Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken had the best season of his career in 1991, and no one, not even his struggling team, could keep him from being named the American League's Most Valuable Player.
Ripken narrowly outpolled Detroit Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder to win his second MVP award and become the first American League player to be named the MVP after playing for a losing club.
The sixth-place Orioles were the only thing that stood in his way. Ripken set season career highs with 34 home runs, 114 RBI and a .323 batting average. He ranked among the leaders in virtually every offensive and defensive category and received 15 of the 28 first-place votes.
Fielder, the MVP runner-up for the second year in a row, tied for the league lead with 44 home runs and led the major leagues with 133 RBI. He received nine first-place votes and 12 second-place votes to lose by 318-286. Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas finished third, though he received only one first-place vote.
"I'm very excited," said Ripken, who became the 20th player in major-league history to win more than one MVP trophy. "I didn't think that I would be this excited. I tried to downplay it. I was very pleased with my season, but I didn't think it would come to this."
Ripken knew that in 60 previous elections, no player from a sixth-place club had been chosen as the American League MVP. The vote usually is weighted toward the most productive player from a winning club, but only one player -- Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Joe Carter -- had MVP-caliber numbers for an AL division titlist.
It had figured to come down to Ripken and Fielder, with Fielder getting some added consideration because the Tigers were in contention for much of the season. But the voters apparently were more impressed with one of the greatest single-season performances by a shortstop in major-league history.
Baseball's most prestigious postseason award is sponsored by the Baseball Writers Association of America, which appoints the selection committees for each league. Two beat writers from each city vote for each of the major BBWAA awards in their league. The Manager of the Year, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards already have been handed out. The National League MVP will be announced tonight.
Ripken not only led the American League in total bases, extra-base hits and multiple-hit games, but also led major-league shortstops in putouts, assists, total chances and double plays.
The Orioles held Ripken's MVP news conference under the lights at the unfinished Camden Yards ballpark. Club officials paid tribute to his wholesome image by toasting him with champagne flutes filled with -- you guessed it -- milk.
"I blew it on Channel 2," Ripken said. "I told them I was celebrating with champagne in my kitchen. This will help me restore my image. The milk people will really like this."
Orioles President Larry Lucchino liked it, too, raising his glass to the entire family, including Ripken's wife, Kelly, and daughter, Rachel.
"With this toast, we hope that you, like other all-time great Orioles Jim Palmer and Brooks Robinson, will be an Oriole for your entire career," Lucchino said.
That will be up to Lucchino and Ripken's agent, Ron Shapiro, who apparently have yet to begin negotiating a contract extension. Ripken's current contract expires after the 1992 season.
Nothing has happened in the last eight months to hurt Ripken's market value. He was the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game and he was named Player of the Year by both The Sporting News and the Associated Press. Next week, he almost certainly will receive his first Gold Glove Award, when the Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. introduces its defensive all-star team at a New York City gala Tuesday.
"The whole season, it just seemed like I couldn't do anything wrong," said Ripken, who will receive a $100,000 incentive bonus for winning the MVP. "I hope to experience that again, but I don't know."
Just a season earlier, Ripken was struggling so badly at the plate that he had to wonder if his offensive skills had begun to decline. He wouldn't admit it at the time, but he said last night that he "hit rock bottom" before he was able to rethink his hitting mechanics and rebuild his reputation as an offensive player.
"To let you know how frustrated I was, I let the thought come into my mind that I might not be able to play that long -- that my days as a player, my years as a player might be numbered," he said.
He spent last winter working on a new approach at the plate and got instant results in spring training. There was reason to conclude that the presence of newly acquired Glenn Davis in the cleanup spot had something to do with that, but Ripken's offensive production remained consistent even after Davis was sidelined for four months.