Monday, November 14, 2005

A major award

Alex Rodriguez is the American League's Most Valuable Player. And somewhere, Derek Jeter rolls his eyes and snickers.

Rodriguez, the Yankees' richly talented third baseman, edged Red Sox slugger David Ortiz for the award by 24 points, 331 to 307, in voting conducted by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. It was a mildly disappointing development for Sox fans, who are hungry for any morsel of good news during this abomination of an offseason. But even the most determined A-Rod basher - and we here at TATB have made it pretty clear that we consider him baseball's most prominent phony - could not argue that he is as deserving of this award as anyone. Yes, including Ortiz, whom A-Rod eclipsed in several offensive categories, including home runs.

Of course, A-Rod's candidacy was boosted by the fact that the award's definition is much broader and more open to interpretation than its simple title might suggest. The Most Valuable Player? Hell, yeah, that's our Papi - he's the greatest clutch performer in the game, and his importance on the field and off to the Red Sox is unrivaled. Common sense tells me the Yankees would have gotten a lot closer to the playoffs without A-Rod than the Sox would have without Ortiz, and I suspect even A-Rod's teammates might agree. But if you consider the MVP to be The Player With The Best Offensive Statistics Who Plays A Key Position On A Team That Made The Playoffs Award, well, A-Rod's justifiably your guy. So what if opponents would rather face him than at least two of his teammates (Jeter, Sheffield, and even Matsui) with the game on the line - the impact of his massive numbers is indisputable. He's baseball's the best player. Does that make him the most valuable? It's all a matter of the voters' perception.

For all of A-Rod's accomplishments with the bat, it's worth noting that several votes apparently tilted in his favor because of his skill with the glove. A-Rod's defensive prowess isn't exaggerated - as a third baseman, he's still the best shortstop on the Yankees, and his extraordinary range has allowed Jeter to cheat closer to second base, where his primary defensive shortcoming (going to his left) isn't so obvious anymore, particularly to the Gold Glove voters. I suppose there's some logic in giving his defense such weight, particularly when the players' offensive numbers are so similar. Then again, I can't remember another time when the defensive angle was given such consideration. Frank Thomas, Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco have all won MVP awards, and their gloves were ornaments at best.

It's almost satisfying that Papi finished a close second. (Does that make him the MVP Wild Card winner?) We were certain that some pea-brained, attention-whore of a reporter, most likely one named George King, would leave Papi off his ballot altogether in some transparent protest about the DH. Fortunately, Papi was listed all 28 ballots, finishing first or second on all of them, and our conspiracy theories about the Yankee-rumpswab New York beat writers will have to wait 'til next year.

In the meantime, we Sox fans will continue to appreciate the cosmic joke that is being played here. A-Rod and his people have long seemed intent on portraying him as America's Model Ballplayer, to the point that his entire persona falls somewhere between rehearsed and contrived. Yet, for all his gaudy statistics, blandly agreeable quotes and Pepsodent smiles, he can't control one crucial aspect of his all-important image: That when his team needs him the most, he might well be among the least valuable players.

The lingering image of A-Rod's season is the final one. With the Yankees trailing the Angels, 5-3, in the ninth inning of the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS, with the Yankees' season hanging in the balance and Jeter standing on first base after doing his job and imploring A-Rod to finally start doing his, with a chance to be the October hero he so desperately pines to be, A-Rod failed to drive one into the bleachers, and instead drove one of the final nails into the 2005 Yankees' coffin, hitting into a 5-4-3 double play. It was an appropriate conclusion to a miserable series in which he batted .133.

Fortunately for A-Rod, the voting was done before his annual playoff nosedive, and so the sport's most prestigious individual award came down to a matter of what the voters appreciated more: a phenomenally gifted all-around player cursed with an uncanny knack for strangling his bat in the biggest moments, or a fearsome one-dimensional slugger who uses his glove as a paperweight but rises to the occasion more than any hitter we have ever seen.

This year, the voters valued the former more. Fair enough. A-Rod did have a hell of a year.

Right up to the predictable ending.

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As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

The last Yankee to win an MVP award? Donnie Baseball, way back in '85. Considering that his teammates admired him, he was far and away the most valuable player in the league, and he never to anyone's knowledge wore purple lip gloss or attempted to slap the ball out of a pitcher's hand, he really doesn't have much in common with A-Rod. Well, except for this: His teams never won anything of significance, either.