Say Hey, now who's the greatest living ex-baseball player?

After the death of Willie Mays, the unofficial title of "Greatest living baseball player" is up for debate, with Rickey Henderson, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez a few of the names being mentioned.

Baseball fans don’t agree on much. But the ex-ballplayer seems to be almost universal.

Almost immediately after Mays’ incredible life and career were honored, thoughts turned to who is the greatest living retired ballplayer now.

Here’s a partial list, in alphabetical order, of players who have been mentioned by sports historians and journalists over the last few days: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, Sandy Koufax, Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Pete Rose and Nolan Ryan.

Was anybody left out? Probably. You might be able to come up with a name or two on your own.

Author Joe Posnanski, whose 2021 book “The Baseball 100” named Mays as the best player in baseball history with Babe Ruth second, listed Bonds as No. 3.

So it’s Bonds.

Or is it?

Mays himself, in a hilarious New York Times column written by Jack Curry (now of the YES Network), was asked by Curry at the 2002 World Series if Bonds was making a case as the greatest player ever — not just living, but ever.

‘’We are not going to get into who is the greatest,’’ Mays snapped (Curry wrote). ‘’Whatever he does, I’m proud of him. If you want to say it, that’s fine. I’m not going to argue about that, if it’s him. If it’s someone else, I would argue.’’

Bonds, you see, is Mays’ godson. The two were close, so when Bonds’ incredible feats on the field became forever tainted by his alleged steroid use, the subject of “who is the greatest” turned into a debate not about baseball prowess but about ethics.

That’s not a great place for sports debates to end up.

Look again at the partial list above. Of those nine legends of the game, only five are in the Hall of Fame.

Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez are not in the Hall because of their ties to performance-enhancing drugs. Rose, baseball’s all-time hit king with 4,256, is ineligible for the Hall of Fame because he is on MLB’s permanently banned list for gambling.

Broadcaster Bob Costas mentioned Griffey on an appearance this week on OutKick.com’s “Don’t @ Me Show” with Dan Dakich.

“The closest to Willie is the young Ken Griffey Jr.,” Costas said. “Griffey was a spectacular centerfielder with a good arm and all kinds of power. He was like Willie, so exuberant. His nickname was “The Kid.” He so enjoyed baseball like Willie. You could feel that.”

“The Kid” made people remember “The Say Hey Kid,” that’s for sure. But Griffey’s later years were marred by injury.

Clockwise, from top left: Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken Jr., Pete...

Clockwise, from top left: Rickey Henderson, Cal Ripken Jr., Pete Rose and Nolan Ryan

Henderson, Ripken, Rose and Ryan hold records that seem unlikely to be broken.

For Henderson, it’s stolen bases (1,406). For Ripken, it’s consecutive games played (2,632). For Ryan, it’s strikeouts (5,714).

But are those special feats enough to earn any of those players greatest living ballplayer status?

Clemens won the most Cy Young Awards with seven. A-Rod? Well, he’s a category unto himself, perhaps the most talented player ever and one of the most fascinating anti-heroes in American sports history.

Before Mays, Joe DiMaggio was always called the greatest living ballplayer. DiMaggio, in fact, insisted on it. DiMaggio died in 1999, at which point the unofficial torch was passed to Mays . . . except for those who thought Ted Williams was the greatest living ballplayer. Williams died in 2002.

It only seems fair that, with Mays having passed away, his beloved godson gets the nod. But as with everything where Bonds is concerned, it’s just not that simple.

Bonds is baseball’s all-time single-season and career home run leader, with 73 and 762, and is the all-time leader in walks (2,558) and intentional walks (688). He is a seven-time Most Valuable Player and a 14-time All-Star and won eight Gold Gloves.

At his peak, Bonds was so much better than his peers that there is nothing to compare it to except for Ruth, who in 1920 led baseball in home runs with 54. The runner-up was George Sisler with 19.

But the steroids . . . they just can’t be ignored. It just feels wrong to some people to call Bonds the greatest living ballplayer, even if he is.

Sandy Koufax Credit: Diamond Images/Getty Images

That leaves us, from that list above, Koufax.

Koufax pitched for only 12 years for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. He walked away at age 30 in 1966 because of chronic elbow pain that had no cure back then.

His career record was 165-87 with a 2.76 ERA. He was the National League’s MVP and Cy Young Award winner in 1963. He was the MVP of the 1963 and 1965 World Series. He made the All-Star team six times — his final six seasons.

But there’s something else about Koufax that makes fans of a certain age swoon. He was — and continues to this day to be, at age 88 — elegant.

If you were there and saw him pitch, you get it.

Koufax once weighed in on one long-ago debate: Whether Mays or Ruth was the greatest player in MLB history.

He picked Mays.

“I can’t believe that Babe Ruth was a better player than Willie Mays,” Koufax said. “Ruth is to baseball what Arnold Palmer is to golf. He got the game moving. But I can’t believe he could run as well as Mays and I can’t believe he was any better an outfielder.”

We could go on like this all day. Was Willie Mays the greatest player of all time? Or was it . . .


Ed Kranepool leads the Mets in games played. David Wright leads in many career offensive categories. Darryl Strawberry is tops in home runs. But the greatest living Mets ballplayer is Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, who spent 1998-2005 in Flushing and turned the franchise around when he arrived in a trade and then signed an extension to stay. There’s a reason Piazza chose a Mets logo on the cap on his Hall of Fame plaque.


Oh, you could sure make a case for Mariano Rivera, who remains the only player to earn 100% of the vote for the Hall of Fame. Jeter is next at 99.7%. Should the one person who declined to vote for Jeter decide how history judges these two great players? Jeter gets the nod because he was an everyday player who appeared in 2,747 regular-season games to Rivera’s 1,115.

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