Voters face the question: What makes a rookie of the year?
Posted: Thursday August 21, 2003 12:55PM; Updated: Thursday August 21, 2003 1:45PM
Voting for the Rookie of the Year Award seems like such a straightforward kind of proposition. It's not like, say, trying to pick a Most Valuable Player. What's that mean, anyway, MVP? Does it mean the best player? Or just the "most valuable?" And most valuable to whom? To what?
Rookie of the Year, though, ought to be simple. That should be the best rookie. Period.
Of course, baseball doesn't work that way. Never has.
Baseball's Rookie of the Year Award has been controversial almost from the start. The first winner, back in 1947, was Jackie Robinson. He was 28 at the time. He was a rookie in the major leagues, for sure, but he had already played a season in the Negro Leagues, where he hit .387 for the Kansas City Monarchs in 1945.
Many of the winners back in the late '40s and early '50s were Negro League stars who, thanks to Robinson's bravery, finally were allowed in the majors. But they were rookies only to the majors. They weren't rookies to professional baseball.
Now here we are, a half a century later, and the award -- redubbed the Jackie Robinson Award -- is controversial again, with rookies who aren't really rookies at all (at least in the traditional definition) in the running.
This year, 29-year-old Hideki Matsui of the Yankees, a 10-year veteran of the Japanese League, is up for the American League award with Tampa Bay's Rocco Baldelli and Kansas City's Angel Berroa. In 1996, when the 22-year-old Matsui won the first of three MVPs in Japan, Baldelli was just finishing the eighth grade and the 18-year-old Berroa was almost a year away from signing his first pro contract.
Yet voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America will consider them equally for the AL award this year.
"I realize that there are some people that have issue with it," says Jack O'Connell, who writes for the Hartford Courant and is the secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA. "I'm all ears."
The influx of Japanese League veterans who are challenging for rookie of the year honors has prompted many to question whether players like Matsui should be considered for the same award as, say, Baldelli, who spent only three years in the American minor leagues. If Matsui wins -- and many consider him the favorite -- he will be the third Japanese League veteran in the past four years to win the award and the fourth since 1995.
So, should the criteria for what a "rookie" is be changed?
"Yeah, it should be changed," says Thomas Stinson, the national baseball writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a BBWAA member. "But someone's going to have to tell me how.
"You don't want to put an age limit on it. That wouldn't be fair. You can't make it a nationality thing. I just can't find a fair or more honest way of doing it than this."
Stinson faced the dilemma back in 1995 when he was considering whether to vote for L.A.'s Hideo Nomo, a Japanese League veteran and the eventual winner, or Atlanta's Chipper Jones. The question popped up again in 2000, when 32-year-old Seattle closer Kazuhiro Sasaki beat out 24-year-old Oakland outfielder Terrence Long. And it was a topic again in 2001, when seven-time Japanese batting champ Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners was up for the award.
Rules being rules, most writers have voted for the player who had the better year. For Seattle's Ichiro, that meant an almost unanimous choice as Rookie of the Year in '01.
One writer, Chris Assenheimer of the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram, voted for 21-year-old Cleveland pitcher C.C. Sabathia over Ichiro.
"I took a lot of heat for it. But there were also a lot of people who agreed with it," says Assenheimer, who admits that Ichiro had the better season that year. "When I voted for Sabathia -- even before, when Ichiro was having a great season -- people were saying, 'This guy's not a rookie.'"
That, of course, is the key question in the debate. Should experience in a professional league, like the Japanese League, preclude a player from being considered for Rookie of the Year?
And for those who think it should, does that make leagues like the Japanese League equal to America's major leagues?
Again, it gets sticky.
"It's not fair to have a kid who has played in Double-A, Triple-A ball competing against a guy who was a star in Japan," says Paul Hagen of the Philadelphia Daily News, who is serving as the BBWAA president. "The Japanese guys are good. It's a valid league."
Says Joe Posnanski, a columnist for the Kansas City Star: "For some reason, major league writers and officials tend to look down on baseball elsewhere around the world as inferior. It's ridiculous."
It's not only the experience in other leagues that many consider an unfair advantage. It's the player's age.
In the NHL, a player can be no older than 26 to win the rookie award, a limit established to avoid a repeat of 1990. That year, 31-year-old Sergei Makarov won the NHL's award over 19-year-old Mike Modano. Makarov had played professionally for years in the Soviet Union.Some have suggested a similar age limit for baseball's rookie award.
Right now, though, there are no limits on age or previous experience outside of the major leagues. All a player has to do to qualify as a rookie is to have fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched in the major leagues and fewer than 45 days on a major league roster.
If there is change to come, it won't come easily. The BBWAA meets three times a year, at the All-Star Game, the World Series and during baseball's annual winter meetings. No one, at least as far as O'Connell and others could remember, has ever brought up in a meeting the possibility of changing the criteria to be considered for the rookie award.
"This may be an issue from here on out as the game becomes more of a global game," says Marc Topkin, who covers Baldelli and the Devil Rays for the St. Petersburg Times. "I think it would be hard to change it. I don't know how you come to a standard.
"Is it for a 21-year-old kid who's going through the major leagues for the first time? Is it for a 29-, 30-, 31-year-old who's made millions of dollars playing in a professional league that's almost as good? Are there going to be two rookies of the year, a true rookie and a professional rookie?"
They are all questions that need to be addressed. But it's too late for this year.
Ballots for the 2003 award are due in before the first pitch of the division series -- a couple of weeks before the BBWAA's next scheduled meeting.
John Donovan is a senior writer for SI.com.