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That happens to be important in 1986. With a month to go, Clemens would be the best choice as the MVP in the American League. With the possible exception of Puckett, no everyday player in either league is having a truly dominant season. In the AL, California's leading choice is rookie Wally Joyner. The MVP of the Blue Jays would be Bell, but he'll have to split votes with teammates Tony Fernandez and Jesse Barfield, and, anyway, he faces what Baylor calls "the media prejudice of not being liked." Despite his remarkable consistency and quality, Don Mattingly won't win it unless the Yankees get back in the race.
You can put poor Puckett in the "also receiving votes" category for '86, even though he could finish the season with a batting championship, 30 homers, 90 RBIs (as primarily a leadoff hitter), 120 runs scored, 40 doubles and a Gold Glove as the league's best centerfielder. "Kirby gets the Player of the Year from whoever gives that," says Jackson. "He's probably the best player in the game, but without him the Twins would finish right where they are now—last."
Indeed, only once in the 55 years of the AL award have the writers given it to a player whose team finished in the second division, and that was .388-hitting Rod Carew of the fourth-place 1977 Twins. Winning may not be essential to getting the MVP, but it sure helps: 76 have come from first-place teams, 20 from second and 15 from below that.
Despite Lang's clear voting criteria, Clemens faces long odds. The last starting pitcher to win an MVP was Vida Blue in 1971. Many writers seem to have adopted the philosophy of Brett, who says, "I don't think it should be a pitcher. That's why they have a Cy Young Award so the guys who sit around in the bullpen and the dugout and do crossword puzzles and eat nachos and come up to the clubhouse and practice their putting stroke or get in attendance pools every night—so those guys can have their own award. The Most Valuable Player should be a guy who goes out and plays every day." California third baseman Doug DeCinces holds the view that relievers, but not starters, should be considered. "Relievers can be MVPs because they're in half the games," says DeCinces. "Starters go out every fourth or fifth day. No way."
Yet after outfielders (35) and first basemen (18), starting pitchers have won MVP awards more times (15) than players at any other position. Before Ford Frick insisted on the separate-but-not-quite-equal award named for Cy Young in 1956—when, ironically, pitcher Don Newcombe still won the MVP—starters were common winners, including three successive seasons in the American League with Spud Chandler (1943) and Hal Newhouser (1944-45). But ever since the Cy Young was initiated, the only starters to win have been Newcombe, Sandy Koufax, Denny McLain, Bob Gibson and Blue.
If the MVP can be measured by a player's worth and impact, then for the first five months of the season Clemens has been the AL player who has meant the most to his team. "I might not have seen it this way as a player," says the Yankees' Lou Piniella, "but as a manager, believe me, if you have the great pitcher to throw out there every fifth day, it's invaluable." Tigers coach Dick Tracewski, who saw the Red Sox 15 times from spring training to the third week of the season, says, "I didn't have a lot of respect for Boston. But after that night when he struck out 20 [April 29], they played like hell. He's had a great year statistically and emotionally, a career year, and he's carried the club."
When Clemens became the majors' first 20-game winner last Saturday, it marked his 12th victory of the season after a Boston loss. When the Red Sox went into New York and Baltimore to open critical series in June, it was Clemens who blew away the Yankees and Orioles to set the pattern. He accounts for 16 of Boston's 22 games over .500; no other AL team is more than 18 over. He is 8-1 against Eastern Division opponents.
Even if the Red Sox should finish second, as the Angels' Ruppert Jones points out, "they might have been sixth without Clemens." But if they do lose out to Toronto, no pitcher is going to win. Look what happened to Dwight Gooden last year. He was clearly the single most valuable and dominant player in baseball in '85—after all, the Mets were 21 games over .500 when he pitched—and he finished fourth in the MVP voting.
The voters' individual likes and dislikes used to play a far greater part in the voting than they do now. In 1949, one Cincinnati writer vowed never to vote for Jackie Robinson because of his race, but when the ballots were in, the Cincinnati scribe had placed Robinson first. A Philadelphia writer did leave Robinson off his ballot completely, but Robinson won anyway. And then there was Ted Williams, whose spats with writers probably cost him three—and possibly four—MVP awards. The biggest injustice came in 1947 when he won the Triple Crown but lost the MVP to Joe DiMaggio, who knocked in only 97 runs, by one point because Mel Webb of The Boston Globe completely left him off his ballot. Webb and Williams had an altercation in spring training, after which Webb promised Williams, "I'll get you."
Carter faces another sort of bias in the National League race. He may be a public icon, but he is the man his fellow players love to hate and hate to love, and the writers can't help picking up on the feeling. "I wouldn't vote for Gary Carter if he had 162 game-winning RBIs," says one Giant. "Carter and I don't get along," admits the Cubs' Gary (Sarge) Matthews. "But I consider myself man enough that if I had a vote on something as important as MVP, I'd overlook the personal and vote for him." However, when it was suggested that Carter might have had a lot to do with the Mets' staff, Matthews replied, "Stevie Wonder could catch those guys." Still, no matter what anyone says about him, it can never be said that Carter doesn't play hard.