Best Of :: Fun & Games
Brad Ziegler is an animal, a machine, something crazy good. Placed in the role of closer for the Diamondbacks this season, he has excelled. But the veteran relief pitcher always has, at the Oakland A's and in Arizona. He's so good that he once was labeled as the most dominant pitcher in baseball by the ESPN online magazine Grantland. The headline of its story last year read: "He began his MLB career with a historic streak and has dominated ever since, yet he's toiling in anonymity. Why? It starts and ends with how he throws the ball." That is, submarine-style, a low sidearm delivery during which his throwing hand winds up about a foot off the pitcher's mound. Grantland argued that his seemingly goofy style is why he isn't taken seriously. But when you bore down on said style, you see that Brad Ziegler — whom few outside the two cities whose franchises he's toiled for know anything about — has (at this writing) an earned-run average of 2.48 over eight seasons, which makes him — despite his unorthodox style — the most successful pitcher of his time. At just before midseason, his 2015 ERA was 1.36 with 12 saves. And he started out untouchable, throwing 39 scoreless innings for Oakland before giving up a hit. Consistency is his middle name, and he does it because of his silly delivery, not in spite of it. It's damn hard to hit pitches that come at you with the crazy "stuff" that Z creates for anything other than groundball outs. In fact, his pitches are hard to hit at all — he'd also posted 327 strikeouts during his career. Yet he's an extreme longshot to make the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
Long, tall Randy Johnson was inducted into Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, this summer, and he deserves it, despite those cornball local commercials he does. Randy, stick to being the most intimidating pitcher of your time — as an actor, Luis Gonzalez you're not. Johnson played for the Diamondbacks during his glory days, even pitching one of his two no-hitters here on May 18, 2004 (he's among five major-league pitchers to have thrown a no-hitter in both leagues, and with the one in '04, he was the oldest pitcher to perform the feat). At 6-foot-10, he's a five-time winner of the Cy Young Award (given to the best pitcher in each league) and one of two pitchers to win it in both the National and American leagues (he played for the Seattle Mariners before coming to the D-backs and played a pivotal role in Arizona's 2001 World Series victory over the New York Yankees). His 4,875 strikeouts rank him second in big-league history to Nolan Ryan, and speaking of Ks, he's won a modern historical five strikeout crowns for a left-hander in the Bigs. The Big Unit may not be headed for an Academy Award, but his prowess as a photographer nowadays comes close to matching his skill as a pitcher. Indeed, check out the skills of the baseball legend who calls the Valley home if he decides to display his art in a local gallery soon. You can also see it at http://rj51photos.com.
Yasmany Tomás was one of two top prospects left in Cuba, where baseball is an even bigger deal than it is in the United States (fans there have a single-minded love of the game, probably because they don't have much to distract them in a communist country where the masses still drive '50s cars). The 24-year-old played five seasons with Cuba's great national team. A power hitter on the island, he started playing baseball in the streets of Havana as a little boy. He was one of the youngest players on the Cuban team, after starting his career with the Havana Industriales, where he hit 30 home runs and batted in 104 runs during 205 games. He somehow escaped from his homeland (details remain mysterious) and lived for a time in nearby Haiti and the Dominican Republic, while working out his immigration to the States. A plethora of major-league teams were interested in him, but largely because of the prestige of playing for an organization headed by the respected Tony La Russa of St. Louis Cardinals' World Series fame, Tomas came to the Diamondbacks after signing a six-year $68.5 million contract. Franchises don't hand MLB rookies this kind of money unless they're expecting big things from them. Through 109 games with the big-league club, he was batting .282 with 107 hits and 45 runs batted in. When the trade happened earlier this season, we wondered why Arizona traded away slugger Mark Trumbo (who was having a good season) in favor of Tomás' taking on a bigger offensive role, but now we know.
Paul Goldschmidt isn't just the best Diamondbacks hitter ever (though it's early in his career), he's been the best everyday player in baseball this year (pitchers don't count in this measure). A National League All-Star again this season, Goldschmidt's having his best year to date, and there's no reason not to believe that his hitting and fielding skills won't continue for a long career. He's not injury prone, he's built like a superhero, and he's a Captain America nice guy (hates talking about himself, asks his teammates for advice on how to better play the game, even when it's them who should be asking him). Goldschmidt's literally the guy the rest of the team is built around, and as we're all seeing, he can't do it alone. But he's damn well trying to carry the Snakes on his back. Let's review his superstar stats: After 143 games this season, he was batting .315, with 28 home runs, 162 hits, and 100 runs batted in. His on-base/slugging percentage was a whopping .984. He's the choosiest hitter in the game, rarely swinging at a pitch out of the strike zone. At this writing, he'd gotten himself more walks than any hitter in the big leagues (108) than all but two other hitters — but this is partly because he's so feared by opposing pitchers (who'd intentionally walked him 26 times). He can beat you with a walk-off homer or a double to the gap — ask the San Francisco Giants, whom he owns. And we haven't even talked about his stellar defensive prowess. Goldy's a Gold Glover who's robbed countless hitters of blazing extra base hits down the first-base line. Signed through the 2018 season, this possible 2015 MVP is a bargain today at $32 million over five years.
Brittney Griner's bad in so many good ways. Indeed, she may be the most exciting athlete in the Phoenix area. At an athletic 6-feet-8, she is transforming the women's professional game. Used to be that dunking was never seen in the Women's National Basketball Association, now it's de rigueur for Griner. Even with the great Diana Taurasi taking a sabbatical from the Phoenix Mercury this season, Griner's keeping the team in the hunt. (The Mercury won the WNBA championship with Griner and Taurasi leading the way last season.) Griner didn't start the season with the team because of her suspension for domestic violence. Yes, this time it was an elite female athlete under scrutiny for an incident with her significant other. Or, in Griner's case her ex, Tulsa Shock forward Glory Johnson. Griner and her then-fiancée got hit with assault and disorderly conduct charges after a disturbance at their Goodyear home that cops were said to have broken up. Both suffered minor injuries (an indication that blame was shared), and both women later were suspended for seven games after a guilty plea in the incident. Twenty-six weeks of domestic-violence counseling also was required by the court. The pair got married less than a month after the incident, but the union was annulled after it was announced that Johnson was pregnant. Griner, 24, had bad games — for her — on her return to the team, but on July 1, she returned to top form, scoring 23 points, grabbing eight rebounds, and blocking four shots in a victory over the San Antonio Stars. She was the WNBA blocks leader in 2013 and 2014 so now it'll be interesting to see if she can block the infamous incident with Johnson out of her mind and return the Mercury to championship material. Because with Taurasi gone, it's her team.
Daryl Washington always was a badass on the football field. A premier defensive player since high school in Irving, Texas, he went on to greatness at Texas Christian University and was considered the fourth-best outside linebacker coming out of the 2010 National Football League draft. As an Arizona Cardinal, he was named to the 2013 Pro Bowl Team. His stats as an inside linebacker for Arizona are impressive: For the 2012 season, he had 108 tackles and nine quarterback sacks, and during every season he played, he was a leader on a defense known as one of the league's best. Yet for all his accolades on the field involving sanctioned violence, Washington is best known for the violence he inflicted on his ex-girlfriend, which along with two substance-abuse violations, got him suspended for all of the 2014 season. He was charged on May 1, 2013 with two counts of aggravated assault on the mother of his then-5-month-old daughter. He later pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. Thus, he joined too many other NFLers, including former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, as poster boys for domestic violence. At this writing, it remains to be seen whether Washington will be reinstated. The two-time suspension for substance abuse (the original forced him to sit out four games during the 2013 season) doesn't help his case. Critics contended that the many incidents involving NFL players prove that too many pampered athletes involved in a violent game cannot leave the mayhem on the field, that examples must be made: lifetime suspensions.