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SI's Frank Deford makes his case for McGwire as National League MVP
Posted: Monday November 23, 1998 02:53 PM
Thursday, almost surely, Sammy Sosa will be declared an easy winner as the Most Valuable Player in the National League.
And why not? He had a simply glorious season: not only the 66 home runs, but he also led the majors in RBIs, with a batting average over .300. Second, he's a terrific guy. None of the sportswriters who vote are going to begrudge marking their ballot for the personable Señor Sosa. Besides, there was a certain amount of overblown talk that the dark-skinned Dominican suffered racism relative to his home-run rival, the All-American redhead, Mark McGwire. The MVP for Sosa would counter that scurrilous charge.
The expressed thinking is: Hey, it's easy to put up good personal statistics when there's no pennant pressure on you.
Moreover, Sosa is helped in that the two categories that always seduce MVP voters are RBIs and saves. But all good baseball purists better take a seat now, because I know they'll swoon when I say that, to my mind, RBIs and saves are the most overrated personal indices in the game. Rather, they're dependent statistics. You can't knock people in unless they get on base for you.. And you can't save games unless starting pitchers give you a lead. Pitchers who start games, batters who hit for average or who hit home runs, always seem to me to be more personally creative in their contribution, but it's subversive to even suggest that. No, it's become gospel that players who get lots of RBIs or saves are ipso facto more valuable.
But special times demand original thinking -- especially when no one has ever specified what the "Valuable" in Most Valuable Player really means. In most normal seasons, sure, when it's a close call, give the edge to the guy who played on the contending team. Even Tony LaRussa, McGwire's manager at St. Louis, says because Chicago made the playoffs, Sosa had to be more valuable to his team.
But wait a minute. Nowhere is it inscribed that the MVP must be team-valuable. In the year 1998, Mark McGwire was, indisputably, most valuable to baseball, to his whole sport. Didn't you keep hearing that he saved baseball? Doesn't that count for more?
Sure, Sosa helped in that salvation, but he was strictly the junior partner. And pressure? McGwire was under the most excruciating pressure every time he strode to bat, not only in a pennant race -- but from Opening Day on.
None of this is meant to diminish what Sosa did. His was an absolutely incredible season. But most valuable? The fact is that Mark McGwire was more valuable to baseball. In fact, I think it's possible to argue that McGwire has been more valuable to his sport this year than any athlete in any sport -- maybe going back to the 1950s, when Arnold Palmer virtually invented golf as a game for the masses.
Sosa will almost certainly win the MVP because it's hard to change the conventional wisdom. And hail to him. But in the National League, in baseball, in all sports in 1998, there's only one MVP -- Mark McGwire.
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