December 05, 2006

Albert Pujols and Derek Jeter On Graciousness and the MVP Award


Last Wednesday, St Louis Cardinals first-baseman appeared at a news conference hosted by the Dominican sports ministry in Santo Domingo. Asked about his second-place finish in the National League’s Most Valuable Player voting behind the Phillies’ Ryan Howard, Pujols said in Spanish, (which was translated by the Associated Press and reported by the AP’s Dionisio Soldevila), "I see it this way: Someone who doesn't take his team to the playoffs doesn't deserve to win the MVP." Let’s translate from English into English: Ryan Howard does not deserve the MVP award; I deserve the MVP award. This is a baseball cringe moment, whether we agree or disagree with the content, and in spite of Pujol’s public apology on Monday.

Ah, the baseball cringe moment. Pujols violated the great unwritten code of baseball honor and honors which dictate that second-place finishers do not criticize the award’s winner. If Pujols did have a case, we would leave it to the St Louis baseball writers or national writers like Jayson Stark at ESPN or Peter Gammons at The Boston Globe to admonish their colleagues in the Baseball Writers Association of American for erroneously selecting Howard over Pujols. But what is frustrating is that Pujols’ does more harm to himself in saying what he said than any harm he might have received in not finishing first.

Pujols is among the top players in the league. He may be the best. He entered the National League in 2001 and at age 26, already has 250 career homeruns and has hit at least 34 homeruns in each of his six seasons. He has one first-place MVP finish and three second-place finishes. (Think second-place is so inferior? He is now in the company of Stan Musial and Ted Williams as three-time second-place finishers). Has any player been better since 2001? Howard has had only two outstanding seasons - two seasons! Don Mattingly, Fred Lynn, and Dwight Gooden all looked to be Cooperstown-bound after their second season. We look for excellence over time and Pujols is meeting this criteria. This column is a fan of Howard’s but until he continues his stellar play for another few years, Pujols remains the superior player. Pujols’ stock is, or was, at the very top of Major League Baseball! Starting a new team? I would take Pujols’ track-record over Howard’s promise (and we do love Howard).

In addition, the MVP award is a funny award by which to measure greatness. All retired three-time MVP winners are in the Hall of Fame. But even the greatest players have not exactly racked up multiple wins of the award. Hank Aaron, Reggie Jackson, and Roberto Clemente each won it only once. Derek Jeter, who was the American League’s runner-up for the 2006 MVP, has won zero MVP awards despite a .317 career average, being well on his way to 3000 career hits, and being arguably the MVP of the Yankees’ post-1995 dynastic run of excellence. For sheer constituency and outstanding play in the past 10 years, no one matches Jeter. Pujols’ greatness is not diminished for having only one MVP award.

It is precisely in the ambiguous stature of the MVP award and Pujols’ extraordinary place in the elite of the game that render his comments so out of place. Sure, we debate the nature of the MVP award. Andre Dawson won the National League award in 1987 after a monster offensive year and we debate the appropriateness of Dawson’s win because he played for a last-place team. The Cubs could have finished in last-place without Dawson so just how valuable was he? We debate whether pitchers should be eligible for the award – after all, players playing the eight other positions sure are not eligible for the Cy Young Award. This is all well and good but this is not the case as Pujols’ Cardinals made the play-offs and he is not a pitcher. Given Pujols’ stature in the game and given the strange nature of the MVP award, Pujols’ claim that an injustice was done is troubling in his speaking about it at all.

Jeter himself was a model of graciousness in finishing second this year in the AL MVP award. The day after the BBWAA announced that Howard was the National League MVP, the Association named the Minnesota Twins’ Justin Morneau the American League MVP. Morneau was voted 320 points to the Yankees’ Jeter’s 306. In its November 22 on-line edition, the Minneapolis-St Paul Star Tribune reported Jeter’s post-MVP announcement statement, "I want to congratulate Justin Morneau on this well-deserved honor. He is a special player, and I suspect this won't be the last time you will hear his name mentioned when awards are being passed out." That’s class. You know who looks good? Everyone! Morneau receives the honor of recognition for his great season. Jeter shows himself to be class-act. The Twins look good because their player won the award. The Yankees look good because their player was a gentleman. Major League Baseball looks good because its employees were respectful and respected.

Ripken and Tony Gwynn will be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame next month. This is their first year of eligibility and yes, Gwynn was one of the best pure hitters of the past 25-years and yes, Ripken broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games-played streak and redefined the position of shortstop. But more so – everyone likes them! There is genuine pleasure in baseball around their entry into the Hall. We are looking forward to their inductions in July because it will be a celebration of not just two great careers but two players who we are happy to see succeed and be recognized for their success.

The Boston Red Sox are trying to trade Manny Ramirez who Phillies’ general-manager Pat Gillick has labeled “a headache”. How often do GMs publicly label players like this? Barry Bonds found no offers other than from the Giants who have waited for the market to reduce his price before they resign him. In the NBA, Stephan Marbury is tanking what was left of his career and marketability as he mopes around the New York Knicks.

Sammy Sosa played his last season for the Cubs in 2004. He had built up significant negativity in the clubhouse and on the final day of the season he infamously left the stadium during the game. His teammates took a baseball bat to his stereo in the clubhouse and the Cubs were glad to be rid of him after the season. When the Orioles chose not to resign him for 2006, only one team, the Washington Nationals offered him a minor league contract. 588 career homeruns and not one team was eager to invite him to their major league spring-training camp. The Associated Press reported on November 4 that Sosa was hoping to return to the Majors for the 2007 season. On Sunday, Sosa was interviewed on ESPN Sports Center Conversation and told viewers that "without a doubt" he'll be picked up by another major league team, "they need my bat." Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, don’t it?

Pujols said all the right things in apologizing for his statement and in apologizing to Howard. Pujols has every reason in the world to learn to emulate Jeter, the other 2006 MVP-second place finisher. It’s good for him, good for others, good for baseball, and good for business.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Thomas said...

Love the MVP column, so true. I too would rather build around Pujols than Howard, yet Howard DID have the better season.

9:07 PM  
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