-- As my ESPN.com colleague Dave Schoenfield observed, the easiest approach in assembling one of these top 10 lists is to click on Baseball-reference.com, proceed to "career WAR'' and commence the countdown. It's the most efficient and analytically defensible way to get the job done.
It's also catatonically boring and guaranteed to siphon the emotion from the endeavor. These lists are subjective and distinctly personal in nature, and they should reflect the impact each player had on you, the baseball fan, with his charisma and artistry.
How does he enhance your love of the game and define your standards of greatness? In compiling a top 10, where do you fall on the short, brilliant peak vs. sustained excellence end of the spectrum? Do you penalize a candidate for playing against inferior competition when baseball was segregated, or disqualify him for steroid use? Hey, it's your list, so feel free to follow your heart and mind and make the call.
This is my list. In the end, I leaned toward all-time greats who touched the game with their individuality as well as their numerical achievements. The late George "Boomer" Scott, my favorite player from the day he broke in with the Boston Red Sox in 1966, came up a little short.
10. Roberto Clemente
This is a truly personal choice based on memories of Clemente throwing out runners from the right-field wall and tearing around the bases during his peak with the Pittsburgh Pirates on the NBC "Game of the Week." Those 3,000 hits are a nice, round number, and Clemente was an extra-base machine even though he hit only 240 home runs in the big leagues. His 166 triples are the most by any player since 1950 -- ahead of Willie Wilson, Lou Brock and Willie Mays. Clemente played the game with what biographer David Maraniss described as a mixture of "fury and agitation.'' If you were lucky enough to see him, you'll never forget him.
What better guy to get our team off to a fast start than Rickey? He'll jack a ball into the seats to give our squad a 1-0 lead (his 81 homers to lead off a game are a record), or reach base via a walk (he drew 2,190 of them), or turn a single into a double or triple with a stolen base (his 1,406 steals are 468 more than Brock, who ranks second on the career list). Then he'll mix in a snatch catch and a couple of self-aggrandizing quotes to round out his day. The "Man of Steal" was born to compete, aggravate and entertain -- not necessarily in that order.
8. Sandy Koufax
In 1999, Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci wrote a profile of Koufax with the headline, " The Left Arm of God." That sounds about right. Let your mind wander to Koufax's final season in 1966, when he posted a 27-9 record and a 1.73 ERA over 41 starts and 323 innings with the Dodgers, then walked away because of an arthritic left elbow. No one omits Jim Brown from NFL top 10 lists because he left the game at age 30 to focus on acting, so I'm going to cut Koufax some slack and excuse his short peak. If anything, the supernova nature of his career enhances his mystique. As Koufax biographer Jane Leavy observed, "No other baseball immortal in memory retired so young, so well, or so completely."
7. Greg Maddux
Off the field, Maddux was famous for his sometimes juvenile pranks in the clubhouse. On the mound, he was a physically unimposing genius who dominated opposing lineups with middling velocity and supernatural guile and control. Maddux surpassed 200 innings for 14 straight seasons, won a record 18 Gold Gloves and amassed two of the top five adjusted ERA+ seasons in baseball history in 1994 and 1995. He's the smartest, most perceptive player I've come across in three decades of covering Major League Baseball.
6. Stan Musial
My favorite Musial statistic: 1,815 career hits at home and 1,815 hits on the road. Fewer people are probably aware that Musial ranks third behind Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds on baseball's career list with 1,377 extra-base hits -- just ahead of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez. Musial receives bonus points for his humble, salt-of-the-earth demeanor, his harmonica playing and the everlasting devotion he engendered from the good fans of St. Louis. Bobby Cox spent decades in the game, and his eyes still glaze over with reverence at the mere mention of Musial's name.
5. Barry Bonds
If you're going to pick a hitter from the steroid era, it has to be him. It was so much fun watching Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. jockey for the designation of "baseball's best player'' throughout the 1990s. Bonds tarnished his legacy and severely jeopardized his Hall of Fame chances while amassing cartoon numbers late in his career, but it's still hard to look at that .609 on-base percentage fueled by 120 intentional walks in 2004 and not think they're misprints. Sadly, Bonds' caddish persona and PED excesses prevented him from receiving the outpouring of love and affection that his accomplishments warranted. But he has only himself to blame.
4. Ted Williams
Read Leigh Montville's amazing Williams biography, and you'll be blown away by a man who packed an awful lot of living into 83 years. There was Williams the fighter pilot and war hero, Williams the stubborn genius clashing with Boston's keyboard warriors, the Teddy Ballgame who went 6-for-8 in a doubleheader to bat .406 and the fading star who summoned the strength and skill to bat .316 at age 41 in his final season. I buy into the widely held notion that Williams was the greatest hitter that ever was, and I suspect dozens of big leaguers with dog-eared copies of "The Science of Hitting'' agree.
3. Babe Ruth
In 1920, Ruth led the American League with 54 home runs, and George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns was second with 19. Can you imagine anything remotely similar to that today? Ruth (maybe) called a famous home run, ate more hot dogs than Joey Chestnut, and attained cultural icon status on his way to 714 homers, a career .690 slugging percentage and a 94-46 record as a pitcher. If they had the ESPYS in the 1920s, the Babe would have needed a cargo van to lug home all his hardware.
2. Hank Aaron
It was a thing to behold, the contrast between Willie Mays' spectacular feats of athleticism and Aaron's mind-numbingly relentless production during the primes of their careers. Hammerin' Hank never hit 50 homers in a season and still managed to crank out 755 bombs over 23 years. Aaron's best power year came in 1971, when he hit 47 homers and slugged .669 (yes, you read that correctly) at age 37. The words "grace'' and "dignity'' are overused in the sporting world, but Aaron was the embodiment of both on his way past Ruth to home run No. 715.
1. Willie Mays
No player in baseball history combined statistical dominance and pure artistry like Mays, who remains the embodiment of the phrase "five-tool player'' 43 years after his farewell season with the New York Mets. Mays hit 660 homers, stole 338 bases and could have stolen a hundred more if he thought the 600-400 club would eventually be a "thing." Only a handful of greats have the cachet to make Hall of Famers feel small and unworthy in their presence, and the Say Hey Kid dwells in that rarefied universe.