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Belle rings loudly, but Vaughn MVP


BOSTON -- Oh, the fine whine that will be uncorked if Albert Belle isn't voted American League MVP.

Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove has said it would mean that baseball writers had an "agenda."

And Belle has said, "The numbers speak for themselves. What else do you want me to do?"

Fair question.

But Belle still isn't the MVP.

Boston's Mo Vaughn deserves the award, even though Belle was the first player in major-league history to hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in the same season -- a 144-game season, no less.

The competition between the two has carried into the divisional playoff series between their teams, but the Baseball Writers' Association of America requires MVP ballots to be postmarked before the start of the postseason.

So, it won't help Belle that he has gone 3-for-7 with a double, homer, three walks, three RBIs and three runs scored in the first two games, while Vaughn has gone 0-for-10 with five strikeouts.

Still, the comparison is inevitable.

And if Vaughn finishes as one of the goats of this series -- teammate Jose Canseco also is 0-for-10 -- his winning the MVP award would be that much more controversial, and that much more hollow.

"I don't worry about Albert Belle," Vaughn said quietly after Wednesday night's 4-0 loss in Game 2. "I've been in the game long enough to know what I can do. I don't try to compete with any one person. I compete with myself.

"If we go down in this situation because of my play, I'll have to live with it all winter. And you should have to live with it. You've got to take the good with the bad, and I'll take this head-on."

Obviously, the MVP is the least of Vaughn's worries. But the award is for most valuable player during the regular season -- not player of the year, not postseason MVP.

Everyone sees it differently. But Cleveland fans chanted "MVP! MVP!" for Belle as the Indians won the first two games at Jacobs Field. And Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy conceded that Belle "probably" will win the award.

Numbers, numbers.

Baseball is more than just numbers.

If Belle doesn't win, Hargrove and others will blame the writers, claiming they held a grudge against a player who mistreats them. But Vaughn should win on the merits, because he was more valuable to his team's success.

Fifty homers? A remarkable achievement accomplished by only 11 other players in history. But 31 of Belle's homers came after Aug. 1, a period in which the Indians' lead in the AL Central was never smaller than 16 games.

Garbage time.

The Indians won the division in the first half. And Belle was probably their third most valuable player then, behind closer Jose Mesa and right fielder Manny Ramirez.

At the All-Star break, Ramirez had a higher average than Belle (.320-.312), more homers (18-14) and more RBIs (52-51). Mesa had converted all 21 of his saves to fill a major hole. And the Indians' lead was 12 games.

No one can deny the magnitude of what Belle accomplished -- he led the league in total bases, slugging percentage and extra-base hits, tied Edgar Martinez for the league lead with 121 runs and Vaughn for the lead with 126 RBIs.

But without him, the Indians still would have won the division, perhaps by 15 games instead of 30. Without Vaughn, the Red Sox never would have built their own huge cushion, or held off the Yankees by seven games.

Consistent all year, Vaughn was the Boston foundation. The Red Sox were hit by injuries in the first half, getting only two wins from Roger Clemens, and five homers from Jose Canseco. Yet, they had a three-game lead at the break, in large part due to Vaughn.

He hit .290 with 24 homers and 60 RBIs at a time when his team's second-best offensive player was shortstop John Valentin. And he was just as pivotal when Boston went 20-2 from Aug. 3 to 24, extending its lead from 4 1/2 to 15 1/2 games.

Vaughn hit .303 with five homers and 23 RBIs in that stretch, then tapered off when the games grew less meaningful, contributing only seven homers the rest of the way.

His overall statistics aren't nearly as gaudy as Belle's, but consider this: For the season, Vaughn batted .338 with runners in scoring position, nearly 70 points higher than Belle.

Fifty homers? Vaughn hit a mere 39, but 50 doesn't guarantee an MVP. The total had been reached 13 previous times since the inception of the award in 1931. Six times, the MVP went to someone else.

One of those was an exceptional circumstance -- Mickey Mantle got shut out the year Roger Maris hit 61. But remember when Cecil Fielder hit 51 homers in 1990? Rickey Henderson won the award.

Belle is a more complete hitter than Fielder, and his season was nothing short of historic. But don't be mesmerized by his numbers, or misled by his postseason. The Most Valuable Player of the American League is Mo Vaughn.

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