In Rodriguez case, it's value judgment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez has a big credibility problem.

Everything he does is unbelievable.

He just won American League Player of the Month honors for the second month in a row. He leads the major leagues with 48 home runs and 121 RBIs. He is the best all-around player in the game, the highest-paid athlete in the history of professional team sports and - by most accounts - a pretty decent human.

So why isn't he the runaway candidate for AL Most Valuable Player? There is no dispute he is putting together one of the greatest individual performances in baseball history. He's on pace to approach 60 homers and commit fewer than 10 errors at the sport's most difficult position. He's a virtual lock to finish the season leading the league in home runs and RBIs and to rank among the league's top 10 in almost every offensive category.

But there's a good chance that if the season continues to play out the way it has so far, A-Rod could be looking up in the MVP balloting at somebody with far less gaudy statistics.

The reason: The Most Valuable Player Award is not necessarily a Player of the Year Award.

The 28 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America who make up the AL selection committee (which includes two veteran baseball writers from every league city) are encouraged to consider far more than raw statistics before filling out their ballots.

Numbers matter a lot, but voters are instructed to evaluate the impact a player has on the fortunes of his team. That could be a major obstacle for Rodriguez, who plays for a high-priced Texas Rangers team that is destined to finish last in the AL West for the third straight year.

"I'm not going to promote myself," said Rodriguez, who is in town for the three-game series between the Rangers and Orioles at Camden Yards. "I'm going to leave that up to you guys [writers]. My opinion isn't important. I've been in the running for MVP five times and been close twice. Some of those times we had great teams, and a couple times we didn't. It's hard to say."

It wouldn't be unprecedented. Hall of Famer Ernie Banks won the National League MVP trophy twice while playing for Chicago Cubs teams that were below .500. Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson won in 1987 on a team that finished last in the NL East. And Cal Ripken was named AL MVP for his career offensive performance in 1991 for an Orioles club that finished 28 games under .500.

"Andre Dawson won it with the Cubs in last place, and his numbers [in 1987] don't compare with what Alex has done," said Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. "I think he's deserving of it. I think if our team was in first place, he would have even better numbers than he has, because he would have more support in the lineup. We've had trouble at the top of the order.

"It's different when you come to the park with a great chance to win. When you're struggling and you still put up those numbers, you've got to give a guy credit for that."

The player who has emerged as Rodriguez's chief competition is Oakland Athletics shortstop Miguel Tejada, who has been the catalytic offensive force on an A's team that extended its winning streak to an American League-record 20 games last night.

Tejada can't match Rodriguez stat for stat - he's batting .310 with 30 homers and 116 RBIs - but his impact on the success of the A's is unmistakable. Somebody had to pick up the offensive slack when the club lost Jason Giambi (another legitimate 2002 MVP candidate) and premier leadoff man Johnny Damon to free agency during the past offseason.

"I've always felt that the MVP should have the kind of season that helps his team win," said Cleveland Plain Dealer baseball writer Paul Hoynes, a regular member of the BBWAA selection committees that choose the major awards. "A-Rod has great numbers, but I just don't know if I could vote for him because the Rangers have been so bad this year. I look at Tejada and what the A's are doing, and that carries a lot of weight with me.

"There's no doubt that Rodriguez is the best player in the league right now, but it comes down to how you define MVP."

Former Orioles and Rangers manager Johnny Oates has a unique perspective on the situation, because he has been connected in some way with A-Rod and with the past two players to be named MVP playing for losing clubs.

"I was with the Cubs [as a coach] when Dawson won it and we finished last, and I was with Cal when he won it and we weren't doing well," Oates said. "It depends on who [Rodriguez's] competition is. Dawson didn't have too much competition.

"You look at A-Rod and his numbers are just mind-boggling. I think a lot will depend on what Tejada does the rest of the way. As much as you pull for your own guys - and I consider Alex one of my own guys - Tejada's numbers are getting up there with A-Rod."

To hear Rodriguez tell it, he'll be happy either way. He has put up the numbers to justify what would be the fourth MVP trophy won by a Rangers player in the past seven years, but he also has spent the past few years trumpeting the accomplishments of Tejada, who only recently has risen in the public consciousness to the level of fellow super shortstops Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra.

"Tejada, in my mind, is the most underrated player in baseball," Rodriguez said. "He's been doing this for a long time. I've been a big fan of Tejada. He's fun to watch, and it's fun to watch what he's doing. He has made a great push. He had a great Labor Day weekend. I'm glad he's finally getting his just due."

Giambi, who won the award in 2000 with the A's, also deserves consideration with 34 home runs and 105 RBIs, as does New York Yankees teammate Alfonso Soriano, who is on pace to produce a rare 40-40 season (40 home runs and 40 stolen bases) in his second year as an everyday player. The Yankees are on their way to winning the AL East again, but MVP voters may be swayed by the fact that Tejada is working his magic with one of baseball's lowest-salaried teams.

If there is a big-money backlash, Rodriguez also could pay the price. His 10-year, $252 million contract is the biggest in the history of professional team sports - a blessing and a burden he carries into every hostile stadium and every conversation. And the Rangers have one of the biggest payrolls in baseball, with little other than the individual performances of Rodriguez and Palmeiro (38 home runs) to show for it.

"I think what the team does is very important, but I don't think it should be a final consideration," said Rangers manager Jerry Narron. "The best player is the best player. I didn't think any players had stepped up [to challenge Rodriguez] until recently, but Miguel Tejada is doing a great job."

The MVP trophy certainly would help vindicate the Rangers' decision to make Rodriguez the expensive centerpiece in their long-range plans, but his status as the top player in the game is not in question.

"Alex will never approach Cal's streak," Narron said, "but he is this generation's Cal Ripken. The way he goes about it. The way he helps other players. The intelligence he shows on the field. And the numbers he puts up being a shortstop.

"Everywhere we go, people boo him because of his contract, but if they only knew how hard he works. He was just in the right place in the right time for the money. People should applaud him for the effort he puts in. Some guys with that kind of contract, when things aren't going right, would shut it down. He wouldn't do that."

Still valuable

Only three players have won the Most Valuable Player award while with a losing team:

Year Player, Team .............. W-L ........ Avg. ....... HR ....... RBI

1958 Ernie Banks, Cubs ....... 72-82 ..... .313 ........ 47 ........ 129

1959 Ernie Banks, Cubs ....... 74-80 ..... .304 ........ 45 ........ 143

1987 Andre Dawson, Cubs ... 76-85 ..... .287 ........ 49 ........ 137

1991 Cal Ripken, Orioles ...... 67-95 ..... .323 ........ 34 ........ 114

Alex Rodriguez by the numbers

Batting average -- .313 (AL rank: 4th)

Home Runs -- 48 (AL rank 1st)

RBIs -- 121 (AL rank: 1st)

Runs -- 108 (AL rank: T-2nd)

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