THE RACE for the American League Most Valuable Player Award this year is an Escher print. Two people can look at the same image and, depending on their focus, interpret it differently.
Lefthander Mike Stanton, for instance, a former New York Yankee traded last week from the Washington Nationals to Boston, sees nothing but Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "Race?" Stanton said last Friday. "There is no race. [Ortiz] is hitting about .380 from the seventh inning on. That's ridiculous. And we were talking about that in the Nationals' bullpen last week before I came here. It's not even close, with all the clutch hits this guy gets."
Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen looks at the same picture and, with equal clarity, sees Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. "A-Rod should be the MVP," Guillen said recently. "He steals bases, goes from first to third, makes all the plays on defense, gets the big hits. He can beat you so many [more] ways than Ortiz."
Last Saturday morning, seated at his locker in his baseball Skivvies two hours before the penultimate game of the regular season, Rodriguez acknowledged that the award was still up for grabs. The weekend series at Fenway Park between the Yankees and the Red Sox would be to the MVP race--and, oh, yeah, the race to decide the AL East--what Florida was to the 2000 presidential election. "This is how it should be," Rodriguez said. "It should be about the team winning. That's why we play. I'm ready for it. So let's go."
Never has there been an MVP race quite like this one, in which defining valuable also can be interpreted as a referendum on the value of the DH job. Is Ortiz's made-for-highlight-shows knack for delivering clutch hits--despite what in many ways were inferior offensive numbers to those of Rodriguez--enough to justify a landmark decision? The final answer is no.
The Yankees, who trailed Boston by 51/2 games as late as Aug. 11, clinched the AL East title with an 8--4 win on Saturday, and with it Rodriguez should have clinched the MVP Award. He smashed four hits, including his 48th home run, pushing him to the league homer title and breaking Troy Glaus's single-season record for home runs by an AL third baseman. (Rodriguez also holds the record for home runs by a shortstop, 57 in 2002.) Ortiz had one hit on Saturday and three in the three-game series as Boston wrapped up the wild-card spot.
The AL MVP Award is decided by a vote of 28 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, two from each AL city. Ballots were to be submitted before the start of the division series this week. That Rodriguez could turn in the greatest season by a third baseman in baseball history while playing for a 95-win team and still not be the clear favorite at such a late hour spoke to the power and theatrical timing of Ortiz. Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons says the MVP should be "David Ortiz, hands down. With the game on the line, he always steps up. It doesn't matter [that Ortiz is a DH]. If you take him out of the lineup, Boston is six, seven games out."
The argument against Ortiz centered on the legitimacy of the "position" of DH. No position player has ever won the MVP without appearing in at least 97 games in the field. (In 1979 MVP Don Baylor of the Angels had 36 home runs and 139 RBIs while making 97 appearances in the outfield and 65 at DH; Boston's Jim Rice won the award in '78 while playing 114 games in the outfield and 49 at DH.) The highest MVP finish by a player who played the majority of his games at DH was second, by Paul Molitor of the Blue Jays in 1993 and Frank Thomas of the White Sox in 2000. This season Ortiz played only 10 games at first base, remaining comfortably seated on the bench or in the clubhouse and contributing nothing for all but 78 of the 1,429 innings that teammates played defense. Rodriguez played defense in all but 40 of the Yankees' 1,4302/3 innings.
"Nothing against David Ortiz," says Yankees hitting coach Don Mattingly, New York's last MVP, in 1985. "I have tremendous respect for him. But this is baseball. It's not a hitting contest in the backyard. A DH can win the MVP, but not when an every-day player is putting the same numbers up. The every-day player has to prepare himself, taking ground balls and throwing and giving the effort on defense. The DH doesn't have to do any of that. It's a big difference."
Said Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi last week, "I've got to give it to A-Rod. I was talking to [Toronto infielders] Corey Koskie and Orlando Hudson, and they said, 'You want Ortiz up there with the game on the line.' And I said, 'O.K., who do you want the ball hit to in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, Ortiz or A-Rod?' You can't just disregard defense as if it doesn't exist. A-Rod makes a difference in the field. We had a man on first base in the ninth against them in a 1--0 game, and A-Rod fielded an absolute smash over his left shoulder and started a double play. Game over. Ortiz can't make that double play. And how many times over the course of the season will A-Rod do something like that? A lot."
in many ways Rodriguez also outclassed Ortiz at the plate. A-Rod had a significantly better batting average (.321--.300), more runs (124--119), more hits (194--180), more home runs (48--47), more total bases (369--363), a better on-base percentage (.421--.397) and a better slugging percentage (.610--.604). He also stole more bases (21--1) and had a higher batting average in September and October (.330--.321), when the AL East race was decided. Rodriguez's combination of numbers in the Triple Crown categories (.321, 48, 130 RBIs) has been attained by only 12 other players in history--including no third basemen and only four players who did so for first-place teams (the Yankees' Babe Ruth in 1921, '27 and '28, Lou Gehrig in '36 and Mickey Mantle in '56, and the Arizona Diamondbacks' Luis Gonzalez in 2001).
Throw in Rodriguez's prowess on the base paths, and his season is even more exceptional. He joined Willie Mays (New York Giants, 1955), Barry Bonds (San Francisco Giants, '93) and Larry Walker (Colorado Rockies, '97) as the only .300 hitters to exceed 45 homers and 20 steals--and is the first player to do so for a team that made the postseason.
Ortiz, nicknamed Big Papi, is known for his outsized smile and his Willie Stargell--like clubhouse bearing. His candidacy, however, traffics mainly on the measures, real and imagined, of his clutch hitting. He batted .352 with runners in scoring position and tied the Braves' Andruw Jones's major-league-leading 19 home runs after the sixth inning. (Although, contrary to Stanton's belief, he hit .291--slightly below his overall average--from the seventh inning on.) Also, as The Boston Globe breathlessly reported on Saturday, "Nineteen of his home runs have either tied the game or given his team the lead. That is an eye-popping statistic.... "
Left unreported was the fact that Rodriguez--hold on to your eyeballs--also had 19 home runs that had either tied the game or given his team the lead. "Alex hit a home run [last week] in Baltimore in a 1--0 game we had to have, and it doesn't get mentioned because it's the sixth inning," Mattingly says.
Adds another Yankee, "Ortiz hit one the next night in the eighth inning and he's Bobby Thomson."
says steve hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, "The temptation is to overreact because of the many ways you can quantify Ortiz's late-game dramatics and the widespread publicity they get. The highlights, starting with the walk-off hits in the postseason last year, begin to run together in the mind's eye, and the perception is he's doing it all the time. I go with A-Rod [for MVP] because you have to give him credit for playing defense and playing it well. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone else on the Yankees who fields his position as well as A-Rod does. And you can't just say about a DH, 'That's just the role he's given.' The DH doesn't field his position well enough to be among the nine guys on the field."
Rodriguez started every game, committed only two errors over the final 90 games and never let his batting average slip below .310 after May 21. Yankees manager Joe Torre was so appreciative of what Rodriguez gave the team this season that as he hugged and thanked him on the pitcher's mound after Saturday's last out, Torre began to weep. "That will always be special to me," Rodriguez said later in the clubhouse.
Off in another corner, Yankees adviser and 1973 AL MVP Reggie Jackson saw fit to declare the election over because New York had clinched the division. "If your team wins, then that's the team with the MVP," he said. "Ortiz has had a little more of a--what's the word?--dramatic year. But Alex put up the same numbers plus he plays Gold Glove defense, and he steals bases. He's earned it.
"But it's like I told him: 'Now you're even,'" continued Jackson, also a two-time World Series MVP. "Forty-eight homers, 130 RBIs? It's what he should do when he's making 25 [million] bucks a year. But with the high standards this team has set, you're only even. Now you have to get it done in the playoffs."
[ DIVISION SERIES PREVIEW ]
Chicago White Sox versus Boston Red Sox
KEY POINTS Chicago put down the most sacrifice hits in the AL (53) and Boston the second fewest (14).... The Blue Jays, are the only visiting team to win a one-run game at Fenway Park this year (April 19). Since then Boston is 15--0 in one-run games at home.... Here's one G.M.'s scouting report on Red Sox ace Curt Schilling: "Right now he's ordinary at best; just another pitcher."
KEY MATCHUP Hard-throwing White Sox rookie closer Bobby Jenks, a righty, faced David Ortiz once this year and was stung for a home run, the only one he allowed to lefthanders in 57 at bats.
KEY PLAYER Jonathan Papelbon, Red Sox. The 24-year-old setup man (2.65 ERA) has brought some order to the majors' 29th-ranked bullpen (5.19).
KEY STAT Nineteen of the last 22 games between the two teams have been decided by three runs or fewer; Boston is 12--7 in those games.
BOTTOM LINE Red Sox in five.
Los Angeles Angels versus New York Yankees
KEY POINTS New York ended the regular season on a 16--5 run while Los Angeles finished 14--2.... Angels setup men Scot Shields and Brendan Donnelly allowed New York one earned run in 111/3 innings this year.... Yankees ace Randy Johnson ended the season on a 6--0 roll.... The Angels are the only team with a winning record against the Yankees during manager Joe Torre's tenure (49--48 since 1996).
KEY MATCHUP If the game comes down to K-Rod versus A-Rod, give Frankie Rodriguez the edge. Alex Rodriguez is 1 for 10 with five K's against the Angels closer.
KEY PLAYER Garret Anderson, Angels. His woeful .389 slugging percentage in the second half is indicative that his lower back stiffness is bothering him. The Yankees can't let Vladimir Guerrero beat them, so RBI opportunities should fall to Anderson.
KEY STAT In 1082/3 postseason innings Yankees closer Mariano Rivera has allowed nine earned runs (0.75 ERA).
BOTTOM LINE Angels in five.
[ DIVISION SERIES PREVIEW ]
St. Louis Cardinals versus San Diego Padres
KEY POINTS St. Louis's bullpen has the best ERA of any postseason team (3.22).... San Diego made the most errors of any NL playoff team (109).... The Padres won the season series 4--3.... Cards manager Tony La Russa ordered the fewest intentional walks of any NL manager. He likes playing matchup with relievers; lefty specialist Ray King will be used against Brian Giles and Ryan Klesko in late-inning spots.
KEY MATCHUP Padres ace Jake Peavy has held Cardinals rightfielder Larry Walker to one hit in 15 at bats.
KEY PLAYER Chris Carpenter, Cardinals. He was as automatic as any NL pitcher for five months (21--4, 2.21 on Sept. 8) but hit a wall down the stretch (0--1, 9.14). He has never appeared in a postseason game.
KEY STAT San Diego was the only team in the majors without a 20-home-run hitter this season; Klesko led the team with 18.
BOTTOM LINE Cardinals in four.
Atlanta Braves versus Houston Astros
KEY POINTS Andy Pettitte is the hottest pitcher in baseball since the All-Star break (11--2, 1.69).... Andruw Jones ended the season in a 6-for-51 rut, with one home run.... Atlanta's bullpen ranked 22nd (4.66 ERA).... The Braves are 13--17 in the postseason at Turner Field.... The Astros are the first team since the 1914 Braves to make the postseason after being 15 games below .500 (15--30 on May 24).... Astros manager Phil Garner likes to flick the switch early for closer Brad (Lights Out) Lidge, who is available for six-out saves.
KEY MATCHUP Jones is 0 for 7 (five K's) against Lidge.
KEY PLAYER John Smoltz, Braves. The erstwhile closer is 12--4 in 26 career playoff starts. Smoltz's right shoulder bears watching. He skipped his last start after throwing 2292/3 innings, his most since 1997.
KEY STAT Astros starting pitchers led the majors with a 3.46 ERA; the Braves were third at 3.65, 0.04 behind the Cardinals.
BOTTOM LINE Astros in five.