As the game of the supreme individualist defined by the sanctity of one’s statistics, baseball takes the baubles dispensed at the end of every season mighty seriously. Hence the fanfare, which is unmatched elsewhere in sport, and the inevitable controversy, which can last for decades.
It’s a mossy and sometimes peculiar custom, minted by this often mossy and peculiar game. Keep in mind the first MVP citations -- then called “The Chalmers Award,” funded by a fancy and self-promoting automobile manufacturer -- were handed out 17 years before anyone ever dreamed of an Academy Award, well before anyone ever spoke in a movie for that matter. It’s all about “individual honors” which are more precious in baseball than other games. There are players who would rather win a batting title than a World Series. Many of them played for the Red Sox.
But we digress. In these final hours of the long, long season when the contenders and pretenders are grasping for playoff berths, the chaps who have a shot at the really big stuff, the postseason hardware, are lining up. Here’s a rundown of the nominees.
Executive of the Year
In the American League it’s another Athens-Sparta clash. Few GMs have had a more complex task than Brian Cashman, obliged to re-invent the House of Steinbrenner and radically overhaul its mindset while not missing a beat or a playoff. Near impossible, but he’s on the verge of doing it. It can also be argued that the lad in Boston deserves the nod again for his aggressive re-stocking of a team that missed the playoffs a year ago. If the Yankees stumble at the wire, Theo wins by default.
In the National League, Josh Byrnes -- Epstein’s ex-aide de camp -- is the odds on favorite for having done such a swift makeover in Arizona.
Manager of the Year
It’s axiomatic that Messrs. Francona in Boston and Torre in New York will never again win this citation. Their payrolls, so widely viewed as obscene, make it more a question of how dare they be excused for not making the postseason, at a minimum. This may be unfair, especially to Torre who had to endure oddly complex stresses with a gun at his head again this year while in Francona’s behalf it’s decidedly true that managing in Boston will never be a day at the beach. Neither, however, gets my vote. Jim Leyland in Detroit won’t repeat. So it will probably be Mike Scioscia out in Anaheim although he’s accomplished no more than was widely expected. A better choice is Cleveland’s Eric Wedge.
In the NL, it’s between either the D’backs Bob Melvin or the Padres’ Bud Black depending on who wins the west. The Brewers’ Ned Yost will get votes. The Phils Charlie Manuel deserves them. The Cubs’ Lou Piniella always attracts them. Contrariness compels me to pull for the Dodgers’ Grady Little.
Rookie of the Year
The field is extraordinary in both leagues although some of the very best including Boston’s Ellsbury and Buchholz, New York’s Chamberlain and Hughes, and Detroit’s Maybin came up too late to qualify this year while accruing enough appearances to make them ineligible next year. This is a recurring pattern. Tampa’s BJ Upton and Jimmie Shields, Anaheim’s Howie Kendrick, and Pittsburgh’s Tom Gorzelanny, among others, should be favorites for this year’s awards. They’re the best of the best. But late-season call-ups last season make them ineligible. That’s not fair. The rules for defining rookie status should be changed.
Also in dispute are the rules for international imports. Four years ago when he was far and away the best new player in the Majors, the Yankees’ Hideki Matsui was denied the rookie prize on the grounds he’d been a seasoned star in Japan. The award went instead to a flash in the pan Royals shortstop now long gone. So how now can either Daisuke Matsuzaka or Hideki Okajima be eligible? The answer is, “No Way”!
And they won’t be; not in these calculations. Favorites in the AL are Boston’s impish Dustin Pedroia, Tampa’s Delmon Young, and KC’s Joakim Soria maybe in that order. In the NL Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado’s sensational 22 year old shortstop, is the hot pick followed by Milwaukee’s slugging third baseman, Ryan Braun, Houston’s Hunter Pence, and LA’s James Loney. It’s a watershed time for young talent in both leagues.
Comeback of the Year
An award based mainly on sentiment but a personal favorite. The runaway AL winner is Carlos Pena, out of Haverhill and Northeastern University. One year ago Pena was on the rocks having been successively dumped by the Tigers, Yankees and Red Sox. Today he ranks second only to the mighty A-Rod in homers having fully blossomed in Tampa. It’s quite a story.
Two months ago Josh Hamilton, reborn with the Reds after years of failed promise and drug problems, would also have been a landslide winner but he’s slipped notably of late. The Cards’ Rick Ankiel was another Cinderella story thriving as recently as last week. Then came revelations he’s been messing with HGH or some such witches’ brew. An interesting choice might be Junior Griffey who discovered new bounce in his step this season, although even at his worst Junior was never in oblivion.
In the AL, it’s a dandy race to the wire with the Indians C.C. Sabathia, the Red Sox Josh Beckett, and the Yankees Chien-Ming Wang all brinking on 20 wins and carrying their teams on their bloody backs with classical flair. Sabathia gets the very slight edge here. Only a heartbeat off the pace are Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Anaheim’s pair of horses, John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar. The Twins Johan Santana doesn’t win again but still contends. So does -- save for injuries -- the Jays Roy Halladay. Dan Harren of the also-ran A’s may be the best of the lot. Or maybe it’s Eric Bedard of the even worse Orioles? They are all so young and brilliant. Suddenly, great pitching abounds. It’s just terrific.
In the NL, where the flowering of the art form is not quite so pronounced, odds-on choice is the Padres’ Jake Peavy who has the game’s best pitching numbers. Laboring for a lousy team, the Astro’s Roy Oswalt deserves consideration as do the Braves Tim Hudson, the Dodgers Brad Penny and the Phils Cole Hamels.
MVP -- AL
By the universal consent of humankind it is Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees by an FDR-size landslide, although this isn’t entirely fair. In a normal year many would contend.
As of the writing, Detroit’s Magglio Ordonez is hitting .354 with 121 RBI and many consider Carlos Guillen even more indispensable to the Tigers, with Curtis Granderson close behind. A-Rod’s own teammate, the estimable Jorge Posada, is a catcher hitting .337. The dazzling Ichiro of the Mariners has smote 200 hits for the seventh straight year, an achievement matched only by ‘‘Wee Willie’’ Keeler and Wade Boggs. Vladimir Guerrero has his usual MVP numbers while deferential nods are due Mike Lowell of the Red Sox and Orlando Cabrera, most consistent mainstays of the league’s two winningest teams. In a normal year, David Ortiz who should finish hitting roughly .320 with 30 homers and 120 ribbies would contend. This year, he’ll be lucky to finish in the top 10.
So much for all that. The only question remains. Does A-Rod win unanimously? If the Yankees prevail, the answer is “Yes.” The last time we’ve seen a performance like this was Yaz in ’67.
MVP -- NL
There seems growing determination to hand the thing to Albert Pujols of the Cards. It’s the “when in doubt give the prize to the guy who hits all the homers” thesis at work, quite as usual. But there are potentially more interesting choices than Pujols or other swarthy young sluggers like the Phils’ Ryan Howard or the Brewers’ Prince Fielder. For my money, either of the Mets’ marvelous young sparkplugs, Jose Reyes or David Wright, are better picks. Though if this award were for the league’s very best player it would go to the stunning Hanley Ramirez of the Marlins, whom your Red Sox so charitably gave away.
The envelopes, please!