No sooner had the 1991 baseball season ended than Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken was headed for Minnesota to lend a helping hand to Kirby Puckett, a friend and fellow All-Star.
The event was an eight-ball tournament to benefit a local charity. Even though Ripken does not profess to be a pool player, his name added a little more prestige to the celebrity draw.
There is nothing particularly unusual about this, of course. Big-name athletes often lend their names to charitable causes. Ripken has his literacy campaign in Baltimore. Puckett has his pool tournament and memorabilia auction to benefit the children's heart association in Minnesota. It sounded like a lot of fun.
So, Ripken went to Minneapolis to play a sport that he claimed he hadn't played since he was a kid. Doesn't even own a pool table. Oh, and just one other thing. He won.
"I guess it's just my year," he said sheepishly.
That much should be obvious to all by now. To apply the vernacular of pocket billiards to the 1991 baseball season, Ripken ran the table. He ranked among the American League leaders in virtually every relevant offensive and defensive category. He turned in one of the greatest all-around performances by a shortstop in major-league history. And he extended the second-longest playing streak in baseball history to 1,573 games.
Now, there are just a couple of other things. The American League Most Valuable Player award will be announced Tuesday, and the Gold Glove awards will be awarded next week. Ripken appears to have an excellent chance for both, although there is no guarantee that his dream season will sway the voters in either poll.
The American and National League MVPs, which have been chosen by the Baseball Writers Association of America since the awards were initiated in 1931, are selected by voting committees that consist of two baseball beat writers from each city in the respective leagues.
The ballots, which have spaces to rank 10 players in order of preference, had to be submitted before the league championship series.
The Gold Glove awards, sponsored by Rawlings Sporting Goods, are determined by a vote of major-league coaches and managers. The winners will be announced Nov. 26.
Ripken was the American League MVP in 1983, when he hit .318 with 27 home runs and 102 runs batted in. That was the last year that the Orioles won the AL East division title (and the world championship), which might have affected the outcome of the MVP voting.
If Ripken is to win this year, he will have to do it in spite of his team, which finished a distant sixth and was never a factor in the AL East race. The voting guidelines make reference to the "actual value of a player to his team," which could be a sticking point for some members of the selection committee.
Those guidelines are intentionally vague. It is left to each voter to determine how much emphasis to place on the success of the individual and how much on that of the team.
Ripken already has been named Player of the Year by The Sporting News and the Associated Press. He would be an almost certain winner if the BBWAA also named a Player of the Year, but even Ripken acknowledges that the MVP is a different award with different requirements.
"When I was a kid, I always thought of the MVP as more of a player-of-the-year-type award," he said, "but when you get to the big leagues, it seems like the emphasis is put more on a winning effort."
Ripken won't campaign for himself, though his all-around numbers are superior to those of home run and RBI champion Cecil Fielder of the Detroit Tigers, who figures to win the award if Ripken doesn't. In fact, Ripken sounds as if he wouldn't even vote for himself.
"My performance was very satisfying," he said, "but it is in no way comparable to 1983, because it didn't contribute to a winning effort. My statistics were very good, but there is still a void there. The purpose of the game is to win."
The Tigers didn't win either, but they stayed in contention far longer than anyone expected. And Fielder, who finished second in the MVP balloting last year after hitting 51 home runs, may find some voters reluctant to pass him over two years in a row.
Ripken set career highs with 34 home runs, 114 RBI and a .323 batting average. He led the major leagues in total bases (368), extra-base hits (85) and multihit games (73). He led American League shortstops in fielding percentage (.986), putouts (267), assists (529), total chances (807) and double plays (114).
But while he had a season to remember, the Orioles had one to forget. That has become one of the main points in Fielder's favor.
The argument over what constitutes value is as old as the award itself. Should Ripken's performance be discounted because the Orioles had one of the most ineffective starting rotations in the majors last year? Should Fielder be rewarded because the Tigers finished several places higher in the standings, even though his statistical contribution was smaller than the year before?