The list of reasons to love Alex Rodriguez was already longer
than Art Schlichter's rap sheet, but when the regular season
ended on Sunday and the last of the dizzying hitting records
went into the books, the Seattle Mariners' shortstop may have
made his most significant contribution yet to the game of
baseball. One glance at Rodriguez's phenomenal production this
season and the baseball writers who crown the Most Valuable
Player in the American League knew they had been spared. They
could vote with a clear conscience for someone other than
Cleveland Indians leftfielder Albert Belle.
Last year Belle was edged out for the award by Boston Red Sox
first baseman Mo Vaughn, and immediately came the charge that
the scribes were simply sticking it to Belle. They would never
vote for him, it was said, because he treats them as if they
were young girls in Pocahontas costumes ringing his doorbell on
Halloween. He hates them, and they hate him.
Belle will get his fair share of support this year as well, but
if the electorate was paying any attention, he will again finish
second, exactly where he belongs. Rodriguez has earned the MVP
in the American League. Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers, Ken
Griffey Jr. of the Mariners, Mark McGwire of the Oakland A's,
Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and Vaughn all put up
numbers that would have swept the MVP balloting most years, but
in this off-the-charts season, Rodriguez stood above the crowd.
We're so sorry, Uncle Albert, but A-Rod gets the nod.
In the National League the MVP also appears to be a close battle
between two players, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza and
San Diego Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti. The Piazza-Caminiti
showdown, like the NL West race, came down to the final weekend,
and in both races the Padres prevailed. Piazza had a spectacular
season, hitting .336 with 36 home runs and 105 RBIs while
calling the signals for the best pitching staff in the West. But
Caminiti meant even more to his team. Aside from his .326
average, 40 homers and 130 RBIs and his play-of-the-day defense
at third, the switch-hitting slugger nicknamed Scary Man
provided the Padres with guts and heart and an air of confidence
that the club had been sorely missing.
While just as tough to call, the National League MVP vote won't
be nearly as polarizing or provocative as the balloting in the
American League, where voters had a choice between Belle and the
anti-Belle: a brooding, enigmatic churl against a polite and
gracious young star. With each line drive Rodriguez seemed to
push baseball's long list of problems further out of the minds
of its fans. Too often Belle was one of those problems.
With an average of .358, the 21-year-old Rodriguez beat out
Thomas for the batting title by nine points. He also had 36
dingers and 123 RBIs, led the league in doubles (54), runs (141)
and total bases (379), and deftly held down the most important
position on the field. Belle played the least important position
and, as usual, did it with no great distinction.
Belle accumulated some immense power numbers, including 48
homers and an American League-best 148 RBIs, but if you are
looking for a deciding factor, consider this: Rodriguez, the
slender, baby-faced No. 2 hitter, finished with a higher
slugging percentage than big bad Albert (.631 to .623). Belle's
team had the best regular-season record in the league, but
Rodriguez helped keep Seattle in the running for a playoff spot
until the final weekend, even though ace Randy Johnson missed
virtually the entire season with a bad back.
If Rodriguez does win the award, he will hear the same lame
charge that was made last year. The Belle boosters will insist
the MVP is a personality contest, and they will not be entirely
incorrect. Personality may not be as important as batting
average, but it is impossible to expect a voter to ignore
Belle's bizarre off-the-field antics. More than merely a
marvelous athlete, Rodriguez is by all accounts a team player
and a terrific person.
You don't have to bake cookies for the press corps to qualify
for the MVP, but it doesn't help your cause when you throw
baseballs at photographers, or chase trick-or-treaters with your
car, or curse at reporters who dare to walk in the same galaxy
as Planet Albert. Former Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice won an MVP
award in 1978 without once inviting a writer over for Cheez-its
and Mountain Dew. No one ever accused Barry Bonds of charming
his way to three MVP awards, two with the Pittsburgh Pirates and
one with the San Francisco Giants.
The MVP isn't the Lady Byng, but Belle is beyond the point of
being considered simply eccentric or moody. Smashing clubhouse
thermostats, as he did a couple of weeks ago, isn't a playful
prank. It's dangerous behavior that would cost a lesser player
his job. With apologies to Caminiti, Belle is the real Scary Man.
Belle is so good that he nearly won the MVP in spite of himself,
but Rodriguez gave the voters a better choice. In the process
A-Rod may have saved baseball from yet another embarrassing
Belle incident. If you throw one of those MVP plaques, you can
do some real damage.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFF WONG [Drawing of Alex Rodriguez being awarded crown in front of Albert Belle]