boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe
BOB RYAN

Choice is clear: Jeter

What fun would life be without a good old-fashioned baseball MVP argument?

I know poor Papi never imagined the consequences of just being a loyal member of Sluggers, Inc. David Ortiz was simply stating the case for his fellow boppers, as opposed to the table setters of the world. The American League East race may be over, but with a weekend series on tap, and the Yankees and Red Sox remaining, well, the Yankees and Red Sox, the whole thing was -- this time the phrase really is warranted -- blown out of proportion.

But you can never go wrong yakking about baseball MVP, especially when you have contrasting types of players in contention.

Start with the premise that it's a nebulous concept to begin with. How much stock are we really supposed to put in the word ``valuable"? Is ``valuable" actually a synonym for ``irreplaceable," and if that's the case, why should a player be penalized if his team has an adequate substitute for him, thus rendering him less ``irreplaceable"? I must tell you I have a real problem when people harp on this word ``valuable," as opposed to, for example, ``outstanding." I'd like to introduce another word: worthy. Most Worthy Player. How does that sound?

The current system carries with it no guidelines, other than the stipulation that, Cy Young Award or no Cy Young Award, pitchers are eligible. Anyone who cannot honestly factor pitchers into the mix is supposed to inform the Baseball Writers Association of America of his or her position, and is supposed to be replaced. That's a fact.

But a system in place before this one was instituted in 1931 did have a guideline. There was something called the League Award available from 1922-29, and, according to the indispensable encyclopedia ``Total Baseball," its committee adopted a set of rules that included a declaration that the trophy was to honor the player ``who is of greatest all-around service to his club and credit to the sport during each season; to recognize and record uncommon skill and ability when exercised by a player in the best interests of his team and to perpetuate his memory."

And there was more. The rules also instructed voters to select a ``winning ballplayer," while reminding them that ``combined offensive and defensive ability is not always indicated by a system of records."

Interesting.

The system was deeply flawed, however. Repeat winners were not permitted. Thus, when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs with 164 runs batted in and 158 runs scored in 1927, he wasn't eligible. Well, they tried.

We arrived at the current format, more or less, in 1931. It was called the Most Valuable Player Award, thus we must assume the word ``valuable" was chosen with care. If only they had simply said, ``Outstanding," we wouldn't have had half the controversies we've known. But I suppose we would have had far less fun.

A pitcher (Lefty Grove) and a second baseman (Frankie Frisch) won the inaugural awards in 1931, but Papi's kind of guys then fared well. Sluggers would dominate the first decade's award winners, with five pitchers (Carl Hubbell, a two-time winner, Grove, Dizzy Dean, and Bucky Walters), three catchers (Mickey Cochrane, Gabby Hartnett, and Ernie Lombardi), and another second baseman (Charlie Gehringer) who hit .371 with a .458 on-base percentage, though no one knew what that was, thrown in.

The voters have always been impressed by power and run production. A total of 30 MVPs have been homer/RBI kings. But it is not true that the voters always look in that direction. I must admit I was very surprised to find out that there were more homer/RBI double winners (33) rejected as MVPs as have been given the honor. Team finish is the usual rationale, as only two players, Larry Doby in 1954 and Albert Belle in 1995 (both Indians, oddly) , have led the league in homers and runs batted in for first-place teams without being honored as the MVP. Doby lost to Yogi Berra, while Belle, as you doubtless know, was overtaken by one Maurice ``Mo" Vaughn, who had 11 fewer homers (50-39), but the same number of runs batted in (126). And a lot more smiles.

This year, the American League has four legit candidates. You've got Ortiz, Justin Morneau, and Jermaine Dye, boppers all, and you've got Derek Jeter. I can also imagine someone voting for Johan Santana, but we don't have time to get into that debate. I'll stick with the position players, if that's all right with you.

Papi's entitled to his sincere opinion that the guys who bring home the runs are the guys who matter, but voters have respectfully offered their own opinions over the years that there are other ways of being a) valuable, b) outstanding, or c) worthy. Being a quality shortstop is one of those ways.

Something inspired National League voters to pick Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion by one voting point over Bill ``Swish" Nicholson in 1944. Marion was a glove wizard, but he hit .267 with 63 RBIs and a pedestrian .324 on-base percentage. People watched him all year and decided he was of equal or superior import than a guy with 33 homers and 122 RBIs. Of course, the Cardinals finished first and Nicholson's Cubs finished fourth .

Voters have always had a soft spot for shortstops. Voters selected Washington's Roger Peckinpaugh (.294-4-64) in 1925. And shortstops who really did hit have fared well in more modern times, ranging from Lou Boudreau (.355-18-106, and, oh yeah, he was also the manager) in 1948 through Ernie Banks in 1958 and '59, Cal Ripken Jr. in 1983 and '91, and right up to Alex Rodriguez (.298-47-118 and .600 slugging) in 2003 .

More importantly, they have also honored shortstops perceived to have helped their team in a variety of ways, whether it was Maury Wills stealing 104 bases in 1962, Zoilo Versalles leading the league in runs, doubles, and triples in 1965, or Barry Larkin just being Barry Larkin in 1995 .

So here's the deal: Derek Jeter is the MVP. The numbers are all in order, right down to categories such as hitting with runners in scoring position and late-inning pressure averages. Batting second most of the time, he will knock in over a hundred, and he has already scored 100 runs for the 10th time in 11 full seasons. There is great debate about just how good a fielder he is among the Baseball Prospectus crowd, but you'd take him.

But he deserves the award for reasons that transcend the numbers. Remember what you read a few minutes ago? The ``winning ballplayer"? The one whose ``combined offensive and defensive ability is not always indicated by a system of records"? Jeter is the guy they were thinking about. In a season of great Yankees turmoil, he was the absolute rock, the absolute leader, the absolute irreplaceable man. He was, in short, the most worthy player in the American League.

It would be a mockery to anoint anyone else. I love ya, Papi, but Derek Jeter is the American League MVP.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is ryan@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES
 
Today (free)
Yesterday (free)
Past 30 days
Last 12 months
 Advanced search / Historic Archives