at age 93. Now, it’s a lot more complicated.

Do you consider Barry Bonds, and his record seven MVP awards, to be the new GOLD standard? (That’s Greatest Of Living Dudes, and yes, I just made it up.) Or maybe it’s Roger Clemens and his record seven Cy Young Awards. Any support for Alex Rodríguez, the only player besides Mays with 3,000 hits, 600 homers and 300 stolen bases?

Maybe, maybe not. For many fans — and for enough Hall of Fame voters to keep them all out of Cooperstown — the thicket of steroids is simply too twisted to untangle.

So let’s make this exercise more straightforward: Who’s the greatest living Hall of Famer? It’s not an easy answer, either, but at least it’s a baseball argument, not a chemistry class or morality play.

The wins above replacement metric, while flawed, is at least useful as a baseline for the debate. Here are the 25 living players with 80 WAR, by Baseball Reference’s version of the metric. (Those who have not been elected to the Hall of Fame are indicated by *; those not yet eligible have a #.)

*Barry Bonds, 162.8; *Roger Clemens, 139.2; *Alex Rodríguez, 117.6; Rickey Henderson, 111.1; Mike Schmidt, 106.9; Greg Maddux, 106.6; #Albert Pujols, 101.4; Randy Johnson, 101.1; Carl Yastrzemski, 96.5; Cal Ripken Jr., 95.9; Bert Blyleven, 94.5; Adrián Beltré, 93.5; Wade Boggs, 91.4; Steve Carlton, 90.2; George Brett, 88.6; #Mike Trout, 86.2; Chipper Jones, 85.3; Fergie Jenkins, 84.2; Pedro Martínez, 83.9; Ken Griffey Jr., 83.8; Mike Mussina, 82.8; #Justin Verlander, 81.4; Nolan Ryan, 81.3; Rod Carew, 81.2; Tom Glavine, 80.7.

Missing from that list are two of the four winners of MLB’s 2015 Greatest Living Player balloting, when Mays and Hank Aaron were joined by Johnny Bench (75.1 WAR) and Sandy Koufax (48.9) in a pregame ceremony at the All-Star Game in Cincinnati.

Koufax had a brief peak and thus compiled fewer WAR than César Cedeño, Brian Giles and Larry Jackson, among hundreds of others. At 88, he’s the second-oldest living Hall of Fame player (behind Luis Aparicio, 90) and an inner-circle guy in Cooperstown.

You could make a fair case for Koufax or Bench, the extraordinary catcher of the fabled Big Red Machine. But the feeling here is that the best candidates are Rickey Henderson, Mike Schmidt, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson.

Maddux has the most victories of any living pitcher, with 355, but Johnson had about 1,500 more strikeouts in around 900 fewer innings. Maddux won four Cy Young Awards and Johnson won five. Both had losing records in the postseason despite generally pitching well, and both won one championship. Too close to call.

That brings us to Henderson and Schmidt. So let’s ask Ben Davis, who played with Henderson in San Diego and grew up near Philadelphia watching Schmidt, who spent his entire career with the Phillies.

“Mike Schmidt is the best third baseman of all-time, and Rickey Henderson revolutionized the leadoff spot,” said Davis, a former catcher and now a Phillies broadcaster. “What Rickey did on a baseball field, you talk about different ways to beat you — he obviously beat you with his legs, he had thunder in his bat with the leadoff homers, he played a decent left field. He has records that will never be broken.”

As teammates on the 2001 Padres, Davis saw Henderson set the career records for walks and runs scored (he homered and slid into home) while also collecting his 3,000th hit. Bonds has since passed Henderson for walks, but Henderson still leads in runs (2,295), leadoff homers (81) and stolen bases, with 1,406 — a total so absurd that you could swipe 50 a year for 28 years and still fall short.

But just as Davis seemed ready to talk his way into Henderson as the new greatest living Hall of Famer, he pivoted. Yes, Schmidt is a broadcast partner for some Sunday home games, but Schmidt also once predicted that Nolan Arenado would supplant him as history’s top third baseman; he’s humbler than your average living legend.

“I mean, they’re two different positions, but I’d probably go with Schmitty,” Davis said. “I think the MVPs set him apart and the Gold Gloves set him apart, to go along with the 548 home runs.”

Henderson won the American League MVP award in 1990, but Schmidt took National League honors three times: 1980, 1981 and 1986. Henderson captured one Gold Glove, while Schmidt won 10. Both won a postseason MVP award and led the league in walks four times.

It’s really a matter of what you value. Henderson did many things well and was a historical outlier in stolen bases with the longevity to amass more total bases than Schmidt. But Schmidt was no short-peak guy: He had a mind-bending prime of 14 consecutive superstar seasons (1974 through 1987) and refused to hang on when he stopped meeting his personal standards.

The difference, perhaps, was the defense, which made Schmidt a force whenever he appeared on the field. Then again, Ken Griffey Jr. also won 10 Gold Gloves and hit 82 more homers than Schmidt. Carl Yastrzemski won seven Gold Gloves and three batting titles, with 452 homers and more hits than every living Hall of Famer besides Derek Jeter.

Koufax is the only living Hall of Famer with multiple Cy Young Awards, no-hitters and championships. Steve Carlton was the first pitcher to win four Cy Young Awards and the last to work 300 innings. Nolan Ryan leads the world in strikeouts and no-hitters. Pedro Martínez is the only living pitcher with 3,000 strikeouts and an ERA under 3.00.

Bench won 10 Gold Gloves and two MVPs at baseball’s most demanding position. Eddie Murray is the only living Hall of Famer with 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Cal Ripken had 400 homers, 3,000 hits, two MVPs and the record for consecutive games. Wade Boggs is the only player to debut after 1941 with a .320 average and a .850 O.P.S.

On and on it goes. Maybe, in this post-Mays world, the easiest answer to the greatest-ever question is to remove the Hall of Fame qualifier. Like it or not, we all know who it is — even our Henderson/Schmidt expert.

“Barry Bonds is the greatest player of all time,” Davis said. “Hands down.”

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