Before tonight’s game at Safeco Field, Torii Hunter and I were talking about Ken Griffey Jr., his greatness and unique style.
“When I was a young guy, I used to watch everything he did,” Hunter said. “I loved his swing so much I even tried to copy it — left-handed. He’s got to be one of the greatest players ever, and one of the most exciting.”
I started watching the game before Torii was born. I told him I had Junior in my all-time top five for pure entertainment value.
Here they go:
1. Willie Mays
2. Roberto Clemente
3. Mickey Mantle
4. Nolan Ryan
5. Ken Griffey Jr.
Four outfielders and the fastest gun in history.
It’s hard to leave out Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills, Fernando Valenzuela, Ozzie Smith, Rickey Henderson, Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis . . . and on and on. But those are my fab five.
Junior had it all, and he loved every minute he was on the field. A player for the ages, and the best of his time. Barry Bonds might have been a better hitter, but he wasn’t the total player Griffey was in their primes. — Lyle Spencer
Before moving on to the Winter Meetings and long days filled with hot air inside the Indiana Convention Center, I’d like to offer a few words with respect to Chone Figgins, who is about to enrich the Seattle Mariners in so many ways.
First and foremost, I’ll miss our daily conversations about the game, especially in a historical context. Chone wanted to hear everything I had to offer about players from earlier eras, such as the acrobatic idol of his youth, Ozzie Smith. As someone who loves an attentive audience, I was always deeply appreciative of Figgins’ company.
Figgins is baseball’s version of a gym rat. Nobody works harder at improving himself. I actually would get on him now and then for pushing himself too hard, for taking too much batting practice. He’d grin and say, “That’s who I am. I love this.”
He keeps finding new ways to get better, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to add subtle new elements to his brilliant game. Watching Figgy and Ichiro together should be a real treat for those who love the inner game. Mariners fans should be pumped; there will not be a more exciting tandem in the game.
Figgins never can absorb enough information about the game. When he’s not working on improving himself, he’s watching the MLB Network or talking about the game with teammates, friends and family members. His mother knows what she’s talking about, and it shows in the bloodlines. Chone’s brother, Demetrius, has served as a respected scout for the Angels.
When Garret Anderson departed via free agency after the 2008 season on the heels of the departure of the third member of their inner circle, Casey Kotchman, I figured Figgins would be in the dumps. I was surprised to see how upbeat he was from the moment he arrived at camp in Arizona last spring. Before long, he’d developed a bond with Bobby Abreu, and the two clicked as if they’d been teammates for years.
This did nothing to diminish Figgins’ appreciation for Anderson, who’d meant so much to him. Chone still talked about GA all the time. But he didn’t let it cloud his impressions of the man who’d essentially arrived to replace his good buddy. Abreu had a reservoir of wisdom and knowledge, and Figgy soaked it in, raising his on-base percentage from a career .356 to .395 with a career year at 31. Through it all, Figgins praised Abreu for his daily influence.
How good a teammate is Figgins? He’d have agreed without complaint to move to the outfield if he’d been asked to do so to accommodate Brandon Wood at third — even though he’d made himself into a Gold Glove-level third baseman.
Wood — Woody in the clubhouse — now gets his shot, finally, to deliver on all that promise. He’ll tackle the challenge with relish – while remembering Figgins fondly.
“Sure, I want to play every day,” Wood said late in the season. “But look who’s ahead of me – Figgy at third and [Erick] Aybar at short? How can I expect to play ahead of those two guys? They’re great players.”
If the season started tomorrow, I’d expect to see Wood at third, with Maicer Izturis in reserve, backing up at all three positions he plays with the skill and poise of an everyday performer. Izturis can be a free agent after the coming season, and he’ll have the opportunity to go get an everyday job somewhere if he chooses that route. Baseball people know how good he is.
As painful as it is for fans to watch Figgins go, the Angels leave sentiment aside in their judgments. They calculated that they’ll be fine with a new look at third, and there is an undeniable element of excitement for fans in seeing what Wood can do with an everyday job.
He might not erupt as Kendry Morales did in ’09 when he finally got his chance, but Wood is capable of hitting 25-30 homers, driving in 80-100 runs (depending on where he hits in the order) and batting .275. Those who know him best – his Minor League teammates — fully expect him to flourish if he’s allowed to relax and unleash all that natural talent.
Like Anderson, Wood, I think, has been misinterpreted by some people as too cool, owing to his relaxed, easy manner. Believe me, having spent hours with the guy, I can assure you Wood burns to be successful, just as Garret has throughout his career. Hey, people used to think Henry Aaron was a cruiser, because of his laid-back style. He turned out all right.
Torii Hunter, gradually regaining strength in the area of his right adductor muscle, was not in the Angels’ lineup for Thursday night’s series finale against the Indians at Progressive Field, with Gary Matthews Jr. in center field.
Hunter also will take a day off in Toronto, where the Angels engage the Blue Jays in a three-game weekend series on the artificial surface at the Rogers Centre. Look for Hunter to be back in the No. 3 spot in the order in Toronto, between Bobby Abreu and Vladimir Guerrero.
“I’m good,” Hunter said, on his way to take batting practice in the inside cages. “They’re being careful with me, and even though I never want to come out, I understand.”
While the eight-time Rawlings Gold Glove winner rested, manager Mike Scioscia was joining the campaign for Chone Figgins and Erick Aybar, promoting the Gold Glove candidacies of his left-side infielders. Figgins at third and Aybar at shortstop have been brilliant and steady all season.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt,” Scioscia said of Figgins’ worthiness of Gold Glove consideration. “There’s not a third baseman in our league playing at a higher level.”
Asked if the same view applied to Aybar, Scioscia nodded.
“Erick makes very tough plays look manageable, routine, with his arm strength,” Scioscia said. “There’s no shortstop who makes the 4-6 double play turn better than Erick, nobody.”
Scioscia had to reach deep in his memory bank to find names when he was asked if anybody else could have made the play Aybar delivered in Baltimore, robbing fleet Brian Roberts of a hit from deep in the hole with a leaping bullet to first.
Ozzie Smith, Garry Templeton and Shawon Dunston were shortstops of the past who crossed Scioscia’s mind as having the arm strength and athleticism to make a play like that . . . but “nobody” in today’s game.
Figgins, drafted as a shortstop by Colorado, has started at six positions in the Majors, finally settling in at third base in 2007 on a full-time basis.
“It feels good to get some recognition for what I’m doing defensively,” Figgins said. “It took a while before I really thought of myself as a third baseman, but that’s what I am now. I’d be flattered to be considered for that [Gold Glove]. Growing up, my man was Ozzie [Smith], and I’d love to get one.”
The Wizard of Oz won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves for the Cardinals. The two-time reigning Gold Glove third baseman in the American League, Seattle’s Adrian Beltre, has missed 39 games this season.
Aybar’s model at shortstop as a kid was the Dodgers’ Rafael Furcal, the player he most resembles. Michael Young, last year’s Gold Glove shortstop in the AL, was moved to third base this year by Texas to accommodate the arrival of Elvis Andrus.
Young succeeded Orlando Cabrera, who claimed the 2007 Gold Glove in an Angels uniform, with Aybar as his understudy.
For the record, the Angels say nobody on their roster is untouchable. But Erick Aybar is about as close as it gets.
Staying healthy and in the lineup after missing chunks of the past two seasons with hand and hamstring injuries, the 25-year-old shortstop from Bani, Dominican Republic is emerging as one of the game’s most exciting young talents.
Aybar grew up wanting to be like Rafael Furcal, and he is getting there in a hurry by combining superb and consistent defense with a sizzling bat and blazing speed on the basepaths.
With extraordinary range and only five errors in 79 games, Aybar’s .986 fielding percentage is surpassed by only three regular Major League shortstops. He’s batting .316 overall and in the clutch, with a .355 on-base percentage that represents huge improvement over his .298 figure coming into the season.
As Angels general manager Tony Reagins engages in dialogue with other clubs as the non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches on Friday, Aybar is a popular topic.
You can ask for him, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get him.
Toronto apparently found that out when it demanded Aybar as part of a multi-player package in exchange for Roy Halladay. The Angels are believed to be maneuvering for the Indians’ Cliff Lee, but Aybar again could be a deal-breaker.
“It doesn’t affect me,” Aybar said on Tuesday night through Jose Mota’s translation. “I have a job to do. I can’t worry about my name being out there. It’s flattering teams want me, but it also makes me sad.”
He loves the team he’s with and the style it plays, which is perfectly suited to his skills. Manager Mike Scioscia realizes that there are few athletes in the game on Aybar’s level, having repeatedly expressed the view that Erick has star potential once he settles in and shows consistency with the bat and in the field.
Coming into Tuesday night’s game against the Indians, Aybar was leading Angels regulars with his .316 average, ahead of Bobby Abreu (.314), Juan Rivera (.311), Chone Figgins (.309), Torii Hunter (.305) and Maicer Izturis (.300).
It’s a deep and formidable lineup, and when Aybar is linked with Figgins on the bases, it can be a show. You’d be hard-pressed to find two quicker, swifter baserunners in the same lineup. It calls to mind the St. Louis days when Vince Coleman, Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee ran circles around teams.
“I feel confident,” Aybar said. “One thing I don’t feel is complacent. It feels good to be playing at this level. It’s a lot of fun.”
With an embarrassment of middle-infield riches – Aybar, Izturis, Howard Kendrick, Brandon Wood, Sean Rodriguez – along with other assets, the Angels could swing a deal by the deadline for a big-time starter or veteran setup man in front of Brian Fuentes.
Just don’t expect Aybar to be part of it.