Posted on: May 7, 2012 3:57 pm
Edited on: May 8, 2012 2:37 am
 

MVP Voting in Vogue

It’s a bit early in the baseball campaign to be writing about MVPs, though, that didn’t stop some this spring from doing just that. Not too many endeavors as frivolous as pre-season prognostications on likely, after-season award winners. But it’s a free country, fast becoming jobless, but free.

This piece isn’t about predictions nor intended to depreciate award winners of the past.

It’s about a bad standard many MVP voters are adopting before checking their ballots.

Today, more and more voters are making their choice by applying a team standard. Even when player-candidates have numbers that are easily differentiated, the player on the better team will take the trophy, regardless. A 'better' team can simply mean more victories but is more likely to be playoff-bound. No ifs, ands or bunts about it. It’s all very tidy and misguided.

I’d been hearing about this rigid rule in recent years but never paid it much mind. That was until last month when I was leafing through my backlog of periodicals and happened upon a compilation of final statistics for MLB 2011.

One thing jumped out. That was the DodgersMatt Kemp not winning the NL MVP.

The winner, Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun had a terrific season. And like that juror who’s heard inadmissibles during trial and instructed to disregard, I’ve tried to not let Braun’s two positive test results from 2011 color my view. Officially, his testosterone level was not twenty times higher than any ever recorded by MLB and he’s as clean as a whistle.

By August it was a two-man race in the National. And it was close, but not that close.

Even as one applies a team standard, Kemp should’ve taken the hardware. Using those stats that bear directly on club success (games, runs, RBIs, Fld % and sacrifices), the Dodgers’ star outfielder gets the nod:

Braun: G (150), SF (3), Fld%(.996 / 1E / 8A / 268 CH), runs (109) and RBIs (111);
Kemp: G (161), SF (7), Fld% (.986 / 5E / 11A / 361 CH), runs (115) and RBIs (126).

As long as the candidate has no PED-markers or Delmon-Milton tendencies, if he’s got the numbers, he gets the trophy. That’s a player performance standard. Simple & sound.

It’s a criterion in line with today’s stat-crazy fandom (fantasy), the baseball world’s long love affair with individual numbers and formed the basis for the earliest MVP accolade.

Starting in 1910 with a car conferment for highest BA (Chalmers / Wikipedia), the MVP has been part promotion and part prize, its goal couched in idyllic vagaries like “most important and useful player to the club and the League (Gillette & Palmer / “The ESPN”) and “the player who’s of greatest all-around service to his club (Newman / “One of a Kind”).” But popular perception has always been clearly & squarely focused on individual player output.

The MVP selection was never intended as a fashionable, feel-good party favor for writers as they pack their pens and board the baseball bandwagon for post-season play. Anyone given the privilege of casting-vote should have the requisite skill for finding fact or figure to distinguish close candidacies without the simple fall-back of better team record. Ugh.

If anything, shining statistically on a lesser team, where turmoil can reign and talent will beckon to opponents like a tourist in a Turkish bazaar (R. Steves), should garner more praise, more points from a voter who appreciates the full-flavor and nuance of the game.

For the first 60 years (1931) the BBWA, while giving no special favor to stars on pedestrian clubs, also never barred-the-gate to such men either. Cubs’ Ernie Banks is prime example, winning back-to-backs on bottom-feeders in the late 1950s (‘58 (72-82 / 5) & ‘59 (74-80 / 5)).

Some other non-PS recipients since the 50s include Shantz ‘52 (79-75 / 4); Burroughs ‘74 (84-76 / 2); Hernandez ‘79 (86-76 / 3); Murphy ‘83 (88-74 / 2); Dawson ‘87 (76-85 / 6); Schmidt ‘86 (86-75 / 2) and Yount ‘89 (81-81 / 4). Uncommon result, yes, but still, a real possibility.

With arrival of the 90s came the new, hoity-toity MVP standard. Now it was etched in stone: players on so-so clubs NEED NOT DREAM of an MVP. Cal Ripken ‘91 (67-95 / 6) and Larry Walker ‘97 (83-79 / 3) remain the last of a vanished breed (Baseball-reference.com).

Which is more laudable: riding the wave of success on a frontrunner with talent galore, or thriving in mediocrity by making the most of what you have? For many, it might be the latter as it speaks more to their own experience, their own vision of the American dream.

Playing on a contender (most MVPs) shouldn’t work a penalty on a candidate, but it shouldn’t work an advantage either and certainly not tip the scale and prove decisive in the vote. Along the same line, toiling on a cellar-dweller shouldn’t hurt the player who’s miraculously put together a stellar season against the odds.

Somebody’s gotta’ tell voters the MVP, in whatever sport, is not a team award.

Admittedly, it can get confusing these days, given the other troublesome trend where honorees feel compelled in their addresses to give credit to every man, woman & child they’ve ever encountered while taking none for themselves (Brees). You might want to plan ahead (S. Field / Oscars), but a measure of public, self-congratulation is acceptable.

In MLB, the team awards are called the Pennant (League) and Championship trophy.

Braun’s pivotal play for a division champ gave him the edge with voters (LAD 82-79 / 3). And look how that turned out. Brewers were the class of the Central and then proceed to flame-out in NLCS to a rival that squeaked into the PS (STL). The Braves win umpteen divisions from 1991-05 but only one WS crown. And these are fairly typical outcomes.

One then has to wonder, what’s the point of this better team standard when so many title aspirants prove to be paper-tigers, pretenders in the post-season? What exactly are these voters hanging their hats on anyway?

I take no joy in casting doubt on Ryan Braun’s MVP bestowment. Using the player performance standard, Braun’s numbers stack-up well against Kemp’s. Reasonable minds could then have differed on who the more deserving candidate was in 2011.

I’m trying to show the fallacy of the current, prevailing team criterion. It’s not just senseless, its proponents don’t even apply it correctly. Not with style, at any rate.

If today’s mass of voters were casting in the 1950s, Mr. Cub’s mantel would be as bare as Crash Davis’ (Bull Durham). And that’s what Annie Savoy would’ve called a sin in the “Church of Baseball (BD).” Amen.

Steven Keys
Posted on: April 30, 2012 2:27 pm
Edited on: May 1, 2012 12:11 am
 

When In Rome, Mr. Pujols

Change is good, so they say.

And ya’ know who likes change? Marketing people like change, so do wet babies, unhappy workers, anyone living near a skateboarder, panhandlers and free agents.  That's about it.

When Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols made the big change this off-season it wasn’t because they were unhappy campers. Quite the contrary. Both were much loved and rather cozy in their respective cities of Milwaukee and St. Louis. Big baseball towns.

They opted for change because they wanted some big change, as in moolah. They got it, bushel-baskets full of it, courtesy of the Detroit Tigers and Anaheim Angels, respectively.

Like that employee moving-on to greener pastures, Prince and Albert arrived at their new surroundings with high hopes and long ‘to-do’ lists.

Moving is never easy. First there's finding a new home, then things like utilities, drivers license, schools for kids, satellite hook-up and on and on and on.  And while you're still fretting over all that there's the new job.  That starts with finding the best route to the stadium, securing a parking spot, meeting & sizing-up new co-workers, setting-up your locker and schmoozing the local press.

One more task that's too often left off the ball-player's moving list but can prove as important as any other: learning the new League. In this case, the American.

It’s one thing to dabble on the other side (interleague, World Series, Home Run Derby & Family Fun Show all-star game), it’s another to live there, day in, day out.

And don’t be fooled by interleague play.

Ever since MLB broke with a near 100-year old tradition (1997) and expanded League competition to a two-week period in the regular-season, the casual fan discerns no big difference between the rival confederations.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Each League retains a distinct style of play and strategy. Nuances remain in how runs are manufactured, navigating the base paths, use of pitchers and even fielder placement.

Then there's the designated-hitter rule, by itself enough to make each League unique.

Never a fan of the DH, I’ve nonetheless come to accept it as a trademark of the Junior Circuit, just as much as its absence is a defining trait for the National. To the degree that interleague play has homogenized baseball, the competing DH policies remain a hallmark of the Major League game which shouldn’t be lost. And the only ones who seem to feign frustration at the current state are a handful of writers and $-interested parties.

And there are the players themselves.

Succeeding in a new League requires homework: learning new pitchers, hitters, managers and even umpires, scorers and grounds-keepers to which you’d be wise to get accustomed.

It’s all more than enough to keep the multi-millionaire ball-player busy in the off-season.

But in listening to Al Pujols in spring training I got the feeling that the former Redbird and World Series hero didn’t do his studies. When asked what he was doing differently to prepare for the big change his answer was essentially…nothing. Bad answer.

It’s good to be confident but a little practicality, humility never hurt anyone and goes a long way in helping transition and insure $200 million investments.

Here’s how things stand between the two titans as of this posting (4/30):

Fielder: 22 GS / 13 R / 25 H / 2 2B / 3 HR / 11 RBI / .444 SLG / .309 BA.
Pujols: 22 GS / 7 R / 19 H / 7 2B / 0 HR / 4 RBI / .295 SLG / .216 BA.

Fielder has two distinct advantages over Albert in the transition game: 1) father and former American slugging star Cecil Fielder, and 2) teammate Miguel Cabrera.

While a rift had developed between Prince and his father, recent word is that both are now on speaking terms (Detroit Free Press / “Cecil” / Schrader / 1-24). Though Dad downplays the significance of League difference (“If you’re a good hitter, you’re a good hitter” / DFP), I can’t imagine Cecil has not imparted some helpful & pointed words of advice.

And with a game-changer like Cabrera in the line-up, how nervous can you be? Miguel’s numbers: 22 GS / 15 R / 25 H / 7 HR / 20 RBI / .571 SLG / .298 BA. By contrast, in LA it’s Mark Trumbo who's surprisingly the current pace-setter for the struggling Halos (3 HR / 8 RBI / .304 BA).

But not to worry, Angels’ fans. Pujols’ bread & butter with the bat has always been two-baggers and in that department he’s doing just fine (7). It’s something to build on.

One name Pujols might keep in mind: Adam Dunn. Dunn was an RBI machine in the Senior Circuit for ten years (Reds / AZ / Nats). In his American League debut last season with Chicago he bottomed-out (11 HR / 42 RBI / .159 BA). He’s finding his mojo again in 2012 (22 GS / 11 R / 5 HR / 16 RBI) but exhibited the same nonchalance about League disparity.

Dunn cost the White Sox a pretty penny but Pujols cost a king’s ransom. Angels’ brass and fandom have little patience for a long learning-curve.

In the game of baseball, knowledge is power.

Steven Keys
Posted on: April 26, 2012 2:22 pm
Edited on: April 30, 2012 3:15 pm
 

Goodell Looking Presidential

It’s a job that should come with a warning: “Careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

The hours are long, there’s nearly no off-season, travel-time is taxing, fan-mail is sparse and the endless speeches, interviews & negotiations vacillate between dreary routine and stress-city.

But there is an upside.

The pay is sweet, prestige is high, there’s job security (if you keep owners happy), great seats anytime you want ’em and someone’s always around to carry your bags (pre-10PM).

The post is NFL Commissioner.

And nobody in the history of professional American football has been more skilled, more effective at doing the Commissioner thing than its current title-holder, Roger Goodell.

Pete Rozelle was a giant (1960-89). In facilitating the NFL / AFL merger (‘67), conceiving the Super Bowl and brokering the first big network, merchandising & labor contracts, Pete will always remain the League’s most significant Commissioner in its long history.

While Goodell faces many of the same challenges of his predecessors, he’s also faced with a slew of issues Rozelle couldn’t have even fathomed 30 years ago.

Bounties have been around for years, so the players claim. Believable enough. But the organizational guidance New Orleans gave its elaborate and sinister program had never before been uncovered nor contemplated by League admonishers.

Whenever money’s riding on the outcome or score of a sporting contest the risk of game-fixing exists. Though wagering on competitions goes back centuries, the explosion of fantasy prognosticating on individual player performance has created a whole new beast.

Alcohol has always been an issue in the pros, but it was in Rozelle’s day that illicit drug use burst onto the scene. Marijuana, speed & cocaine were the preferred poisons, ruining more than a few careers. Today it’s PEDs that taint the field. It’s the one test RG’s failed by letting DeMaurice Smith and the NFLPA call the dance tune and avoid blood-testing.

There’s one vexing issue Roger’s been spared that gave his predecessors fits: competition. No more troublesome, rival football fraternities fighting to feed at the money trough (AAFC / AFL / WFL / USFL). The Courts & Congress have played ball in validating the NFL monopoly and the good times just keep rollin’ along!

Every issue that crosses Goodell’s desk seems to get the full treatment: public & press are kept informed, player input is sought and when a League decision is reached, it’s clear, appears decisive and is announced in a timely, prudent fashion.

Roger’s got a skill-set, a style you’d hope to find in every corporate Suit and elected official, from school board member to President of the United States. He’s an intrepid decision-maker reminiscent of Presidents past, Teddy, FDR and Harry Truman.

Our current leader gets high marks for decisiveness on matters of national security (bin Laden) and foreign policy (Libya). That should get Mr. Obama a 2nd term, despite a tendency towards wind-gauging on the home-front.  But his challenger Mr. Romney has proven an even bigger tweaker than he, excepting on high-end tax cuts, of course.

It’s no secret Presidents today work chiefly for America’s elite, regardless of party. Not much choice, given the Court’s broad interpretation of speech (donations) and the big war-chest required for a White House win ($1B+). Even so, the savvy leader knows when to throw voters (fans) a bone, something to chew on to make us feel we’re being heard.

Whether it was last year’s CBA, the on-going Saints saga or his recent Papal-like mission to Minnesota to bring the flock back into the fold with words of hope AND warning, Roger takes bold action and throws fans something to chew on. And in the end, after the griping is done and all the dust has settled, most parties are satisfied.

In contrast, his peers (Stern / Bettman / Selig) will often take half-measures, playing it safe by trying to please / appease all factions, accomplish little and please no one.

if Metta (Artest) had behaved as badly in the NFL as he did recently on the NBA court, League response would’ve been swifter & stronger (given the video) than Mr. Stern’s measured, 3-day think-a-thon before issuing the modest 7-game suspension.

Roger wouldn’t get my hypothetical vote for President just yet.

First rule of business: NFL’s gotta’ stop tinkering with the Rule book. Though it’s well-intentioned, too frequent changes (Nike college) weaken fan trust, creates confusion and threatens traditional, foundational aspects of the game that even younger fans appreciate.

Second, institute pricing relief. The NFL & affiliates have been on the gravy-train for decades. It’s time to give something back to fandom by rolling-back stadium prices and cutting-back excessive, momentum-killing TV commercials and late-hour games.

Thirdly, do some LBJ arm-twisting, get on your bully-pulpit and persuade players to finally submit to HGH blood tests. It’s about integrity, safety and sending a message to America’s youth. Besides, player refusal is weak and without merit.

Accomplish these, Roger, and voters just might draft you for the White House in 2016.

Steven Keys
Posted on: April 24, 2012 12:08 pm
 

Can Theo Raise Old Cubs Glory?

It’s become an annual rite of springtime across America.

It’s up there with packing away the sweaters, starting up the John Deere and digging out the neatsfoot oil for Mr. Rawlings.

When the early baseball chatter hits the national airwaves, topic will eventually turn to those loveable losers on Chicago’s north side and their infamous streak, the longest title-drought in professional sport (1908).

Though the absurdity of most streaks is easily exposed upon close inspection, they’re nonetheless a big deal in rounders (Ripken / Gehrig / DiMaggio / Hershiser). And this one’s a beaut.

Two caveats on the Cubs’ dry-spell:

1) The Bruins run-of-futility gives false impression it’s never been any different for this cuddly club. But that 1906-08 squad is arguably MLB’s best ever: the back-to-back titles, winning % (topping the As (’29-31), Yanks (‘26-28) & Reds (’74-76)), near un-hittable arms, fielding legends (Steinfeldt to Tinker to Evers to Chance) and all of ’em tough as nails.

I know what you’re thinking. Dropping a team as old as that into the discussion is about as tired as debating the gold standard (1896).

Just remember, today’s greats (Jordan / Belichick / Ali / Woods / Pujols) will one day become as faded as those champion Cubs. And when they do, those few who still remember will point to the ancient past.

2) The loveable losers may be fan favorites but are hardly bums. Besides having the most wins (10,311 / 1876) and fifth best percentage in history (.513), they’ve made the playoffs six times since their rebirth in ‘84 when network greed gave San Diego the decided edge.

Enter Theo Epstein. In late 2011 the GM wunderkind took his talents, as did skipper Terry Francona before him, out of a brooding Beantown where he’d brought bushels of bounty to the snake-bit franchise. Theo landed in the Windy City, birthplace of MLB.

What Epstein lacks in aged wisdom he makes up for with a baseball savvy that produced results quickly at Fenway. But his success in Boston was not your run-of-the-mill, win a World Series or two variety. He became the jinx-buster. That’s hallowed stuff.

If “fortune is ally to the brave (Olivier),” belief in curses can only be refuge for the chucklehead. Be that as it may, ESPN & friends are determined to persuade America that such gobbledygook exists, and so it does in the minds of many.

And that can include players. If Cubs rank & file believe Theo has mystique, a special ability to fashion title teams and overcome a curse, it may inspire their play.

Epstein will have the full backing of the Cubs new ownership (Ricketts) to construct a winner. But they’ve had loaded line-ups before (1984 / 2003), as the previous owner (Tribune) did its part to restore grandeur to this once powerful organization.

Theo can facilitate more than compilation of player & coaching talent. He can also help to restore a confidence to the home-dugout of the friendly-confines that’s been sorely lacking since Charlie Grimm was barking out directions in 1945.

Epstein may have the Midas touch but he ain’t no Zeus (Olivier). It’ll take time for Theo and new manager Dale Sveum to make their mark and make the Cubs pennant contenders once again.

They’ve already begun the purge process. Former ace turned nut-job Carlos Zambrano found a taker in Miami, while age & injury made the usually productive Aramis Ramirez expendable (Milwaukee) for a club embarking on a new era.

But with a slimmed-down NL Central (Fielder / Pujols), expanded playoffs and a post season trend where any participant can get hot and grab the pennant, even the 2012 Cubs can dream of playing in October and resurrecting past glory.

Steven Keys
Posted on: April 20, 2012 10:42 pm
 

Vanity, Thy Name is Tebow

You wouldn’t think it from his demeanor: calm, unassuming, upbeat, always the perfect gentleman and always quick to spread credit for team success.

By media standards he’s a pleasant encounter.

To most gridiron gurus he’s a coach’s dream, provided the team’s starting QB is on terra firma and the club’s in need of a tight-end with a good pair of hands.

This is the Tim Tebow we all know. The home-schooled, prep football vagabond whose on-field exploits at the University of Florida made him a Southern fold hero.

That’s the good book on Tim.

But there’s another book on Mr. Sunshine. Not an exposé mind you, the kind Mr. Woods keeps suffering through as others cash-in on their association with the former golf great.

Rather, it’s a figurative book on his darker side and those vexing character traits you won’t normally perceive in someone as Tim but which we all possess to one degree or another: personas like vanity, banality, credulity, selfishness, insecurity and insincerity.

Recent reports lead me to believe this son of a preacher man craves attention on par with the likes of Mark Cuban, Terrell Owens, Danica Patrick and “Neon” Deion Sanders. One difference: those four knew where to land their egos. Tim, well, he picked a real doozy of a destination touching down in Jetsland, The Young & the Restless of the NFL.

Opting for the bright lights of Broadway and passing on an invite from hometown Jacksonville (Jaguars) was clear indication of Tim’s alter ego. Jags’ owner Shahid Khan and fans must still be perplexed, dumbfounded by the rebuff.

With the Broncos contented (Peyton) and the Jags ready to deal (“Khan“ / SI-FN / 3-27), I see no good reason why Denver brass would deny the man who brought Tebowmania to Mile High a chance to “weigh-in” on like-trade options (ESPN ticker / 3-21). As such, I give no weight whatsoever to Tebow’s implication that he had no involvement in the decision (“Tebow” / Strauss / Fox / 3-23), thus making him appear like so many other self-promoters.

Not that there aren’t plenty of reasons to reside in the Big Apple. New York City is a grand metropolis in many respects. Whether Tim has the inclination to partake in its myriad of enlightening and intoxicating diversions remains to be seen. Suffice to say, there’s no better place to sell yourself and your line than the media mecca of the world.

And there in lay Tim’s two-pronged mission in New York: selling the faith from the second biggest pulpit in America and selling thyself for the biggest payday possible.

It’s true that Tebow would get full exposure if he commuted to work from Nome, Alaska. ESPN interns dig the dude more than Tiger and LeBron combined. But there’s something about living, working in NYC that energizes the coverage. He’s their guy, you might say.

“Hoy-day! What a sweep of vanity comes this way (Shakes-speare / Edward de Vere)!”

I don’t begrudge anyone the freedom to pitch himself or his religion. Both endeavors are as American as apple pie and late Friday rallies on Wall Street. Old-time ball-player turned evangelist Billy Sunday comes to mind (Cubs / 1880s).

But if I’m a follower of New York Jets’ football, I’m not a happy camper.

Tebow isn’t in NYC to play football. Sport is just a vehicle for his agenda: “My goal is to create a brighter day for as many people as I possibly can by being on this earth” (ABC / 4-13).” If he were focused on the game he wouldn’t be getting detail-work in Hollywood (curing / 4-6 / ESPN) and pass up a chance to help put Jacksonville on the NFL map.

As for Jets’ agenda: “It’s a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” (Churchill).

Ryan’s lost cachet with players, new OC Sparano brings a failed gimmick (wildcat) and owner Woody Johnson appears detached: “I’m very confident Mark can develop into a winning quarterback” (“Johnson” / N. Gay / Fox / 3-25). Where’s he been the past three years? Sanchez is 4-2 in the PS. That’s more playoff wins than Romo, Ryan & Rivers combined.

I’ll say this for Jetsland, the circus atmosphere looks downright harmonious compared to the cry-babies in Beantown (Red Sox Nation v Bobby). Oh my god! Just roll with it, Youk. “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper, that’s what I’d like to know (T. Soprano)!?”

And even if Timbo is a divo in disguise, he still might give the Jets a spark they need, wherever he’s positioned. Key is whether Rex & staff can get the roster to embrace, or at least shake hands with, Tim’s biggest asset: his sometimes infectious exuberance.

In spring, football musings are all high speculation. As that NYC philosopher Herm Edwards would say, “That’s why…you play…the game.”

Steven Keys
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com