What if he'd hit 50 home runs, rather than 47? And knocked in 150 runs, rather than 148? And hit .310, rather than .300 (which was actually .2995, rounded up)? And come up with 22 game-winning RBIs, rather than 21?
What if he'd won just one more game, perhaps during the season's closing weekend, to deliver his Red Sox a division crown rather than the AL wild card?
''I don't think he realistically could have done more," Terry Francona said yesterday, speaking about his inimitable DH, David Ortiz. ''He did everything in his power to make a claim for the MVP. I don't think it was [a case of] him not pulling it off."
This AL MVP runoff, decided yesterday afternoon in favor of the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, reinforced the notion that ''playing both sides of the ball," as Rodriguez put it, is ''such an important part of winning games."
Rodriguez, who appeared in all 162 games, and only one as DH, received 16 first-place votes to Ortiz's 11 and edged the Sox' full-time DH in the voting, 331 to 307, to claim his second MVP award in three seasons.
''I'm not shocked," said Dennis Eckersley, who remains the most recent non-position player to win the AL MVP, in 1992 with Oakland. ''[Ortiz's] was an incredible year. Clutch-wise, for a guy, I've never seen anything like it. Watching him all the time makes you think he should have won it.
''But playing every day, it's hard to deny that that probably won out. Sometimes, you get robbed. It's not like he got robbed."
Ortiz, when reached by phone, sounded accepting, saying, ''It's all good," before asking that he be called back today for any further comment.
''I do feel bad," said Francona, also by phone. ''I think it could have meant a lot to him. He's very team-oriented. I know he's very proud."
By MVP voting standards, this was a crushing one-run loss. If three voters who ranked Ortiz second had slotted him ahead of Rodriguez, the award would be resting in the sizable hands of the slugging Dominican. The vote was the closest since 2001, when Seattle's Ichiro Suzuki eclipsed Oakland's Jason Giambi by a mere 8 points, 289 to 281.
Ortiz came the closest to winning the award of anyone who played primarily at DH. Frank Thomas, in 2000, previously had come nearest, placing 32 points behind Giambi.
No MVP has played more game at DH than Don Baylor, who in 1979 with the Angels appeared in 97 games in the outfield, 65 as a DH, and one at first base.
Rodriguez became the Yankees' first MVP since Don Mattingly in 1985, while Ortiz narrowly missed bringing Boston its first MVP since Mo Vaughn in 1995. The Yankees lead the Sox in World Series championships, 26-6, and the MVP collection is similarly tilted, 21-10.
In defeat, Ortiz nevertheless was the only player to place first or second on all 28 ballots, which are cast by two Baseball Writers Association of America members in each of the 14 AL cities. Rodriguez was denied that distinction by Gene Guidi of the Detroit Free Press, who voted 2004 MVP Vladimir Guerrero first on his ballot, ahead of Ortiz and Rodriguez.
Ortiz's second-place finish triggers a $400,000 revision to the Sox' 2007 club option on the 29-year-old. Rodriguez, meanwhile, receives another $1 million on top of his $252 million deal, which he's halfway through. Added money and attention, he acknowledged, don't figure to do anything to ease the incessant scrutiny he's faced for years.
''We can win three World Series, and with me, it's never going to be over," he said. ''My benchmark is so high no matter what I do it isn't going to be enough. I understand that. Maybe when I retire all the [criticism] will end."
Still, Rodriguez's award should reflect just how stunning a season he had, a season obscured in these parts by general disdain for A-Rod and the sheer force that Ortiz became as the season developed.
As the season's hourglass drained, Ortiz's serenely undisturbed focus only sharpened. His timing, borderline mythic, routinely generated ''MVP" chants that resonated throughout the Boston night. His benumbing numbers supported that rhythmic claim.
Ortiz compiled 48 RBIs that either tied games or gave the Sox the lead, including 16 in the seventh inning and beyond. He delivered 21 game-winning RBIs, including eight in the seventh inning or later. Of his 47 homers, six came in the ninth inning, one in the 10th, and one in the 11th. He knocked in 74 runs at home and 74 on the road.
Among his teammates, only Manny Ramirez (fourth place in the MVP voting) and Johnny Damon (13th) had at least 74 RBIs total. Ortiz reached base in 144 of 158 games, and reached base three times or more in 81 games.
Of tranquil mind but violent swing, Ortiz was not only clutch but majestically clutch. He turned around a B.J. Ryan fastball (that's lefty power on lefty power) for a walkoff shot June 2. He hit a solo shot in the seventh inning Aug. 12 vs. Chicago, then exploded on a 98-mile-per-hour Bobby Jenks fastball for a three-run shot the next inning, in a 9-8 win. Four days later, at Detroit, he belted a tying homer in the ninth, then accounted for a three-run homer the next inning. On Sept. 6, at Fenway, he unloaded on a Scot Shields fastball for a 457-foot walkoff shot.
But, as Rodriguez pointed out during a conference call, ''There's probably 15 or 16 offensive categories if you want to be a junkie. I may have won 10 or 12 of those."
Perhaps A-Rod overestimated, but his point has merit. Consider 13 possible measures of offensive prowess: batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, OPS (on-base plus slugging), runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs, walks, average with runners in scoring position, average with runners in scoring position with two outs, and production in close and late situations.
The score, by that measure: A-Rod 7, Ortiz 6.
Rodriguez led Ortiz in batting (.321 to .300), slugging (.610 to .604), on-base (.421 to .397), OPS (1.031 to 1.001), runs (124 to 119), hits (194 to 180), and homers (48 to 47).
Ortiz led Rodriguez in doubles (40 to 29), RBIs (148 to 130), walks (102 to 91), average with RISP (.352 to .290), average with RISP and two outs (.368 to .302), and production when close and late (.346-11-33 to .293-4-12).
A-Rod led the league in homers, runs, slugging, and OPS. He was second in batting and on-base, and third in walks. And he played a Gold Glove-caliber third base, making only 12 errors in his second season at the position.
''I would certainly trade his World Series championship for this MVP trophy," Rodriguez said. ''That's the only reason I play baseball."
Voting on the MVP award rotates among eight members of the Boston chapter of the BBWAA, and this year's voters, the Providence Journal's Steve Krasner and the Worcester Telegram and Gazette's Bill Ballou, both went for Ortiz over A-Rod. Similarly, both voting members of the New York chapter, Ken Davidoff of Newsday and John Delcos of the Journal News, voted for Rodriguez before Ortiz.
LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, infamous in this region for leaving Pedro Martinez off his 1999 MVP ballot because Martinez was a pitcher, supported Ortiz, a former Twin, with a first-place vote.
Neal and the New York Post's George King significantly influenced the outcome of the AL MVP race in 1999, when Martinez finished second, 252 to 239, behind Ivan Rodriguez. Neither Neal nor King used any of their 10 votes on Martinez. (King did not have an MVP vote this year.)
''The DH, to me, you're not in the field, but you have a daily influence on the game," said Neal, who received more than 300 angry e-mails and countless phone calls after the 1999 vote. In fact, said Neal, a group of men dialed him in the fall of 2000 on the one-year anniversary of the MVP announcement.
''They said they were going to call me every year," Neal said. ''But they stopped."
This morning, a new debate may commence: When, if ever, should a DH win the MVP?
''If people voted for Alex because of his defense, I understand that," Francona said. ''I hope they didn't hold it against David.
''There's a lot of guys who can't DH. David, as it turned out, is the best in baseball. Good for us."