"It's hard to say anyone is the best."
Hawk Harrelson said that sentence -- or a derivation thereof -- a handful of times over the course of the season. Meanwhile (as Hawk might say), he spent the entire season disproving that very idea.
While the Ford A. Frick Award finalist is known for his catch phrases and homerism around baseball, his most locally appreciated trait is his tendency to tag players and teams with superlatives. He's Banksy with historical identifiers.
After hearing one game with a number of "bests" and other adjectives ending in "-est" during a game in mid-May, I started logging as many specific superlatives as I could hear. Over the course of the season, many others (BuehrleMan, MarketMaker, Trooper, Uribe Down, 3E8, Steve_p and Mark among them) also conditioned themselves to pick up keywords.
Some of these titles are generally agreed upon by baseball fans. Others need a moment of consideration, but ultimately make sense. And then he drops some onion-like labels that require quite a bit of peeling -- a player who is the best at performing one very particular skill of one facet of the game over a specific time frame. Harrelson has already declared him the tops before you even thought of thinking about it. It gets kind of ridiculous, but it's good, harmless fun in the end, and sometimes serves as discussion fodder, too.
I counted clear superlatives, as well as qualifiers like "one of," "might be," "arguably" and others. In most cases, Harrelson didn't provide an alternative, and some categories were so hard to unravel that nobody else could do it themselves.
After eliminating some and combining others, we ended up tallying 122 Hawk Harrelson superlatives over the last 4½ months of White Sox broadcasts. I've grouped them into categories with notes when warranted.
One of the best approaches to the pitch in all of baseball: Jose Bautista
One of the greatest approaches in creating hang time in all of baseball: Jose Bautista
(All of these players received "one-of" praise over the course of the season. Beltre, Franco and Sheffield are renowned for their vicious cuts and line drives. Gomes seems premature, but had a good year. Adam Rosales was DFA'd roughly 38 times in three weeks this season.)
One of the best in the league at hitting good pitching well: Billy Butler
In Hawk's top five for hitting the ball hard: Billy Butler
The world's best hitter, and might be the best one we have ever seen before it's over: Miguel Cabrera
Only fearless player at the plate: Tony Conigliaro
Possibly the most good under-the-radar hitter in the major leagues: Allen Craig
("Good" would seem to be assumed in any "under-the-radar" conversation.)
More hits -- on a guy who has had a shift implemented against him -- taken away than any hitter Hawk has ever seen: Adam Dunn
Had some of the best plate coverage against the Sox: Alcides Escobar
The fastest a ball has been hit to right field by a right-handed hitter this season: Courtesy of Dayan Viciedo
Hardest-hit line drives to right-center: Julio Franco
Hit one of the longest home runs he has ever seen hit to left-center since Progressive Field was built: Avisail Garcia
Most short-and-quick swing from a left-handed White Sox hitter: Conor Gillaspie
Hits more balls off his feet and legs than anyone in the league: Alejandro De Aza
Greatest first-ball fastball hitter we have ever seen: Vladimir Guerrero
Best offensive player Hawk has ever seen: Rickey Henderson
Quickest home run trot: Adam Rosales
(This one is scientifically proven. Before Rosales, Harrelson said Frank Howard was the quickest.)
Hit the ball farther to right field than any right-handed hitter: Bo Jackson
Hit the ball farther to left field than any left-handed hitter: Jim Thome
Fastest right-handed hitter down the line: Bo Jackson
Fastest left-handed hitter down the line: Mickey Mantle
One of the greatest inside-out strokes ever: Derek Jeter
One of the best fastball hitters of the last 25 years: Paul Konerko
Best two-strike bunter: Mickey Mantle
One of the best fastball hitters over the last 30 years: Graig Nettles
(Theoretically, that means Nettles is better than Konerko if you can extend him back into history farther.)
Best breaking ball hitter Hawk ever saw: Tony Oliva
Best 7-8-9 inning hitters: David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez
Best 3-4 combination Hawk has ever seen: David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez
Best high fastball hitter in the American League today: Dustin Pedroia
One of the best inside fastball hitters of the last 30 years: Ryne Sandberg.
One of the greatest fastball hitters in the history of baseball: Gary Sheffield
(So this beats Konerko and Nettles, theoretically.)
Biggest drifter: Ichiro Suzuki
(Not that kind of drifter.)
Biggest strike zones: Kirby Puckett and Yogi Berra
(Steve Stone started the conversation by mentioning Berra. Hawk, after mentioning Puckett, agreed.)
Best looking 19-year-old position player the White Sox have ever had: Ryan Sweeney.
One of the most deceiving guys you'll ever see from our venue: Mike Trout
(He was talking about how Trout is bigger in person than he seems from the broadcast booth.)
Liveliest bats in the American League: Dayan Viciedo and Yoenis Cespedes.
One of the best in the league at hitting the ball to the right side: Michael Young
One of the best Hawk has ever seen, first baseman holding somebody on, hook it in that hole over there: Omar Vizquel
(Or "pulling it through the hole on the right side with a runner on.")
Hardest line drives: Dave Winfield
(Take that, Julio Franco.)
Best clutch hitter: Carl Yazstrzemski
Best right-handed changeup motion all year: Clay Buchholz
Probably had some of the worst stuff -- if not THE worst stuff -- of any starter in the American League: Mark Buehrle
Works the ball better than anybody else in this league: Bartolo Colon
Hardest thrower: Steve Dalkowski
Hardest he's ever seen anybody throw from down there: Ron Davis
(Referring to sidewinders. He claimed Davis could hit triple digits, which seems doubtful.)
Best right-handed pitcher coming into the game: Dwight Gooden
Best splitter Hawk has ever seen: Bryan Harvey
Arguably the best six-year stretch any pitcher has ever had. Sandy Koufax
One of the best mindsets Hawk has ever seen in his time in baseball: Pedro Martinez
The best four pitches Hawk has ever seen one guy have: Sam McDowell
Best Hawk ever saw in the minor leagues: Joe Moeller
(It looks they crossed paths in the PCL for half a season.)
Possibly the best pickoff move Hawk has ever seen to first base: Fred Norman
(Revised -- originally wrote "right-handed," but Norman is a lefty. Went back to the tape, and "right-handed" wasn't part of that one.)
One of the greatest curveballs in the history of the game: Camile Pasqual
Probably played with the hitters' minds more than any other pitcher in the last 50 years: Gaylord Perry
One of the best pickoff moves of the last 25 years: Andy Pettitte.
Greatest relief pitcher of all time: Mariano Rivera
(Also counts for Hawk calling Rivera "the greatest at what he does," which he did on multiple occasions.)
Possibly the best release of any pitcher in the American League: Danny Salazar
Livest arm in the American League: Danny Salazar
Made Joe Mauer have his worst at-bat ever: Chris Sale
Moving-est changeup since Strasburg's a couple years ago: Anibal Sanchez
Best knuckleball of the last 50 years: Hoyt Wilhelm
Strongest arms from underneath: Adrian Beltre and Jayson Nix.
(Originally, he called Beltre the "strongest arm from underneath." Later on, he said Nix was "one of the two best throwers from down below." This seems to be the way to reconcile that.)
One of the best center fielders the game has ever seen: Jim Edmonds
Best Hawk has ever seen at blocking the plate: Bill Freehan
Probably the best in this league at staying with low line drives: Alex Gordon
One of the best at taking a hit turning two: Bobby Grich
Best Hawk ever saw at getting an angle in right field: Dwight Evans
Smoothest he's ever seen in center field: Ken Griffey Jr.
(He said this about Hosmer two separate times.)
Made the best play he's ever seen at shortstop on that type of hit ball: Jose Iglesias
(Referring to this play.)
Made the best play he's ever seen at second on that type of hit ball: Tadahito Iguchi
(Referring to this play.)
Best you'll see at catching pop-ups: Paul Konerko
One of the best you'll ever see, on rockets, staying in front of them: Paul Konerko
(Best way to praise a guy's lack of lateral movement?)
Best at planting and throwing: Alexei Ramirez
Worst injury Hawk has ever seen on a pitcher covering first: Tim Hudson
Best defensive infield Hawk has ever seen: The early-2000s Minnesota Twins.
Best left fielder: Carl Yazstrzemski
Running-est pitching staff in baseball: The 1967 White Sox.
(Meaning they ran/jogged between starts more than any other staff.)
Best chemistry of any team Hawk has ever seen: 1983 White Sox
Best team Hawk has ever seen at breaking up the double play: 1983 White Sox
Worst injuries suffered by a team: 2011 Minnesota Twins
Most under-the-radar player of the last 50 years: Bobby Abreu
The greatest second baseman in the game (arguably): Roberto Alomar
One of the best White Sox debuts in a long, long time: Wilson Alvarez.
(Alvarez threw a no-hitter in his White Sox debut. I don't think this one needs to be double-qualified with both "one of" and "in a long, long time.")
Hawk's favorite all-time player: George Brett
One of the most underrated players in major league history: Jim Edmonds.
(Don't know if "under-the-radar" beats "underrated.")
Built the best offensive ballclub he's ever seen: John Hart.
Strongest man he's ever seen in the game of baseball: Frank Howard
Dumbest deal in the history of baseball: The one Juan Gonzalez turned down from the Tigers
Greatest athlete baseball has ever seen: Bo Jackson
Possibly the best manager ever: Tony La Russa
Greatest GM in the history of the game: John Schuerholz
Greatest GM-manager tandem: John Schuerholz and Bobby Cox
Hardest thing for a GM to do: Build and maintain a bullpen
Biggest change in the last 50 years: It's become a battle of bullpens
Best commissioner of the seven Hawk has been through: Bud Selig
Best catcher Hawk ever played against: Bill Freehan
Most fun players to watch: Adrian Beltre and Miguel Cabrera
One of the best names in baseball: Emilio Bonifacio
Best ambassador of our lifetime: Derek Jeter
Most flexible body: Tony Fernandez
("Like a wet noodle.")
Possibly the best baseball person who's not managing a major-league ballclub: Jim Fregosi
Greatest cliche ever towards the game of baseball: "It's a game of inches."
The best five-tool player we have had in a long time: Avisail Garcia
Prettiest player: Ken Griffey Jr.
Toughest uniformed job in baseball: Hitting coach
Harder on himself than maybe Hawk has ever seen anybody: Paul Konerko
(Actual language: "He was harder on himself than maybe I’ve ever seen anybody. Maybe I’ve seen some guys as hard on themselves as him, but not anybody harder.")
May have as much baseball sense as anyone in the game based on what we've seen: Jose Iglesias.
(Potentially the most premature superlative since all the ones he laid on Jerry Sands four years back.)
Toughest travel schedule in sports: Seattle Mariners
Best autograph signer: Arnold Palmer.
Best baseball player autograph signer: Cal Ripken Jr.
You might tie him, but you won't beat him for his love for the game: Tony Pena
One of the greatest guys Hawk has ever known in this game: Tony Perez
(Two months later, Harrelson also identified Perez as "one of the nicest people." I'm inclined to count this as a duplicate.)
One of the classiest things Hawk has ever seen in his entire career: Mariano Rivera's farewell tour
Most emotional moment on the field: Mickey Mantle's last game
Scariest thing Hawk has ever seen: Ray Durham collapsing in the Metrodome
(This was back in 2000; read about it here.)
Most charismatic athlete: Ted Williams. Speaking of...
The best stuff Ted Williams ever saw: Herb Score
I don't think we need second-hand superlatives to pad the stats, but given the esteem in which Harrelson holds Williams, I think it's OK to apply it forward.
Specific to the 2013 White Sox (2)
- Fastest 1-2-3 innings (for the offense)
- Fastest five runs allowed (during the worst loss of the season)
May these never be topped.