Top of the first: Concocting boxing's best batting order

I'm a baseball guy.

Sure, it's taken a back seat over the years to dozens of middleweight title fight recaps and myriad interim championship rants, but every now and then... I get back to my roots.

So as I pondered this week's prose while watching my three-year-old dissect a cheese quesadilla at our friendly neighborhood Denny's the other day, it's no accident I regressed.

After all, when I was just slightly more than little Ryan's age, baseball was all that mattered.

As soon as I was sturdy enough on two legs to don the "tools of ignorance," I took my place behind home plate, began a life's worth of wear on my knees and pointed my career path toward Cincinnati... where I'd surely become the next Johnny Bench.

It seemed realistic enough as I tore up the Town of Niagara Little League.

But as it turned out, by the time I reached 17, the powers that be intervened.

For purposes of this anecdote, the powers that be were the varsity baseball coaching staff at Niagara-Wheatfield High School -- led by veteran grey-haired gym teacher Joe Kwiatkowski.

Suffice to say, no matter how much I insisted my years of practice had girded me for competition with the Falcons in the Niagara Frontier League, Mr. K and his minions thought otherwise.

Truth told, 25 years later... they were dead on in their assessment.

And as much as I'd like to be taking a farewell tour of the majors with a final stop alongside the Ohio River at Great American Ball Park tonight, it's probably better that things wound up how they did.

In spite of what the message-board militia might have you believe each week, I'm a far better writer than I was a ballplayer. And it's the combination of one-day wannabe hit king and subsequent Internet word king that's prompted the unlikely mash-up I concocted alongside pancakes.

Mixing two of my favorite sports, I wondered, what collection of boxers -- while admitting that the attributes that make someone great in one activity aren't specifically translatable to the other -- would combine to make the ideal batting order?

Among the necessities of a championship lineup: speed, discipline, power, clutch performance.

And the more I thought of it, I realized maybe the skills do translate with ring all-stars after all.

So by the time the lovely Danielle had tossed back her last black coffee and the aforementioned Ryan was sufficiently crumb-covered, my internal thesis was complete. And after prolonged sparring with Internet connection issues that delayed my usual column slot by 24 hours, the final product is as well.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Murderers Row... 2011 style. Not the nine best fighters in the world by any stretch, but the nine whose talents complement each other enough to dominate all comers.

Batting first: Former longtime king of the little men, Ivan Calderon.

Though recently deposed as champion, the tiny Puerto Rican was everything a manager would want in a leadoff man -- quick, disciplined, smart and dependable. Not to mention left-handed.

Until Giovani Segura solved him twice in eight months in late 2010 and early 2011, the wispy southpaw made a living out of being a slap hitter who was -- to steal baseball jargon -- good to all fields.

If Ichiro Suzuki had a 105-pound doppelganger, Calderon would be him.

Batting second: Soon-to-be three-time Manny Pacquiao nemesis, Juan Manuel Marquez.

When I think capable No. 2 hitter, my mind always goes back to the early 1990s Pittsburgh Pirates teams that feature a pre-Balco Barry Bonds and a pre-Mets Bobby Bonilla. Manning the second spot in the order for Jim Leyland & Co. was Jay Bell, a middle infielder who could work a count, stroke an opposite-field liner or lay down a sacrifice as good as anyone in his era.

Marquez, to me, fits that bill to perfection. He's not the most powerful, not the fastest or the flashiest fighter in any bout, but he does so many things well that he makes himself impossible to ignore when it comes to legitimate pound-for-pound rankings.

Toss Jay Bell in a pair of trunks and tasseled shoes, and he's a Mexican lightweight.

Batting third: Super middleweight prospect-turned-kingpin, Andre Ward.

Ask any baseball man where he pencils in his best hitter and more often than not, the answer you get is the No. 3 hole in the lineup. Sure, the big boppers often fill the cleanup role, but the third hitter gets an at-bat in every first inning, often times has the first crack at producing runs and is often pretty capable when it comes to the long ball as well. For clarification, see Pujols, Albert -- St. Louis.

In the ring, Ward does all those things. He's as athletic as anyone in any division, can punch with punches, box with boxers and roughhouse with roughhousers. His demolition of Mikkel Kessler gave him street cred and his subsequent beatdowns of Allan Green, Sakio Bika and Arthur Abraham are the stylistic equivalent of an in-ring triple crown.

He'll prove his mettle upon facing a top-of-the-rotation starter in Carl Froch this fall and move into a match next year with the only 168-pounder with a truly similar skill set -- Lucien Bute.

Batting fourth: Double-digit heavyweight title defender, Wladimir Klitschko.

Go ahead, try and work your way through the Philadelphia Phillies lineup without getting sweaty palms at the prospect of Ryan Howard striding to the plate with two men on and one man out... won't happen. The burly first baseman has scared many a hurler straight in an as-yet brief big-league career, helping the Phillies elevate from 1990s laughingstocks to 2000s National League dynasty.

Klitschko surely casts a similar shadow over the heavyweights. No matter who's faced him and how many holes in his swing they claimed to identify before the opening bell, the mammoth Ukrainian has managed to turn on every fastball and rip every breaking pitch to the tune of zero losses in 14 fights since a five- round aberration against Lamon Brewster in 2004.

And just as the Phillies look destined to lead the NL for years, Klitschko is poised to control the heavies for about as long as he wants.

Batting fifth: Junior welterweight "it" guy, Amir Khan.

Sometimes the No. 5 hole is reserved for a cleanup hitter who's been pushed out by a teammate with more prime skills. And other time, it's the space made for an up-and-comer on his way to making a huge splash.

I go the latter route with Khan, who, to me, is the sport's next crossover hit. In establishing himself as the most interesting, well-rounded 140- pounder, the just cocky enough Brit eclipsed fellow junior welter Timothy Bradley without throwing a punch. And with an imminent trip to 147, he'll ultimately have a chance to clean up -- pun intended -- against the sport's very best, Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Re-do this list in two years and it's my hunch Khan's an MVP No. 3 man.

Batting sixth: Decorated champion and superfight bridesmaid, Miguel Cotto.

Make no mistake, many a No. 6 man has been used higher in the order with success. They've terrorized all the bottom-rotation pitchers they've been supposed to terrorize, but never managed consistent success against those front-liners truly on the next level.

Such is the case with Cotto. He was a phenom at 140 and a commodity at 147, but when push came to shove in the two biggest matchups of his career -- Antonio Margarito and Manny Pacquiao -- he was exposed as a 380-foot slugger in a 400-foot ballpark.

A chance at redemption with Margarito comes this fall, but even a win won't erase the nagging feeling that he's just not good enough when his best foe brings his best pitch.

Batting seventh: Sure, can play... but who actually knows it? Felix Sturm.

Similar to teammates in the No. 2 hole, the No. 7 hitter is often overlooked, but frequently valuable as a key to prolonging innings started by mid-lineup bashers, or kick-starting rallies that bridge the lesser hitters at the bottom of the order.

Sturm is one of those guys in the boxing world. He's won three titles, racked up handfuls of defenses and made himself a nice career in the shadows. He did enough to win in a lot of people's eyes when he met Oscar De La Hoya in 2004, and all he's done since is win 16 times in 18 fights (one loss, one draw) while becoming a Hasselhoff-caliber attraction in his homeland.

Never the best player on a team, but precisely the kind that lets you win championships.

Batting eighth: Unlikely featherweight upset king, Orlando Salido.

Pitch around him. Disrespect him. Compared to the other luminaries in a lineup, the No. 8 hitter shines far less brightly. But every now and then, he'll take that down-the-middle batting practice fastball and rip it back through the box to win a game.

The 30-year-old did just that in spoiling the 126-pound party four months ago in Puerto Rico, where he toppled hometown hero Juan Manuel Lopez as the younger and presumably better man was on his way to a register-ringing showdown with unbeaten Cuban Yuriorkis Gamboa.

Make no mistake, when Lopez re-gathers his mojo and stares down the chute at Salido again, he'll probably win. And when their respective career arcs are drawn, it's Lopez's that'll have a higher peak. But it doesn't always pay to sleep on No. 8 just because the pitcher's coming up... and Salido is fighting proof.

Batting ninth: Boxing's equivalent of Satchel Paige, ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins.

Just as the Negro League star defied age and logic and all things sensible with his AARP-aged feats, the three-decade pro from Philadelphia is throwing spitballs, knucklers and change-ups while fooling a generation of foes who were in diapers when he started.

And the amazing thing is, he's better now than he was then.

The Montreal conquering of Pascal in May was just the latest inning in a marathon game that surely looked over when Jermain Taylor took him deep twice and Joe Calzaghe followed with a barrage of infield singles. But just as the 27th out is the hardest on the diamond, delivering the final blow to Hopkins has proven impossible for each who's tried since.

In Chad Dawson, he may have finally found an unhittable closer. But would it really stun anyone to see him go yard on the oft-underwhelming Connecticut talent?

But hey, what do I know? I was sure he'd lose to Jones.

This week's title-fight schedule:

FRIDAY

WBC super flyweight title -- Muang, Thailand

Tomas Rojas (champion) vs. Suriyan Sor Rungvisai (No. 7 contender)

Rojas (36-12-1, 24 KO): Third title defense; Thirteenth fight outside Mexico (5-7, 2 KO)

Rungvisai (18-5-1, 7 KO): Second title fight (0-1, 0 KO); Seven of last eight wins by KO

Fitzbitz says: "Young, powerful challenger wins belt on home turf." Rungvisai in 9

Last week's picks: 2-0 Overall picks record: 328-108 (75.2 percent)

Lyle Fitzsimmons is a veteran sports columnist who's written professionally since 1988 and covered boxing since 1995. His work is published in print and posted online for clients in North America and Europe. Reach him at fitzbitz@msn.com or follow him on Twitter.