By Tim Marchman
September 03, 2009

I live in a nice part of Chicago. Saul Bellow wrote some of his best novels while living here. Barack Obama represented the neighborhood in the Illinois Senate. My apartment is around the corner from the site of the first sustained nuclear reaction and one of Frank Lloyd Wright's more beautiful houses, and, more impressively, right down the street from Bill Veeck's old digs. Neither Mr. Sammler's Planet nor the fission reactor nor the exploding scoreboard can, though, quite rate with Hyde Park's greatest contribution to world culture: The Latke-Hamantash Debate.

Every year since 1946, University of Chicago scholars, including such eminences as Allan Bloom and Milton Friedman, have come together to debate the relative merits of delicious latkes (fried potato pancakes) and vile hamentashen (cookies with sweet filling, often made of prunes), presenting papers with titles like "The Archetypal Hamentasch: A Feminist Mythology" and offering learned disquisitions on whether or not Finnegans Wake is a tribute to the latke. After the thundering denunciations are done, everyone repairs to a reception to devour latkes, choke down hamentashen and ponder the implications of the latke's self-evident superiority for string theory or what have you.

If you're wondering when I'll come around to baseball, you clearly haven't spent much time reading or talking about Most Valuable Player awards lately. However much mock sophistry esteemed professors can summon once a year on the subject of Jewish holiday foods, it's nothing compared to the quite real sophistry that baseball fans and pundits can summon when the subject of a plaque adorned with Kenesaw Mountain Landis' face comes up. You probably aren't really a fan if you've never seen someone turn bright red while bellowing "It's a most valuable player award!" at you, as if emphasizing the second word of the sentence were enough to prove that Pedro Feliz or whomever deserves it.

This is delightful, one of the best things about baseball, precisely because it's so absurd and because so much air and ink and so many electrons are spent on something that means so little to anyone. Which is why one should be thrilled by the new controversy around Hanley Ramirez, involving Marlins second baseman Dan Uggla snapping in front of reporters about how Ramirez shouldn't have asked out of a Tuesday game on account on an injury. Here's drama!

Until now, anyone who wanted to get into a good argument over an MVP award had to key in on the American League, and even that one isn't all that interesting. Joe Mauer is the best player in the circuit by so much that the cases made for players like Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira have been half-hearted and perfunctory, as if the people making them are a little abashed about doing so. Ramirez, though, has now given us something almost as worth getting angry about as a paper purporting to prove that prune cookies were the unacknowledged source of the Enlightenment.

MVP debates, in their pure form, are about what different people consider important. I tend to side against the red-faced bellowers (and their more respectable fellow travelers) and with those who think the best player in the league should get the thing. This is mainly because the plain text of the actual ballot is quite unambiguous about the criteria that voters are supposed to use: "strength of offense and defense," games played and "character, disposition, loyalty and effort" count, and voters are explicitly reminded that one doesn't have to play for a contender to win. A player such as Mauer, who clearly has more strength than anyone else, has played lots of games, whose disposition is never questioned, and who even plays for a fringe contender, obviously deserves the award.

With Ramirez, though, the case actually becomes interesting. If you go by a good all-encompassing statistic like WAR, there are three serious MVP candidates in the National League: Ramirez, Albert Pujols and Chase Utley. Ramirez entered Thursday with 6.5 WAR, Pujols with 6.9, and Utley with 7.2. (Don't be misled by those decimal points, by the way; they're false precision.) Given the quirks in UZR, the statistic that comprises the defensive element of WAR, you can basically say that they've all been about equally good.

This sounds right, even if you go by entirely conventional statistics. Ramirez is a competent shortstop who's leading the league in batting average and has popped 57 extra base hits with a month left in the year. Pujols is an excellent first baseman who's leading in on-base average, slugging average, runs and home runs. Utley isn't leading in anything except being hit by pitches, but he's sixth in OPS and is probably the best-fielding second baseman in the league. There's not that much to distinguish one from another.

That leaves us with intangibles. Pujols is the widely revered anchor of a Cardinals team that entered Thursday, somewhat shockingly, tied for the best record in the league. He hits home runs on demand for sick children. Utley is as tough a player as there is in the sport, probably the most important player on the defending world champions. And while Ramirez is the best player on a Marlins club that despite a recent slide is still far closer to a playoff spot than it has much right being, he was also just accused by a teammate, openly and in front of reporters, of caring less about winning than about his new $70 million contract.

Here is an argument almost worth having. If you have three players of essentially equal value, and the one who's probably most important to his team is openly accused of malingering by his partner on the keystone, should that knock him right out of contention? Even going by a strict, literal reading of the ballot, it might. If I had a vote and had to send it in today, though, I'd probably still cast it for Ramirez.

One shouldn't be all that concerned with Uggla's opinion of just how injured Ramirez is, and just how hard he should be trying to play through it. Shortstops who don't care don't generally hit like Manny Ramirez with a bunch of stolen bases, and if they do it doesn't matter because they're much, much more valuable than many players who care a lot. It's telling that Uggla felt moved to make such an extraordinary scene, but Ramirez's .355 batting average is even more telling.

What one should -- or at least can, as one probably shouldn't -- be concerned with is Ramirez's strength of offense and defense. Per WAR it's slightly lower than his rivals', but not much so, which leaves the question of which of them is most irreplaceable. That goes to the Marlin.

If the Cardinals lost Pujols, they could still find a first baseman who could really hit. The Phillies would have a harder time replacing Utley, but not as hard a time as the Marlins would have replacing Ramirez; if a second baseman who can hit for a .970 OPS is hard to find, a shortstop is that much harder. That's logic, and I'm sticking to it.

What I don't expect is that voters will agree. Since 2000 baseball writers have voted on 18 MVP awards. By my count half of them -- the four that went to Barry Bonds, the three that went to Alex Rodriguez, and the two that went to Pujols -- went to players who were clearly the best in their league. Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Howard and Jason Giambi won in years when they were arguably but not clearly the best in the league. Ichiro Suzuki and Jimmy Rollins won for having very good years attached to great stories. And Justin Morneau, Vladimir Guerrero and Miguel Tejada all won essentially for driving in a lot of runs for good teams. (None were necessarily even the best at their positions in the years they won.)

This isn't a bad record, and it shows that for all the articles you'll read about the semantics of the word valuable, in practice baseball writers tend to just vote for the best players. It also shows that they'll tend to vote for players on better teams if there's a tie, which makes sense -- no one really cries about the injustice of Giambi winning out over Carlos Delgado in 2000 -- and that when possible they'll try to avoid giving the award to the same player every year, which is part of why Rollins (and arguably Howard) and Tejada got awards that rightly belonged to Pujols and Rodriguez.

Line those last two factors up and, assuming everyone plays more or less as they have to date through the end of the year, Ramirez will probably lose out on the tiebreaker and Pujols will probably lose out because he's always the best in the league and you can't just give the award to the same guy every year unless he's routinely running up on-base averages above .500. That would leave Utley as your 2009 MVP, something no one should really be too upset about.

What really counts, though, is that there's every possibility of something as fantastical and absurd as a latke-hamantash debate involving Milton Friedman. Imagine that the Marlins make a charge down the stretch; that Ramirez hits .450, dives for every ball, steals second and third on consecutive pitches in key games, and ends up with the best numbers in the league. Imagine further that despite this the Marlins fall just short, by two or three games.

Then imagine the red-faced hooting that will go on! St. Louis partisans would argue for their man, and rightly so; Philadelphia partisans would do things I don't like to think about, and some loud contingent would call everyone else insane and point to the plain text of the ballot.

A great cry would go up in the land, and enormous passions would be raised for next to no reason at all. I like the idea; I'm almost rooting for it.

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