Monday November 1st, 2010

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Ballpark in Arlington hosted an impromptu celebration of baseball's health and parity before World Series Game 4. The sport's new champion was guaranteed to be a team outside the richest quarter of franchises and a club who had waited at least five decades for a title. And something seemed appropriate about the pitching-heavy Giants holding a series lead over the Rangers, in this 2010 reincarnation of the Year of the Pitcher.

"This year I think baseball is back where it should be, really," Hall of Famer Hank Aaron said Sunday. "Earn what you're supposed to earn, rather than people starting to think about other things."

"Other things." Quite the colloquialism.

Then again, the last time Aaron and the Giants intersected it was in 2007, when the questions pertained to San Francisco's left fielder, Barry Bonds, and his chase of Aaron's hallowed career home run record amid suspicions of performance-enhancing drug use. On Sunday, Aaron cut short a question about keeping an eye on the '07 Giants. "I didn't HAVE to pay attention," Aaron clarified.

Aaron was in town to be on hand for the presentations of this year's Hank Aaron Award -- given annually since 1999 to the best offensive player in each league -- to two players who, in contrast to Bonds, are a pair of unassuming breakout stars from teams whose payrolls are in baseball's lower half: Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Blue Jays third baseman/right fielder Jose Bautista.

Votto ranked in the top three in the National League in each of the Triple Crown categories, batting .324 with 37 home runs and 113 RBIs. He led the league on on-base percentage (.424) and slugging (.600).

Bautista led the majors in home runs (54) -- tied for 19th alltime for most homers in a single season -- and total bases (351), while also driving in 124 runs.

"Now we see in these two young men that the game is in good hands," Aaron said. "I was very impressed with both of those young men."

Bautista and Votto were in Arlington, accompanied by their girlfriends and a couple friends, to formally accept their awards before World Series Game 4. Before the press conference announcing their selection, the two recipients were in a green room where they both spoke humbly about winning the award -- the first league-wide honor for each -- and hopefully about their teams' surprising seasons, which included noting a similarity and wish for the current Series.

"I think it'll go seven games," Votto said of Giants-Rangers. "I'm hoping for that because I don't care about either team. I have my team. But it's good for baseball. I care about the mid-markets doing well."

Later that evening the Giants took a commanding 3-1 series lead over the Rangers, but no matter who wins, baseball will have its ninth different champion in the last 10 years.

The mid-market rally cry is key. This past season, eight clubs had a payroll over $100 million: the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Phillies, Mets, Tigers, White Sox and Angels, and the 2010 World Series is the first since 1997 that none of these teams is represented.

For that matter, neither Hank Aaron Award recipient was from any of those big-spending teams and neither had met the legend before, but Votto estimated that for every story Reds manager Dusty Baker tells that isn't about Hank Aaron, he tells 10 that are. When Baker joined the Braves in the late 1960s, Aaron was a veteran star, but that didn't mean he didn't have to follow orders -- from Baker's mother.

"I kind of took care of Dusty," Aaron said. "When I say 'take care,' his mother told me I had to take care of him."

Now there's a certain symmetry that Baker is taking care of an Aaron Award winner. Votto is a respectful student of the game, who said he read biographies on Ted Williams, Honus Wagner, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle while he was a minor-league player. He read a biography on Aaron on the recommendation of Baker.

At the press conference formally announcing the award, Bautista was asked about having hit 10 more home runs than Aaron ever hit in a single season and quickly demurred, saying, "I couldn't even begin to compare myself with this man. The consistency he had in his career is just remarkable, and hopefully I can remain consistent for the rest of my career."

Beforehand Bautista spoke reverently of Aaron, noting that the Hall of Famer's accomplishments are even more impressive "knowing where Hank Aaron came from and the era he played."

In a very different sort of way, Bautista and Votto have endured their own long journeys. For Bautista it was bouncing around the majors -- he was a member of five major-league teams in 2004 -- and either shuttling to the minors regularly or being plopped on the bench. For Votto it was dealing with the death of his father, which prompted such severe stress and anxiety problems that he spent time on the disabled list.

Bautista and Votto first met as opponents in a 2006 Dominican winter league game, Votto playing for Escogido -- and hitting a long home run off an outfield billboard, to his recollection -- and Bautista starting for Licey. Their paths crossed again at the Tampa International Airport on Sunday, as they boarded the same flight to Dallas.

At that time Votto had yet to make his major-league debut while Bautista was preparing for his first full-season with the Pirates after spending a month of the previous year in Triple-A.

Now the careers of Bautista and Votto are both on the rise, just like their respective teams.

The Blue Jays have a new manager in John Farrell, formerly the Red Sox' pitching coach, whom Bautista has never met but admired for his work in Boston and has heard that he is "respectful and respected." Toronto's rotation of Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil and, eventually, Kyle Drabek has shown promise, and Bautista is excited about the team's core of position players, a group that also includes center fielder Vernon Wells, designated hitter Adam Lind, shortstop Yunel Escobar, second baseman Aaron Hill and left fielder Travis Snider.

"Hopefully we can become contenders next season," Bautista said. "We have a good core of players a team can be built upon. Starting pitching is just the big pillar."

He said his offseason surgery to repair a hernia -- in which his abductor muscle was torn from his lower abdomen to upper hip -- went perfectly and that his recovery is ahead of schedule. Bautista said the injury didn't affect his offensive performance but occasionally nagged him while running the bases or shagging flyballs. He has split time between third base and right field but, when healthy, feels the latter is a better fit.

"I think I'm more productive to any team in the outfield, where I can use my arm," he said.

The Reds exceeded most pundits' expectations by a year or two when they reached the playoffs this season, claiming the NL Central for their first postseason berth since 1995. It was short-lived, however, as the Reds ran into a red-hot Phillies team with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels atop their rotation.

"It's definitely different than the regular season," Votto said. "I don't blow things out of proportion, but I feel like the pitching is better. There's a higher level of concentration."

For now, however, the two are already a couple weeks into their respective offseason and took time away from home for the event. Bautista guessed that the last major-league game he attended in which he wasn't playing was a Marlins game in 1994; neither had ever been at a World Series game before.

"To be honest, I didn't want to do it," Votto said. "I wanted to save it for my first time playing." He shrugged. "But I guess I'm here."

With the Reds on the rise and the Blue Jays not far behind, he and Bautista may not be waiting much longer.

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