The Way It Looks From Here This is the season Alex Rodriguez finally wins his first MVP, Barry Bonds collects a record sixth and a 72-year-old is the National League Manager of the Year

September 28, 2003

Six years ago, when Cal Ripken Jr. was eased off his throne at
shortstop and moved to third base by the Baltimore Orioles, Nomar
Garciaparra became a fixture in the Boston Red Sox' starting
lineup and assumed the third spot in a new holy trinity of
American League shortstops. By the end of that 1997 season,
Garciaparra and Derek Jeter had won Rookie of the Year awards and
Alex Rodriguez had won a batting title. Not one was older than
24. Also, beginning with that season, each took a turn leading
the league in hits (first Garciaparra, then A-Rod, then Jeter),
as if that was the etiquette on Olympus. With time and talent on
their side, they could rule the game--at their own sweet pace, of course.

What happened on July 27 this season, however, seemed to sneak up
on us, like a child's departure for college. Garciaparra turned
30 that day. Jeter gets there next year and Rodriguez the year
after that. The trinity, no longer so precocious, has been around
so long that with the ascent of the Oakland A's Miguel Tejada,
27, their group has been reconfigured into a quartet.

Somehow, six years after nothing appeared beyond the reach of the
original three, they are still lacking in individual achievement.
Entering 2003 Garciaparra, Rodriguez and Jeter had combined to
play 21 full seasons in the big leagues, but none had won a Most
Valuable Player award. The members of the holey trinity have
finished in the top 10 of the American League MVP voting 13
times, but together they have fewer awards than Zoilo Versalles,
the Minnesota Twins shortstop who won in 1965.

The wait is over. At week's end Jeter was making a run at his
first batting title, and his New York Yankees had won more games
than any other team in the league. Garciaparra had the most total
bases for a Red Sox team that could wipe out the 1927 Yankees as
the best slugging team in baseball history. The winner, however,
is Rodriguez.

Yes, the 2004 AL MVP plays for a last-place outfit with the worst
pitching staff in the majors--the Texas Rangers. That's not how
MVPs are usually defined. MVPs are supposed to be players who
come through in the clutch for playoff teams all season, and
especially down the stretch. But no player unequivocally fits
that definition this year. Certainly not Garciaparra, who
collapsed in September and struggled on the road, or Jeter, who
missed 42 games, mostly due to injury. Rodriguez, who finished
second to Tejada in the MVP vote last season despite another
last-place showing by Texas, is the default winner. Through
Sunday he was the major league home run leader (47) and also led
the AL in slugging (.606) and runs (122) and was second in total
bases (357), second in RBIs (117) and eighth in on-base
percentage (.396) while playing Gold Glove-quality defense and
never taking a day off.

"I think you have to go with A-Rod," Toronto Blue Jays general
manager J.P. Ricciardi says. "To me he's the best player in the
league, and you can't keep holding the rest of his team against
him. Besides, nobody else has really stepped forward."

In close, late-game situations (seventh inning on, when tied,
leading by one run or with the tying run at least on deck),
Rodriguez slugged an outrageous .758 and hit nine home runs. By
comparison, fellow MVP candidates Carlos Delgado of Toronto hit
four homers in such at bats, Tejada hit two, and Magglio Ordonez
of the Chicago White Sox hit one.

There's no rule that says the MVP must come from a winning team,
just a natural preference. Only four of the previous 145 MVPs, or
2.7%, have played for losing clubs. Such rare winners occur when
two strong candidates from a winning team split the vote or, as
in this season, no obvious front-runner emerges. Rodriguez has
plenty of competition, just no one with as solid a resume as
Tejada had last year. Here, in order, are those who follow him.

2. Jorge Posada, Yankees. He's a switch-hitting catcher for the
best team in the league and the player who held the lineup
together during significant injury-related absences by Jeter,
centerfielder Bernie Williams and DH Nick Johnson. Posada also
hit .324 in the second half, while first baseman Jason Giambi
slumped out of MVP contention. At week's end Posada had 29 homers
and 98 RBIs, even though he hit primarily in the sixth spot, had
fewer total bases than 34 other players, had 124 fewer plate
appearances than Rodriguez did and hit .223 in May and June.

3. Carlos Beltran, Royals. Another switch-hitter who's dangerous
from both sides of the plate and plays a premium position, the
Kansas City centerfielder hit .354 with runners in scoring
position for the year's most surprising contender. Beltran
contributed almost nothing, however, to the Royals' 16-3 start.
(He opened the season on the disabled list and hit .184 in
April.)

4. Carlos Delgado, Blue Jays. The first-half MVP faded. Delgado,
the AL leader in RBIs (130) and on-base percentage (.426), had 28
home runs before the All-Star break, but the first baseman hit
only eight in the second half through Sunday, including five in
August and September.

5. Bret Boone, Mariners. Like most Seattle hitters, including
Ichiro Suzuki, Boone didn't hit down the stretch. The second
baseman batted .254 after the All-Star break, including .250 in
September.

6. Nomar Garciaparra, Red Sox. Boston ended the week with four of
the top six hitters in on-base plus slugging percentages (OPS),
and Garciaparra wasn't one of them. None of those four can
possibly be MVP: leftfielder Manny Ramirez, because he was more
interested in hanging with Yankees infielder Enrique Wilson than
in playing crucial games against New York last month;
rightfielder Trot Nixon, because he often sits against lefties;
third baseman Bill Mueller, because he had only 82 RBIs; and
David Ortiz, because he got enough bench time to have only 428 at
bats and 74 runs. Also to Garciaparra's detriment are his
home-road splits (.369 batting average at Fenway, .245
elsewhere), his September fade (.178) and his protection in the
lineup. He was intentionally walked only once all year.

7. Miguel Tejada, A's. Some Oakland observers don't believe he's
even the team MVP, though third baseman Eric Chavez, who
spearheaded the A's second-half surge, didn't hit against
lefthanders (.210). You can't win the MVP with a .298 on-base
percentage at the All-Star break, a .215 batting average against
your closest division rival and an OPS as low as 36th in the
league.

8. Magglio Ordonez, White Sox. The rightfielder hit .359 in the
second half but still had fewer homers for the season (28) and
drove in fewer runs (92) than two of his teammates, free-swinging
leftfielder Carlos Lee and DH Frank Thomas, who hit .224 in
September.

9. Vernon Wells, Blue Jays. The centerfielder had some solid
numbers--33 homers, 115 RBIs and a .361 on-base percentage--but
they didn't measure up to those of his teammate Delgado.

10. Bill Mueller, Red Sox. His defense and sock at third base
allowed Boston to trade Shea Hillenbrand for closer Byung-Hyun
Kim. As unexpectedly big as Mueller's season was--he entered the
final week leading the league in hitting, at .329--he still
didn't drive in or score 100 runs for a team that scored more
than 900 of them.

With MVP voters (two baseball writers from each American League
city, who will submit their ballots before the postseason)
confronting so many possibilities, the results may resemble those
of 1999. That year six players received first-place votes,
including Texas catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who was listed as low as
seventh and was the first MVP winner in 33 years not to get the
most first-place votes.

A-Rod could benefit from a similar lack of clarity. He's not the
optimal MVP candidate. He's simply the best.

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN COLOR PHOTO: JUSTIN STEPHENS COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES COLOR PHOTO: ELIOT J. SCHECTER/GETTY IMAGES

AMERICAN LEAGUE MVP

1. Alex Rodriguez, SS, Rangers
2. Jorge Posada, C, Yankees
3. Carlos Beltran, CF, Royals
4. Carlos Delgado, 1B, Blue Jays
5. Bret Boone, 2B, Mariners
6. Nomar Garciaparra, SS, Red Sox
7. Miguel Tejada, SS, Athletics
8. Magglio Ordonez, RF, White Sox
9. Vernon Wells, CF, Blue Jays
10. Bill Mueller, 3B, Red Sox

NATIONAL LEAGUE MVP

1. Barry Bonds, LF, Giants
2. Albert Pujols, LF, Cardinals
3. Gary Sheffield, RF, Braves
4. Jim Thome, 1B, Phillies
5. Javy Lopez, C, Braves
6. Mike Lowell, 3B, Marlins
7. Jeff Bagwell, 1B, Astros
8. Luis Gonzalez, LF, Diamondbacks
9. Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies
10. Eric Gagne, P, Dodgers

AL CY YOUNG AWARD
Like a thoroughbred passing the lead horse down the stretch, Roy
Halladay overtook Esteban Loaiza. Halladay was leading the league
in wins (21) and innings (252) and had the sixth-best ERA (3.18).

SI's PICKS

1. Roy Halladay, Blue Jays
2. Esteban Loaiza, White Sox
3. Pedro Martinez, Red Sox

AL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Hideki Matsui's qualifications--105 RBIs, excellent defense and
solid fundamentals--are indisputable in a a crowded field that
includes Frankie Rodriguez of the Angels and Mike MacDougal of
the Royals.

SI's PICKS

1. Hideki Matsui, Yankees
2. Angel Berroa, Royals
3. Rocco Baldelli, Devil Rays

AL MANAGER OF THE YEAR
With his boundless enthusiasm and energy, Tony Pena took the
Royals from 100 losses to contention, even though his team lost
virtually its entire starting rotation and first baseman Mike
Sweeney to various injuries.

SI's PICKS

1. Tony Pena, Royals
2. Joe Torre, Yankees
3. Ken Macha, Athletics

NL CY YOUNG AWARD
Eric Gagne, who went 53 for 53 in save chances, wasn't just
great. He was alltime great. He struck out 45% of the batters he
faced and allowed one hit all year with two outs and runners in
scoring position.

SI's PICKS

1. Eric Gagne, Dodgers
2. Jason Schmidt, Giants
3. Mark Prior, Cubs

NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Dontrelle Willis led the league in sizzle, but Brandon Webb had
the meatier season. Webb threw more innings, struck out more
batters, had a better ERA and held opponents to a lower batting
average than Willis did.

SI's PICKS

1. Brandon Webb, Diamondbacks
2. Dontrelle Willis, Marlins
3. Scott Podsednik, Brewers

NL MANAGER OF THE YEAR
The Marlins had a clue what kind of manager they had when
72-year-old Jack McKeon showed up for his interview in May in a
plaid jacket, plaid shirt and polka-dot tie. Fashion sense aside,
McKeon had the right touch.

SI's PICKS

1. Jack McKeon, Marlins
2. Felipe Alou, Giants
3. Dusty Baker, Cubs

A League of His Own
Barry Bonds, who affects a game like no other player, will add to
his trophy collection

When New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor was in his prime,
opposing teams had to account for him on every snap. Such
omnipresence isn't common in baseball, in which even the most
feared slugger has to wait his turn to hit. But Barry Bonds
dictates how a game is played even when he's not in the batter's
box. That's why he will win his record sixth MVP award, despite
Albert Pujols's strong run at the Triple Crown. "Barry just
changes everything," Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell says.
"Everything is predicated on where Barry is in that lineup, each
inning. The man gets, like, one pitch a night to hit. And let's
not forget, he's hitting [.340]."

At week's end Pujols had 36 more RBIs than Bonds, but there was
also the small matter of Bonds's getting more intentional walks
by a margin of 60 to 12. Bonds's on-base percentage through
Sunday (.533) would rank fifth alltime, his slugging percentage
(.756) would rank eighth, and his OPS (1.289) would rank sixth,
exceeded only by Babe Ruth and Bonds himself.

While Pujols will join Mickey Mantle as the only runner-up to the
same MVP winner two years in a row (Roger Maris topped Mantle in
1960 and '61), Bonds will finish in the top five for the 11th
time. Someday they'll name the award after him. Would next week
be too soon?

Tom Verducci's Insider column, every Tuesday at si.com/baseball.

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