THE RACE for the American League Most Valuable Player Award this year is an Escher print. Two people can look at the same image and, depending on their focus, interpret it differently.
Lefthander Mike Stanton, for instance, a former New York Yankee traded last week from the Washington Nationals to Boston, sees nothing but Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz. "Race?" Stanton said last Friday. "There is no race. [ Ortiz] is hitting about .380 from the seventh inning on. That's ridiculous. And we were talking about that in the Nationals' bullpen last week before I came here. It's not even close, with all the clutch hits this guy gets."
Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen looks at the same picture and, with equal clarity, sees Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez. " A-Rod should be the MVP," Guillen said recently. "He steals bases, goes from first to third, makes all the plays on defense, gets the big hits. He can beat you so many [more] ways than Ortiz."
Last Saturday morning, seated at his locker in his baseball Skivvies two hours before the penultimate game of the regular season, Rodriguez acknowledged that the award was still up for grabs. The weekend series at Fenway Park between the Yankees and the Red Sox would be to the MVP race--and, oh, yeah, the race to decide the AL East--what Florida was to the 2000 presidential election. "This is how it should be," Rodriguez said. "It should be about the team winning. That's why we play. I'm ready for it. So let's go."
Never has there been an MVP race quite like this one, in which defining valuable also can be interpreted as a referendum on the value of the DH job. Is Ortiz's made-for-highlight-shows knack for delivering clutch hits--despite what in many ways were inferior offensive numbers to those of Rodriguez--enough to justify a landmark decision? The final answer is no.
The Yankees, who trailed Boston by 51/2 games as late as Aug. 11, clinched the AL East title with an 8--4 win on Saturday, and with it Rodriguez should have clinched the MVP Award. He smashed four hits, including his 48th home run, pushing him to the league homer title and breaking Troy Glaus's single-season record for home runs by an AL third baseman. ( Rodriguez also holds the record for home runs by a shortstop, 57 in 2002.) Ortiz had one hit on Saturday and three in the three-game series as Boston wrapped up the wild-card spot.
The AL MVP Award is decided by a vote of 28 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, two from each AL city. Ballots were to be submitted before the start of the division series this week. That Rodriguez could turn in the greatest season by a third baseman in baseball history while playing for a 95-win team and still not be the clear favorite at such a late hour spoke to the power and theatrical timing of Ortiz. Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons says the MVP should be " David Ortiz, hands down. With the game on the line, he always steps up. It doesn't matter [that Ortiz is a DH]. If you take him out of the lineup, Boston is six, seven games out."
The argument against Ortiz centered on the legitimacy of the "position" of DH. No position player has ever won the MVP without appearing in at least 97 games in the field. (In 1979 MVP Don Baylor of the Angels had 36 home runs and 139 RBIs while making 97 appearances in the outfield and 65 at DH; Boston's Jim Rice won the award in '78 while playing 114 games in the outfield and 49 at DH.) The highest MVP finish by a player who played the majority of his games at DH was second, by Paul Molitor of the Blue Jays in 1993 and Frank Thomas of the White Sox in 2000. This season Ortiz played only 10 games at first base, remaining comfortably seated on the bench or in the clubhouse and contributing nothing for all but 78 of the 1,429 innings that teammates played defense. Rodriguez played defense in all but 40 of the Yankees' 1,4302/3 innings.
"Nothing against David Ortiz," says Yankees hitting coach Don Mattingly, New York's last MVP, in 1985. "I have tremendous respect for him. But this is baseball. It's not a hitting contest in the backyard. A DH can win the MVP, but not when an every-day player is putting the same numbers up. The every-day player has to prepare himself, taking ground balls and throwing and giving the effort on defense. The DH doesn't have to do any of that. It's a big difference."
Said Toronto Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi last week, "I've got to give it to A-Rod. I was talking to [ Toronto infielders] Corey Koskie and Orlando Hudson, and they said, 'You want Ortiz up there with the game on the line.' And I said, 'O.K., who do you want the ball hit to in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line, Ortiz or A-Rod?' You can't just disregard defense as if it doesn't exist. A-Rod makes a difference in the field. We had a man on first base in the ninth against them in a 1--0 game, and A-Rod fielded an absolute smash over his left shoulder and started a double play. Game over. Ortiz can't make that double play. And how many times over the course of the season will A-Rod do something like that? A lot."