Legends see evolution of game in today's stars

Legends see evolution of game in today's stars

Legends see evolution of game in today's stars
As time elapses and the game of baseball evolves, we are treated with talents that resemble decorated players from bygone eras.

Even so, some athletes enter the sports landscape with a blend of skills never before seen in any one player. Some legends wait for a new version of themselves to sprout up on the field and evoke a sense of nostalgia.

At 53, Rickey Henderson looks like he could still swipe a few bases.

"I don't think many [retired] guys stay in shape, besides Rickey," said longtime White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. "He stays in shape."

Henderson mastered the art of theft during his 25-year reign on the basepaths. When he spent the 2007 campaign as the Mets' first-base coach, Henderson took shortstop Jose Reyes under his wing.

Reyes nabbed 78 bases that season, the most since Henderson nabbed 93 and Cardinals outfielder Vince Coleman stole 81 in 1988. Is the stolen base a lost art? Leave it to the guy who stole 100 or more bases three times in a four-year span, including a modern era Major League-record 130 in 1980, to shake his head in disappointment.

"They're not letting kids use their instincts in what they're doing," Henderson said. "If the clock says that you can't run, no matter if you can beat the guy, they won't let you run."

As a result, Henderson hasn't seen enough evidence from today's speedsters to be able to identify the next version of himself. Henderson said players such as himself or Coleman or Lou Brock -- all leadoff hitters with a knack for scoring runs and stealing bases -- are becoming an endangered species.

"I have a lot of guys that impressed me early on, but now it seems like they aren't running as much," Henderson said. "Reyes is one guy, Carl Crawford is another. Jimmy Rollins was my favorite because he came from my neighborhood and did everything I could do, as far as playing the game and having success."

Even the current crop of basestealers is intimidated by Henderson's staggering stolen-base totals.

"No chance. That's too much," Reyes said. "I think 78 is a lot. But he stole 130. That's amazing. I don't think anyone will ever break that."

Henderson believes too many players submit to the temptation of swinging for the fences every trip to the plate.

"We don't have that guy yet," Henderson said. "They don't want to do it like that. I don't think they want to take all that power away."

The game is constantly changing, and so are its players' tools. Dennis Eckersley forged a Hall of Fame relief career out of top-notch command and a devastating slider. The lanky right-hander highlighted the save movement under manager Tony La Russa, often credited with establishing the current bullpen setup.

Now, however, Eckersley has noticed pitchers popping up throughout the league who rely on fastballs that light up radar guns, rather than control and timely offspeed pitches.

"Now everybody that goes on that mound is 6-foot-4, 225 pounds," Eckersley said. "It's like these prototype pitchers that are coming out and everybody knows how to pitch."

Perhaps no pitcher embodies that prototype better than Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who took home the American League Cy Young and MVP Awards last season. Verlander, who stands 6-foot-5, mixes a 100-mph fastball with a steep curveball.

"It seems like everybody throws hard," Verlander said. "That's for sure. It has definitely changed since when [Eckersley] was in the league. Everyone is bigger and stronger."

Eckersley did say that today's pool of pitching talent is greater than it was when he played in the latter quarter of the 20th century. Still, even with the proliferation of potent pitchers, Eckersley only noted Yankees closer Mariano Rivera as a guy who fearlessly attacks hitters the way he did.

"I think there are more and more stars now than there were in the past," Eckersley said.

Edgar Martinez, who graced Seattle with his smooth swing for 18 years, noted Milwaukee slugger Ryan Braun as a player with similar talents.

"He can do pretty much anything: power, average," Martinez said. "He's a really good hitter."

Martinez came up as a third baseman before settling into a mostly full-time designated-hitter role halfway through his career. He compiled a career batting average of .312 and an on-base percentage of .418. He drew more walks than strikeouts over the course of his 18 Major League seasons. Martinez said Evan Longoria, who mans the hot corner for the Rays, reminds him of himself.

"Longoria can hit for average and occasional power and is a gap hitter and can take a walk," Martinez said.

Many baseball legends embrace the new generation of athletes, and can identify young stars who excel in similar ways. Others might just be once-in-a-lifetime talents.

Henderson thought a slew of speedy leadoff hitters were primed to follow in his footsteps. As the game changes, however, he is left to ponder if there will ever be a second coming of Rickey Henderson. Then again, as much as anyone wants to compare today's stars to the game's legends, the current standouts are trying to establish their own everlasting identities.

"Rickey is the greatest leadoff hitter to ever play the game," Reyes said. "I just try to be myself."

Zack Meisel is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @zackmeisel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.