Ripken MVP? Not this vote Sure, he has Player of Year stats, but he needs contending team, too, and Detroit's Fielder has everything

Ken Rosenthal

November 18, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

I couldn't have voted Cal Ripken MVP.

The belief here is that the MVP should come from a pennant contender. That's why I voted for Dennis Eckersley and Rickey Henderson in the past two elections. Both played for a team that won its division, the Oakland A's.

Fortunately, I didn't vote this year -- Peter Schmuck of The Sun and Mark Maske of The Washington Post cast the ballots on behalf of the Baltimore-Washington chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America.

I say fortunately, because no standout candidate emerged from the two division champions, Minnesota and Toronto. I say fortunately, because it's nearly impossible to justify a vote against Ripken.

His only black mark is his team -- the sadsack Orioles, the sixth-place Orioles, the 67-95 Orioles. Ripken would be the first AL MVP from a team with a losing record. He also would be the first from a team that finished lower than fourth.

Cecil Fielder was second to Henderson last year in large part because he played for a non-contender. It would be an absolute crime if he lost again this year; the 1990 Tigers finished a mere nine games out, the '91 Orioles a whopping 24.

Can't vote against Ripken.

Can't vote against Fielder.

Political elections should be this good.

Ripken clearly is player of the year -- the Associated Press and Sporting News already honored him as such. Problem is, the player of the year is not always MVP. Ripken himself has noted the difference, perhaps sensing what will transpire when the award is announced tomorrow night.

The definition of the award is almost deliberately vague, which is why there are such heated debates year after year. Ultimately, the voters act on their own beliefs. It's as if they're choosing not just for president, but what the presidency means.

The process invariably leads to discontent, and yet another round of complaints is certain in either Baltimore or Detroit tomorrow night. But my theory is that if the award was for player of the year, it would be called exactly that, and not MVP.

So, why not Ripken?

He wins the statistical comparison with Fielder in every category but home runs and RBIs -- and home runs are overrated. Fielder hit 10 more than Ripken (44-34), but fewer on the road (18-17). That shows the benefit of playing in Tiger Stadium.

Ripken had 16 more extra-base hits, 48 more total bases and a batting average 62 points higher. Fielder's one true edge is in RBIs, the most meaningful offensive statistic. He finished with 133, one more than last season, when he hit 51 home runs.

That's impressive, especially considering that more than 100 of Fielder's RBIs came in the clutch, with the Tigers trailing or leading by three runs or less. But lest we forget, Ripken is a top defensive shortstop, while Fielder is only adequate at first base.

Consider the total package, and their seasons don't compare. A similar case can be made for Ripken over every other MVP contender, from Frank Thomas to Chili Davis to Joe Carter. But the discussion always returns to one central point: He's player of the year, not MVP.

Fielder played for a surprise team that actually shared the division lead for three days in late August before fading from contention. Ripken played for a team that trailed by three or more runs in the first three innings of more than one-fourth of its games.

In other words, he was just the opposite of Fielder, compiling his statistics in games that were not competitive, for a team that was not competitive. This obviously wasn't his fault. But it's a compelling argument against naming him MVP.

Fielder suffered under the same analysis last year. True, Henderson's position then was stronger than his is now, playing as he did for a division champion. But as unfair as it would be for Ripken to lose this award, it might be even more unfair for Fielder not to win it.

Go back to last year: Of the 15 previous players who led the major leagues in home runs and RBIs in the same season, only one failed to be named his league's MVP: Tony Armas in 1984, when Willie Hernandez won the AL award.

Now Fielder has led the majors in those departments two years running (he tied Jose Canseco for the home run title this year). He'll have a far bigger gripe than Ripken if he finishes second. In fact, he'll have every reason to be outraged.

Ripken, of course, would never express that emotion, but after chanting "MVP, MVP" the final weekend, Orioles fans no doubt would take up his fight. That, after all, is what they did last year after he lost the Gold Glove -- an award he's expected to receive for the first time next week.

Far be it for me or anyone else to insist they'd be wrong, for the issue just isn't that clear-cut. What's more, it was a joy watching Ripken this year, reaching new plateaus, silencing his critics, producing one of the best seasons by a shortstop in major-league history.

In my heart of hearts, I could never have justified voting against him. In my heart of hearts, I'm hoping others felt the same way.

1991 HIGHLIGHTS

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