Here are halfway awards in season full of surprises


It's hard to believe that the 2000 baseball season is more than half over. Wasn't it just the other day that the superstar Ken Griffey got his wish to be traded to Cincinnati and doomed the Seattle Mariners to mediocrity in the American League West?

Obviously, things don't always turn out the way you expect. The Mariners are in first place in the AL West and the Cincinnati Reds are worse off than they were at this time a year ago.

The first half has been full of surprises, from the otherworldly performance of the Chicago White Sox to the total collapse of the defending National League Central champion Houston Astros. From the resurgence of the radically rebuilt Colorado Rockies to the sharp decline of the Texas Rangers. The scientifically proven unjuiced baseball is flying out of stadiums at a record rate again, yet no one is on pace to come close to Mark McGwire's single-season home run record.

The winningest pitcher in baseball is neither Randy Johnson nor Pedro Martinez, but a guy (David Wells) that was harpooned this week by Sports Illustrated because of his portly physique.

What is no surprise is that the first season of the new millennium (or the last season of the old one, depending on who you talk to) has been chock full of exciting performances that beg for midseason recognition.

The envelope please:

* Most valuable player: The St. Louis Cardinals hold a huge lead over the Cincinnati Reds in the NL Central. McGwire leads the major leagues with 30 home runs. He'll finish the season with 65 or more for the third straight season. He would appear to be an obvious choice.

Nahhhh. Carlos Delgado. He leads the other league in home runs. Has more RBIs. Doesn't have nearly the supporting cast.

* Most valuable player not to make the All-Star team: White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas, whose positive impact on the amazing Sox will make him a solid American League MVP candidate, has comparable numbers to All-Star starter Jason Giambi and Delgado, but got left off the team because there has to be at least one player from every franchise. Tampa Bay's Fred McGriff made the team with vastly inferior numbers.

* Best pitcher: It always seems to come down to Johnson and Pedro Martinez. Johnson is 13-2 with a 1.77 ERA and a chance to finish the season with more than 350 strikeouts. Go with the Big Unit.

* Best pitcher, super heavyweight division: "David Wells is fat." That's the way Sports Illustrated opened its cover story on the lovable "Boomer" last week. Well, maybe he is, but he's also the winningest pitcher in baseball and one of the major reasons that the Toronto Blue Jays entered the weekend in a virtual tie for the AL East lead. He's on pace to win 27 games, which would be the most since Bob Welch won 27 for the A's in 1990. So what if the guy likes pizza.

* Manager of the half year: This one's a no-brainer. The Chicago White Sox have the best record in baseball and they have a $32 million payroll. Jerry Manuel ought to have an L train named after him.

* Executives of the year (tie): White Sox general manager Ron Schueler took the heat when the White Sox downsized. Now, he deserves the accollades for building a great young team. The White Sox have challenged the notion that it is impossible to compete without a huge payroll.

Seattle Mariners executive vice president Pat Gillick was forced to trade one of the greatest players in the history of the game, but still managed to sculpt a team that is on top of the American League West standings. Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez deserve some credit, too, but Gillick again showed why he is considered one of the most brilliant executives in professional sports.

* Top rookie: Tough call. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel has won six of nine decisions and proven himself to be one of the best hitting pitchers in baseball, but Mariners closer Kazuhiro Sasaki ranks among the American League leaders with 16 saves.

In a logical world, a 32-year-old guy who has played half a career in Japan wouldn't be compared to a 20-year-old guy in his third year of professional baseball, but Sasaki is considered a rookie by the American League - so who are we to argue. He's on his way to 30 saves.

* Best reliever: Detroit closer Todd Jones leads the American League with 24 saves, contributing to nearly two thirds of his team's victories. He doesn't get a lot of ink because he doesn't play in a major media center, but he has quietly emerged as one of the most effective relievers in the game.

* Best reliever not to make the All-Star team: Danny Graves ranks among the league leaders in victories and ERA while leading the Reds with 13 saves, but he was doomed when National League All-Star manager Bobby Cox chose to take only two relievers on his 10-man pitching staff. Never mind that he is 9-1 with a 1.89 ERA and there are four starters on the team with fewer wins and higher ERAs. No one said life was fair.

* Best hitter: Angels outfielder Darin Erstad has emerged as the game's best pure hitter, entering the weekend with 135 hits and still on pace to challenge George Sisler's single-season record of 257. He probably won't get there, but Erstad is everything the Angels thought he would be when they drafted him out of the University of Nebraska, where - along with being a pretty good college hitter - he was the kicker on the Cornhuskers football team.

* Biggest surprise: Obviously, the White Sox, who were expected to finish well behind the perennial AL Central champion Cleveland Indians again this year.

* Biggest disappointment: The Houston Astros, who have gone from a third straight NL Central title to the worst record in baseball.

* Most expensive disappointment: The Los Angeles Dodgers, who have only fourth place to show for their $90 million payroll. Managing general partner Robert Daly claims that manager Davey Johnson and GM Kevin Malone are safe, but how long can he stand to look up two expansion teams and the rival San Francisco Giants?

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