If, as they say, it takes one to know one, then Frank Robinson should certainly be able to recognize a Most Valuable Player when he sees one. "What you look for," says Robinson, the only man to win an MVP award in each league, "is this: Is the player steady? Does he drive in the important runs? And is he the guy you'd like to see at the plate for you with two outs in the ninth and the winning run on base?" Such a paragon, suggests Robinson, who is now a Baltimore coach, may be found in the person of Oriole Outfielder Ken Singleton.
"He's been the big guy for us offensively all year," says Robinson. "Right now it has to be between him and Don Baylor for MVP in our league." Probably, but not necessarily, because strong arguments may be made in behalf of Kansas City's George Brett, who at week's end led the league in hits and triples, was tied for the lead in runs scored and tied for third in batting average; and Boston's Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, who are enjoying virtually identical magnificent seasons. But Singleton and the California Angels' Baylor are playing for potential division champions, and the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, who determine that MVP recipient, habitually favor front-runners.
It is not that Singleton and Baylor lack credentials to support their candidacies. Baylor had hit 34 homers, was leading the majors with 134 runs batted in and was tied for the major league lead in runs scored with 112. Singleton also had 34 homers, had driven in 109 runs and, with his 103 walks, had an impressive on-base percentage of .419. Both were hitting over .300. Numbers aside, these two 10-year veterans have much that is good—and bad—in common. Neither is particularly famous, despite his obvious ability; each has played in every one of his team's games; both have been afflicted with sore throwing arms; both are indebted to Robinson—Baylor for Robby's advice on hitting, Singleton for his sage words on fielding—and each is the sort of good guy who deserves to finish first.
And yet they are dissimilar players. Baylor bats right; Singleton is a switch hitter. Baylor is that rarity, a power hitter who seldom walks or strikes out. He had struck out only 47 times and walked 67 times. As he sees it, his role is to get the bat on the ball and "keep it in play." Singleton had 107 strikeouts to go with his walks, but he is acknowledged to be one of the most intelligent hitters in the game, a lusty swinger who, in the tradition of Ted Williams, would rather accept a base on balls than take one of his hefty cuts at a bad pitch. "It's incredible how many times he'll get hits off 3-1, 3-2 pitches," says Oriole Pitcher Steve Stone. "He either walks or gets a pitch he can hit. He won't swing at that breaking ball below the knees or the sneaky fastball away from the plate. He won't get himself out. He puts the pressure on the pitcher." Baltimore Manager Earl Weaver concurs, saying, "Ken refuses to swing at the pitcher's pitches."
Baylor, who at 6'1" and 195 is built like a heavyweight contender, is a swift and canny base runner who has stolen as many as 52 bases in a season. Singleton, 6'4" and 211 pounds, has stolen two bases in the last three years and is sorely deficient in what Robinson, somewhat redundantly, calls "foot speed."
Last year, neither Baylor nor Singleton could throw a baseball through a spider's web. Baylor's arm has always been considered as useful as adenoids. Indeed, he has not been able to throw authoritatively since he separated his right shoulder making a tackle in a high school football game in his native Austin, Texas. No one has questioned his ability to catch a baseball or, with his speed, to catch up with one, but his arm encourages, rather than deters, base runners. As a result, he had been obliged until this year to work mostly as a designated hitter. In only 56 of the 158 games he appeared in last season did he play defense—39 in the outfield, 17 at first base. Baylor has never been satisfied being half a player, and he has worked mightily to overcome his throwing weakness. He concludes, however, that "once you get a reputation, it's hard to get rid of it."
Every spring, he says, his manager of the moment will cordially assure him that he will see more service in the field. But when the season starts, his glove remains in his locker. That has changed somewhat this year. He has proved a useful fill-in for regular outfielders Joe Rudi and Dan Ford, when those worthies have been injured, and of late he has played leftfield when the opposing pitcher is righthanded and has usually been the DH only against lefties. Under this arrangement—which Manager Jim Fregosi uses to get the bat of lefty DH Willie Aikens into the lineup—Baylor has been out there hand in glove about half the time. He has worked regularly with a Nautilus "pullover" device to strengthen his throwing arm, and the results have been encouraging.
"He is throwing better this year than he has in the last 12," says teammate Bobby Grich, who should know, because he and Baylor began their professional careers together a dozen years ago in Bluefield, W. Va. Baylor argues—a bit defensively—that throwing from the outfield may be an overrated talent, anyway. "I try to get rid of the ball to the cutoff man as quickly as possible," he says. "Guys with the good arms are not always accurate."
Until two years ago there were few complaints about Singleton's throwing. Despite his slowness afoot, he was regarded as a competent outfielder who could gun down a gambling runner with the best of them. Then in 1977 his right arm began to hurt. "I reached the point where I had one good throw a game in me," he recalls. "It got worse and worse. My fingers would be asleep. I was losing power in the grip of my right hand." The trouble was diagnosed as a bone chip in his right elbow, an errant particle that might have been afloat, it developed, since he had pitched in the Little League back home in Mount Vernon, N. Y. The chip was removed and his ulnar nerve shifted by surgery in December of 1977. He was advised that he would not fully recover the use of his arm for a year, a prognosis that proved depressingly accurate.
"Last year," Singleton says, "I couldn't throw a ball from here to there," despite painstaking 20-minute warmups before every game. In 141 appearances as an outfielder he had only one assist, and that, he confesses, was a fluke. "I dropped a fly ball and threw to second for a force." The sore arm also affected his righthanded hitting. He batted only .233 from the right side, as opposed to .313 from the left, and hit only four home runs in 150 times at bat as a righty. Singleton occasionally worked on a Nautilus machine in the off-season, and this year he feels he is throwing as well as he ever did. And, he says, Robinson has taught him to be more aggressive in chasing fly balls. "Last year," says Robinson, "he spent a lot of time looking for the centerfielder"—an approach made necessary, Singleton protests, "because I couldn't throw." With a good arm, he has also hit 10 righthanded homers this year, more than he has ever had in a full season, and his total of 34 is 10 more than in any previous year.
Singleton, 32, and Baylor, 30, seem just now to be approaching the potential predicted for them a decade or so ago. Singleton was drafted in 1967 by the Mets following his freshman year at Hofstra University on Long Island. After three-plus seasons in the minors, he joined the parent team in 1970, an unpropitious time, as it turned out. "They had just won the world championship," Singleton says, "so they stayed with the people who had won it for them. I was used to playing every day, so I was disappointed." After hitting .245 in 298 times at bat in 1971, he was traded to Montreal, where he would play every day, but for a team that was scarcely a contender. Despite some good seasons—he hit .302 with 103 RBIs in 1973—he "toiled," as Steve Stone puts it, "in obscurity." He joined the Orioles in 1975 and promptly hit .300. Still, because Baltimore did not qualify for the playoffs, he remained hidden back there in obscurity.
This year has been different. The Orioles have been winning virtually from the outset, and Singleton has been their most visible attraction. "Everybody wants to know who a winner is," he says, meaning not only himself but his teammates. "There are a lot of guys on this team—Rich Dauer, Gary Roenicke, Eddie Murray, Mike Flanagan—who people will want to know about. We're going to put Baltimore back on the baseball map."
Along with Grich, Baylor had been something of a minor league phenom when he joined the Orioles full time in 1972—after brief appearances the previous two years. He was even considered by some experts to be the likely successor to Frank Robinson, who had only recently been traded away. Like Robinson, Baylor was known as a player who could hit for average and power—and steal a base in the bargain. Weaver cautiously forecast that Baylor would be an MVP candidate by 1978, which, in fact, he was. But he would not be one under Weaver, who chose to platoon him in the outfield. In 1975, playing more than he had before—145 games—Baylor hit 25 homers and seemed on the verge of breaking loose. Then he was traded to Oakland in time for Charlie Finley's systematic demolition of the team that had won him three world championships. Baylor, who hit only .247 seemed right at home in this desolating atmosphere.
"It took me a year and a half to get over that trade," he says now. He endured only one season under Finley, declaring himself a free agent and accepting Angel owner Gene Autry's millions at the end of the 1976 season. Alas, he was famous that year primarily for his wealth. When fellow free agents Grich and Rudi succumbed early to injuries, Baylor survived as the only plutocrat in the lineup of a losing team. The fans did not take kindly to his privileged presence, even though he hit 25 homers, so, with the other millionaires infirm, he became the sole object of their anger and frustration.
"I think it strengthened his character," says Grich. "He took it all. He wasn't bitter. He didn't fight back with any sort of verbal barrage. There isn't a finer gentleman around, and that year he showed everyone what kind of man he is."
Some good came of the ordeal, too, because Robinson, then coaching in Anaheim, persuaded Baylor to drop his bat six inches while hitting, so that he might have a better chance at connecting with inside pitches. Baylor says he feels the "character-building" 1977 season helped him meet a crisis that developed this year when yet another celebrated free agent, Rod Carew, tore a ligament in his right thumb on June 1 and was out of the lineup for almost two months. The run-production responsibility fell to Baylor, who had hit 34 homers and driven in 99 runs in '78. "I knew when Carew went out that we were going to miss one of the best—if not the best—hitters in baseball," he said last week. "But you can only get yourself in trouble by saying, 'I gotta take up the slack.' I just decided to do my job. A lot of other guys—Willie Aikens, Brian Downing, Bobby Grich—picked up the slack."
But no one picked up more than Baylor. He tore a ligament in his left hand in early June, but he played on. The injury led to a miserable slump that month, when he hit only .195 and lost 53 percentage points from his batting average. The hand improved in July, and so did Baylor—dramatically. He hit .349 for the month, driving in a one-month club record of 34 runs and hitting 11 homers. By the All-Star break, he had 85 RBIs, and Baylor, habitually a slow starter, knew he was having an extraordinary season. He has a virtual lock on the RBI title, and as of last weekend, he had missed only two turns at bat, having retired early from a lopsided game with Boston in June.
Baylor and Singleton were running apace last week. Singleton tied a Wednesday night game against Toronto (which the Orioles eventually lost) with his 33rd home run and won a Friday night game for Stone against the Red Sox with a game-tying homer—number 34—and a game-winning, bases-loaded single. Baylor drove in two decisive runs Thursday night in Milwaukee as the Angels defeated the Brewers 8-7 and moved four games ahead of Kansas City.
But Kansas City refuses to die, and the biggest reason for that is George Brett. Should the Royals overtake the Angels and win the American League West, Brett would undoubtedly replace Baylor as MVP co-favorite with Singleton. He is winding up an outstanding season, and one hit last week emphasized the point. The Royals were tied with Seattle when Brett came to bat in the bottom of the 11th inning. He already had three hits in a row—two singles and a triple. Now he added a home run, winning the game. The hit was his 200th of the season, his 21st home run and his 100th run batted in. It raised his batting average to .330, second best in the league, eight points behind Lynn.
Brett's heroics notwithstanding, as Milwaukee Manager George Bamberger says, "If the California Angels didn't have Don Baylor there is no way they'd be where they are now." He pauses a moment to take in the import of his remark. "And the same goes for Singleton and the Orioles. What those two guys have done is unbelievable. It's too bad they can't have a tie for the MVP. They both deserve it."
CANDIDATES WITH SOLID CREDENTIALS
All five have a claim: Baylor leads in RBIs, Brett in hits, Lynn in average and Rice in total bases. Singleton? His Orioles are the only team certain to win.