Who’s the GOAT? Who is the greatest of all time in baseball? At this point, you might as well call out to the stadium popcorn hawker, fork over $7 (don’t forget to tip), and watch the fireworks as people fight over who is the best player. This fight might even be better than that time Nolan Ryan pummeled Robin Ventura.
Surely the question of defining who is the baseball GOAT is worthy of consideration. Some of the names that must be included are Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and Ted Williams. From a more contemporary perspective, names such as Ken Griffey Jr., Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, and Barry Bonds* enter the conversation. To throw in some pitchers, we need to think about Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez.
Why do people like to argue over who is the greatest of all time? First, baseball admittedly has some down time, and we need something to do while watching a game. This is why every square inch of the stadium video screens is covered in statistical information. I never knew how much useless baseball trivia I could store in my brain until I started attending live MLB games regularly. I even used that useless trivia to be the only 2-time winner of the Rangers’ ToppsQ Trivia stadium game last season, including winning the inaugural contest.
Second, people argue over the baseball GOAT because people like to argue. It’s a simple fact. We need something to argue about and we will find almost anything that fits the bill. If you don’t believe me, just look to our elected officials in Washington.
Third, people argue over the greatest because we aren’t entirely certain what makes someone the greatest. Baseball—both past and present—is full of spectacular athletes who have excelled at levels far beyond normal human limits. I laugh when I hear people say they could play the game better than a certain player on the field. The reality is that if they actually could, they would be on the field. Even guys like Bartolo Colon, who looked like he should have been eating his own bucket of popcorn in the stands, are able to perform on the field in ways that the average human cannot.
So that leaves us with the question of what qualities make a player the greatest. Honestly, we can’t really quantify them even though some guy in a sabermetrics lab with sets of data like ERA, WHIP, WAR, BA, OBP, OPS will tell us that he can. At the end of the day, the greatest players simply embody greatness. They are the best.
Looking at the GOAT question from an ethics perspective, we are led to consider virtue ethics. Virtue ethics is a theory that focuses on what it means to be good rather than to do good. Certainly a person who is good will do good, but that is not the focus of this theory. Virtue ethics points us to character traits that embody goodness. As Steve Wilkens writes, “Character ethicists are more concerned with virtue than with virtues. The Greek term areté, usually translated as ‘virtue,’ means something like ‘excellence.’ While we may be able to isolate particular areas of intellectual and moral excellence in a person, the ideal is that they reside in individuals as a package.”
Debates about the GOAT don’t just happen in sports; we have a similar debate in ethics. When it comes to virtue ethics, there are significant players who battle for the title of greatest virtue ethicist. The two titans are Plato and Aristotle. While we might consider the GOAT in sports to be a once-in-a-generation player, Plato and Aristotle were alive at the same time. Admittedly, Aristotle was Plato’s student, but in the realm of virtue ethics, it is likely that the student surpassed the teacher.
Plato identified four cardinal virtues—temperance, courage, prudence, and justice. Aristotle defined a way to identify these virtues in contrast to their corresponding vices. We call Aristotle’s approach the Golden Mean. In essence, Aristotle taught that the virtue was found in the middle ground between two extremes, which are vices. For example, courage is the virtue between cowardice and foolhardiness. For Plato and Aristotle, the best person is the one who embodies these virtues. We can call him the ultimate 4-tool player.
This Golden Mean set the stage for other later thinkers, such as Thomas Aquinas, to build on this system. In fact, borrowing from the work of Aristotle and Augustine, Aquinas developed a 7-tool virtue player. In addition to the four cardinal virtues, Aquinas identified the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. In keeping with Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 13, the greatest of these is love.
Back to baseball, virtue ethics is probably best illustrated by the rare 5-tool player—speed, power, hitting for average, fielding, and arm strength. There are few players in the history of the game that can be called 5-tool players. In fact, even the best players may be downgraded in one category to question whether or not they truly fit. In my lifetime, the two players who perhaps most clearly reflect these tools are Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout.
Griffey had it all. He was elite at the plate and in the outfield. He was a 13-time All-Star in his 22-year career. He won 10 Gold Gloves and 7 Silver Sluggers. He has a career 83.8 WAR (Wins Above Replacement). No one who watched “The Kid” play doubted he was the best all-around player of his day.
Trout is the contemporary version of Griffey. He is also a centerfielder with elite speed and fielding ability. He is one of the most feared batters today. If there is a knock against Trout, it is his arm strength, but opposing teams still don’t test him often. Trout has a career WAR of 66.1, but he is still adding to that number. Currently in his eighth full season, Trout has amassed 7 All-Star appearances, Rookie of the Year (2012), 6 Silver Sluggers, and has finished first or second in league MVP voting six times.
Griffey and Trout are just good. The stats demonstrate the fact that they can do it all. But watching them play brings further understanding to just how good they actually are. It’s like virtue ethics. We can talk about what it means to be good, but when we see it in person, we know what it looks like.
An asterisk was added to Barry Bonds’* name when listed among the all-time greats because his name should always have an asterisk.
Image credits to Wikimedia Commons.
 Steve Wilkens, Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2011), 130-131.