It is an annual debate. The ballots go out for the Most Valuable Player Award and the argument begins anew. What exactly does most valuable mean?
Does it mean, for instance, that to be a legitimate MVP candidate, a player must not only have tremendous success, but also have success that is reflected in the performance of his team?
Or should the award go to the best all-around player, regardless of his club's position in the standings?
The number of voters on each side of this issue will determine whether Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken or Detroit Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder will be named the Most Valuable Player in the American League for 1991.
That decision is in the hands of 28 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which has given out the game's most prestigious award since 1931. Two beat writers from each American League city received ballots, which had to be submitted before the start of the League Championship Series.
The voting rules don't help much. They do specify that the actual value of a player to his team should be the determining factor, but the language is sufficiently vague to leave the matter to the judgment of the 28 voters. They each had to choose their 10 top players and rank them in order.
The wide-open field didn't make it any easier this year. If there was a player from an American League division champion who clearly deserved the award, there would be little to debate. But the Minnesota Twins spread their success so evenly throughout the roster that no one stood above the crowd, and the top candidate from AL East champion Toronto Blue Jays -- Joe Carter -- was not universally regarded as that club's MVP.
In the absence of such a clear-cut candidate, many voters figure to dispense with the largely intangible concept of value and depend more heavily on the numbers, which would bode very well for Ripken. But others will find it hard to ignore the big run-production totals put up by Fielder in light of his team's surprising run at the AL East title.
The case for Fielder: The big first baseman was passed over for MVP honors last year, despite becoming the first American League batter to hit more than 50 homers since Roger Maris' 61-homer season in 1961. Rickey Henderson won the 1990 MVP based on his better all-around numbers and the part he played in his team's third straight division title.
Fielder showed this year that 1990 was no fluke. He hit 44 home runs and one-upped his 1990 RBI total with 133 in '91. His team was in the AL East race for much of the season, even moving into first place briefly in August.
The rap on Fielder is that he strikes out too much (151 times) and he isn't an outstanding defensive player. The value question remains open, since he had equivalent numbers last year and the Tigers finished lower in the standings. The club's improvement can be traced to a number of other factors, including the 31-homer performance of newcomer Mickey Tettleton and 20-game winner Bill Gullickson.
The case for Ripken: The Orioles shortstop had the best season of his career -- even better than the 1983 world championship season in which he was named American League MVP. He was the only AL player to rank among the top 10 in batting average (.323), base hits (210), home runs (34) and RBI (114). In addition, he led the league in total bases (368), extra-base hits (85) and multiple-hit games (73).
He turned in one of the best all-around performances by a player at his position, leading the league in fielding percentage (.986), total chances (807) and assists (529).
The rap on Ripken, if there is one, is that his team wallowed near the bottom of the standings all year, which put him on the wrong end of the value question. But would it be fair to penalize him because the Orioles starting rotation made it virtually impossible for the club to compete in the AL East?
Fair or not, Ripken feels the Orioles' place in the standings will work against him. On the last day of the regular season, he all but conceded the award on the grounds that the team performed below preseason expectations.
"The MVP is someone who helps his team win," Ripken said. "I guess you can't make a big case for me. We didn't really have a good year. There are some guys who made some big contributions and their teams had winning seasons."
But he'll get an argument on that point from manager John Oates, who thinks that Ripken's value to the team should be apparent.
"He was just outstanding," Oates said. "No man in baseball could have been more valuable to his team than Cal Ripken was to the Baltimore Orioles. From opening day to closing day, his stats speak for themselves."
There are more than two candidates, of course, so here's a look at the ones who should show up on most of the ballots: