The list of reasons to love Alex Rodriguez was already longer than Art Schlichter's rap sheet, but when the regular season ended on Sunday and the last of the dizzying hitting records went into the books, the Seattle Mariners' shortstop may have made his most significant contribution yet to the game of baseball. One glance at Rodriguez's phenomenal production this season and the baseball writers who crown the Most Valuable Player in the American League knew they had been spared. They could vote with a clear conscience for someone other than Cleveland Indians leftfielder Albert Belle.
Last year Belle was edged out for the award by Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn, and immediately came the charge that the scribes were simply sticking it to Belle. They would never vote for him, it was said, because he treats them as if they were young girls in Pocahontas costumes ringing his doorbell on Halloween. He hates them, and they hate him.
Belle will get his fair share of support this year as well, but if the electorate was paying any attention, he will again finish second, exactly where he belongs. Rodriguez has earned the MVP in the American League. Juan Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Mariners, Mark McGwire of the Oakland As, Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox and Vaughn all put up numbers that would have swept the MVP balloting most years, but in this off-the-charts season, Rodriguez stood above the crowd. We're so sorry, Uncle Albert, but A-Rod gets the nod.
In the National League the MVP also appears to be a close battle between two players, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza and San Diego Padres third baseman Ken Caminiti. The Piazza-Caminiti showdown, like the NL West race, came down to the final weekend, and in both races the Padres prevailed. Piazza had a spectacular season, hitting .336 with 36 home runs and 105 RBIs while calling the signals for the best pitching staff in the West. But Caminiti meant even more to his team. Aside from his .326 average, 40 homers and 130 RBIs and his play-of-the-day defense at third, the switch-hitting slugger nicknamed Scary Man provided the Padres with guts and heart and an air of confidence that the club had been sorely missing.
While just as tough to call, the National League MVP vote won't be nearly as polarizing or provocative as the balloting in the American League, where voters had a choice between Belle and the anti-Belle: a brooding, enigmatic churl against a polite and gracious young star. With each line drive Rodriguez seemed to push baseball's long list of problems further out of the minds of its fans. Too often Belle was one of those problems.
With an average of .358, the 21-year-old Rodriguez beat out Thomas for the batting title by nine points. He also had 36 dingers and 123 RBIs, led the league in doubles (54), runs (141) and total bases (379), and deftly held down the most important position on the field. Belle played the least important position and, as usual, did it with no great distinction.
Belle accumulated some immense power numbers, including 48 homers and an American League-best 148 RBIs, but if you are looking for a deciding factor, consider this: Rodriguez, the slender, baby-faced No. 2 hitter, finished with a higher slugging percentage than big bad Albert (.631 to .623). Belle's team had the best regular-season record in the league, but Rodriguez helped keep Seattle in the running for a playoff spot until the final weekend, even though ace Randy Johnson missed virtually the entire season with a bad back.
If Rodriguez does win the award, he will hear the same lame charge that was made last year. The Belle boosters will insist the MVP is a personality contest, and they will not be entirely incorrect. Personality may not be as important as batting average, but it is impossible to expect a voter to ignore Belle's bizarre off-the-field antics. More than merely a marvelous athlete, Rodriguez is by all accounts a team player and a terrific person.
You don't have to bake cookies for the press corps to qualify for the MVP, but it doesn't help your cause when you throw baseballs at photographers, or chase trick-or-treaters with your car, or curse at reporters who dare to walk in the same galaxy as Planet Albert. Former Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice won an MVP award in 1978 without once inviting a writer over for Cheez-its and Mountain Dew. No one ever accused Barry Bonds of charming his way to three MVP awards, two with the Pittsburgh Pirates and one with the San Francisco Giants.
The MVP isn't the Lady Byng, but Belle is beyond the point of being considered simply eccentric or moody. Smashing clubhouse thermostats, as he did a couple of weeks ago, isn't a playful prank. It's dangerous behavior that would cost a lesser player his job. With apologies to Caminiti, Belle is the real Scary Man.