Had it not been for the presence of Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr., in all likelihood the Baltimore Orioles would have fallen out of the American League and you would have needed a telescope to find them spinning, as a spent meteor, somewhere over the bauxite fields of Arkansas. Yes, one man was that important.
It's implausible to believe the Baseball Writers Association won't pick him as the Most Valuable Player in the American League, which is a more coveted award than what happened yesterday when the Associated Press announced Ripken was selected as its Player of the Year for all of baseball. In the AP poll, Ripken more than doubled the vote count for runner-up Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers and annihilated the third-place finisher, Barry Bonds of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Ripken is the greatest player in the history of the Orioles' franchise, a contention expressed in this space during the season but which touched off alarming discontent among those lacking perception and a true sense of what has been transpiring in Baltimore baseball the last 38 years.
The voting for MVP has been concluded but results won't be actually disclosed until mid-November. Two baseball writers from each city participate in the process. They cast their ballots at the end of the regular schedule, discounting playoffs and the World Series, so their opinions are not influenced by postseason performances.
If Ripken doesn't get the MVP there should be nothing short of a congressional investigation or else Fay Vincent, commissioner of baseball, should call a foul and request a re-vote. Rick Vaughn, public relations director of the Orioles, says, "I believe he has an excellent chance of winning it. A lot of writers have told me they voted for him. When you look at what Cal accomplished with bat and glove, it speaks for itself, plus the streak of playing in 1,572 consecutive games."
And, of course, the record shows a batting average of .323, 34 home runs and 114 runs batted in. At shortstop, he committed only 11 errors in 807 chances, 99 more than Ozzie Guillen of the Chicago White Sox, who took the Gold Glove away from him last season. Ripken's fielding mark stands alone as the best in the league.
In the history of the Most Valuable Player award, which originated in 1931, only two players with losing teams have been able to earn the honor and, oddly enough, both were Chicago Cubs. Ernie Banks was a double winner, 1958 and 1959, and then Andre Dawson in 1987. But the Orioles were a team that lost 95 games, 10 more than the year Dawson won it as a Cub.
Vaughn, addressing Ripken's ability with the glove, made the point his record wasn't achieved via the graciousness of "homer" scoring. "In his last 55 road games he made just one error," which adds credence to Vaughn's opinion Ripken didn't receive even the slightest taint of preferential treatment.
The American League, though, has never conferred an MVP citation to a player on a losing team. So if Ripken qualifies it will be breaking new ground. Rod Carew with the Minnesota Twins in 1977 and Robin Yount with the Milwaukee Brewers, 1989, were on clubs that finished fourth in their divisions -- which makes them rather exceptional cases but, of course, the Twins and Brewers were much better off than the woeful Orioles of 1991.
If Ripken had the support of good hitters around him it would have prevented rival pitchers from devoting so much concentration on his turns at bat, which makes .323 more remarkable. Since he was the strongest factor in the lineup, it meant he had to be depended on for the bulk of the production -- not only the base hits but also providing the long ball.
"I've had trouble dealing with the attention the consecutive game streak has gotten," says Ripken, "but I've learned to live with it. I'd rather be regarded as a good player who is reliable than just a fellow who doesn't miss a game."
Most Valuable Player should mean what it says. Literally. Being a member of a contending team has evolved over the passing of time into part of the MVP consideration and this is wrong. It ought to be decided strictly on the basis of contributions, regardless of whether the club the nominee plays for is out in front or reduced to a doormat.
Calvin Edwin Ripken Jr. for Most Valuable Player. A thousand times yes.