Will MLB’s “Franchise Four” contest finally decide the greatest Canadian ballplayer of all time? (No.)

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Ferguson Jenkins pitches in 1983.
Ferguson Jenkins pitches in 1983.

Major League Baseball is plodding through the early-season marketing void with a fairly innovative concept: pick each team’s “Franchise Four” - the top four players to wear each uniform. And quietly, it threatens to answer  - possibly incorrectly – the question “who is the greatest Canadian baseball player ever?”

The contest aims to select the four most noteworthy players in the history of each franchise, and it’s harder than you’d think. For the Toronto Blue Jays, for example, does Jose Bautista bump out any of Roberto Alomar, Dave Stieb, Joe Carter, Roy Halladay, Tony Fernandez, Carlos Delgado or George Bell? (No, of course not. Don’t be silly.)

The contest has also ignited some mini controversies. Curt Schilling, bloody sock hero and now ESPN analyst, said on Monday that he thinks Albert Pujols should beat out Rogers Hornsby (lifetime batting average: .358) because Hornsby held his bat funny. Nolan Ryan is nominated for three separate teams (Texas, Houston and California/Los Angeles/Anaheim).  The Washington Nationals’ list only has 1 guy who has ever played for the Nationals.

In the midst of all this, two Canadians have made the list of finalists: Larry Walker for the Colorado Rockies, and Ferguson Jenkins for the Chicago Cubs.  In the most recent voting update, Walker was second on the Rockies’ list, while Jenkins was out of the Cubs' top 4.

So if Walker is the last Canadian standing on baseball’s new Mount Rushmore, shouldn’t that qualify him as the greatest Canadian major leaguer of all time?

Larry Walker hitting for the Colorado Rockies in 2003.
Larry Walker hitting for the Colorado Rockies in 2003.

There’s an argument to be made there. Walker was the 1997 National League MVP, led the league in hitting three times, won three Silver Slugger awards as the best-hitting outfielder in the league, won seven Gold Gloves for fielding, and led the league in home runs once. He was a five-time All-Star and finished his career as a .313 hitter.

On the other hand, Jenkins won the NL Cy Young Award as top pitcher in 1971 – on a team that finished third. Jenkins won 284 career games, and had seven 20-win seasons – including six in a row from 1967-1972. He’s a member of the Order of Canada and has his own stamp.

A couple of factors are playing in Walker’s favour – and against Jenkins. Walker’s Rockies have only been around since 1993, so they don’t quite have the fabled pantheon of historic players the Cubs do. Walker only had to get by Dante Bichette, Vinny Castilla, Carlos Gonzalez and Matt Holliday to make the Rockies’ Franchise Four. Jenkins, by comparison, is trailing Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo and Billy Williams. All four are in the baseball Hall of Fame.

There’s also a notable anti-pitcher bias in the voting. Only 24 of the 120 players that make up the 30 teams’ “Franchise Four” are pitchers – and three of them are Nolan Ryan. That’s a ratio of 20 per cent. By comparison, 32 per cent of the players in the Hall of Fame are pitchers – including Jenkins.

Walker isn’t in the Hall of Fame; in fact, he’s perilously close to falling off the ballot. His career has been downplayed because he played in hitter-friendly Coors Field, and because of continuous injury problems. Then again, Jenkins’ reputation certainly benefited from being the only Canadian major leaguer of note in that mid-1970’s period (unless we count Terry Puhl, which we don’t).

Schilling said on Monday's Baseball Tonight that he thinks Jenkins deserves a spot in the Cubs’ Franchise Four, but that may be self-serving; Schilling isn’t in the Hall of Fame yet, and his career is often compared to Jenkins’. So the higher Jenkins’ profile, the better it is for Schilling.

So who’s really the greatest Canadian major leaguer of all time? Maybe the Franchise Four will settle it the right way – the Canadian way. Jenkins is immortalized with a plaque, and a stamp, and Walker gets the honour of winning the marketing campaign, and we never have to decide.

 

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