Cal Ripken will find out late this afternoon if he is the first player in American League history to perform for a losing team and be named Most Valuable Player.
The result of voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America is due to be made at 6 p.m. The balloting is expected to be extremely close among four top candidates, with Ripken challenging Detroit's Cecil Fielder, Toronto's Joe Carter and Chicago's Frank Thomas.
Ripken's superlative all-around season,which saw him hit .323, with 34 home runs and 114 runs batted in and making only 11 errors in 162 games at shortstop, made him a late entry in the race, which is usually dominated by players from contending teams. Fielder was second a year ago and is the slim consensus favorite to win this year because the Tigers remained in contention until the final month of the season.
Although the Orioles' sixth-place finish works against Ripken's chances, the perennial All-Star generated a lot of late support that could assure him of no worse than a second-place finish. In the eyes of his manager that would be one place too low for his premier player.
"A lot of managers aren't fortunate enough to ever have a player of Cal's caliber, let alone in their first year," said John Oates, who succeeded Frank Robinson last May. "He was our anchor.
"If Toronto hadn't had Carter the Blue Jays might not have won, but I don't think they would've finished sixth; if Detroit hadn't had Fielder, or Chicago Thomas I don't think the Tigers or White Sox would've finished sixth,".
"If we hadn't had Cal, we would've finished eighth," Oates exaggerated as his form of endorsement.
"He could've been a starting pitcher and I could only have used him once every five days, or he could've been a closer who I could only have used when we had a lead. But he was our No. 3 hitter and our best player at a very important defensive position.
"He, literally, was the anchor in our lineup. [Public address announcer] Rex Barney used to tease me all the time when he came in to check the starting lineup. It would usually be blank except for Cal's name in the No. 3 slot. I'd write that in and fill in around him,".
Like a lot of other people, Oates has his own theory as to why Ripken was able to elevate his offensive game to another level last year.
"I don't know whether he'd agree with me or not," said Oates, who watched Ripken as a coach for a little more than two years before becoming manager, "but I have an opinion on why he was so successful last year.
"I think Junior went to the plate all year with the idea of doing what the pitcher allowed him to do," said Oates. "He was a situational hitter -- but in regard to what the pitcher, not the game, dictated.
"In '89 and '90, Cal hit a lot of popups to the first baseman because he pulled off the ball. I didn't see the figures, but somebody told me the charts showed he only 'drove' one ball to the right of right-centerfield in 1990.
"Last year he stayed back and took that ground ball single to rightfield -- and he didn't pop out to the first baseman very often. As a result, he made the pitcher come inside -- and he was good enough, and quick enough to handle that pitch.
"Using the whole field," Oates theorized, "helped him average-wise and long ball-wise. Most hitters will tell you it's easier to react to the ball inside when you're looking away than it is to react to a pitch outside when you're looking in. It's much the same as reacting to a curveball when you're looking for a fastball as opposed to the other way around."
There's no question that, from a personal standpoint, last year was a signature season for Ripken. But, while realizing nobody could expect the same production every year, Oates feels that 1991 could be more of a standard for the rest of Ripken's career.
Whether he is named the American League's MVP tonight or not will not change Oates' opinion of the value of his anchor man. "I don't know how anybody could have done more for a team," said Oates.