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 Ordo�ez 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 r�sum� 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.)