Designated MVP

Six years ago in 1999, former Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez pitched the first of two great seasons, perhaps one of the most dominant seasons ever in the history of baseball. On the way to his second Cy Young award, his first with Boston, he won 23 games in 29 starts, threw five complete, struck out a franchise record 313 batters, and led the staff as well as the American League with a 2.07 ERA. After the departure of slugger Mo Vaughn following the 1998 season, the sole reason that the Boston managed, against all odds, to return to the playoffs for the second year in a row was because of the 27-year-old Dominican native who made the opposition look foolish in almost every start.

However, when it came time to award the Most Valuable Player honor, Ivan Rodriguez, then of the Texas Rangers, won it with his .335 average, 35 home runs, and 113 RBI, arguably the best season of his career as his team won the AL West Division. Martinez, who earned one more first-place vote than “Pudge,” finished second by a margin of just 13 points.

Votes are cast by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the same people that decide what former ballplayers deserve enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Unfortunately for Martinez, he was handicapped by some writers who believed that an MVP should go to an everyday player and not to a starting pitcher who only has to work every fifth day. In fact, a couple of writers even left him off the ballot, robbing him of some crucial votes that might have tipped the results in his favor.

Not surprisingly, history shows that pitchers, even with a season as great as the one Martinez enjoyed that year, have been hard-pressed to take home that hardware. The last pitcher in either league to win the award was Dennis Eckersley in 1992, but he won that award in the closers role, pitching in 69 games and collecting 51 saves. In fact, the last starting pitcher to win the award was Roger Clemens who took home the trophy following his spectacular 1986 season. Go back fifty years, and only six pitchers total have won the award in either league.

Fast-forward to 2005 and Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who has started all but a handful of games in the designated hitter’s role, is on a tear. Through Sunday, he had batted .296, stroked 46 home runs, and amassed 140 RBI. In the month of September alone, which in recent years has sometimes been the decided factor in the vote – witness Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 – Ortiz has clocked 10 round-trippers and push 22 runners across the plate while batting a cool .305.

Time and again this season, he has delivered when Boston has needed him, often times driving home the run that helps tie the score or put the Red Sox ahead for good. Nine times this season, he has hit home runs in “close and late” situations; twice, he has ended games with walk-off home runs, sending the Fenway crowds into a celebration that shook the foundation of the 93-year-old park.

For the moment, the only other player in the American League putting up numbers worthy of consideration for the award is Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who won the honor two years ago in his third and final season with Texas. On the season, he has equaled Ortiz in the home run category with 46 and has knocked in 124 RBI while batting at a .319 clip. In September, he has averaged .321 while hitting six home runs and sending home 19 base runners.

On paper, these two players seem fairly evenly matched, but some would argue that Rodriguez deserves the nod again because he plays both offense and defense. Twice, he has won Gold Glove awards at the shortstop position and, since switching to third base after coming to New York, has transitioned well into his new role sharing the left side of the infield with teammate Derek Jeter. Ortiz, on the other hand, has made just 10 starts in the field at first base, committing just two errors in 82 chances; otherwise, on paper, his only contributions to this team have been at the plate. In his own defense, Ortiz told reporters two weeks ago in Toronto: “I never saw anybody win the MVP because they won the Gold Glove and hit .230.”

What perhaps some writers don’t see is that Ortiz does so much more than take his cuts and then sit on the bench reading the latest issue of The Sporting News. Between at-bats, he’s either taking hacks in the batting cage, riding on the stationary bike in the clubhouse to stay loose, or reviewing video of his last at-bat or the pitcher’s tendencies, trying to find any weakness that will allow him to produce those timely hits. What they also don’t see is how much of a catalyst he is, making those around him that much better; with Rodriguez, he is surrounded by some of the best players that money can buy and his absence, though large, would not hurt the team as much as the loss of Ortiz would be to his. With everything that’s happened to the defending World Champions this season – Curt Schilling‘s prolonged absence, the bullpen’s ineffectiveness, and some down years at the plate for other key members of the offense – an injury to Big Papi would have been truly devastating, knowing how much his heroics have rescued his teammates on more than one occasion this season.

With seven games to go in the season and the two teams deadlocked in a tie atop the AL East, it may just come down to whose team makes the playoffs and whose team hits the links a little earlier than last year. If the Sox win a division for the first time since 1995, Ortiz is a lock; if instead the Yankees win their eighth straight division title, Rodriguez will have another MVP trophy in his case. Should Cleveland fall off the wild card pace and both teams make the playoffs, then the debate will continue until the results are announced in November.

Ortiz’s own teammates and even his manager have told the media in recent days how much of an impact he has on this team, how his very presence and that infectious grin inspires his team to go out, against all odds, and win every night. One anonymous AL general manager stated without hesitation: “There is no player who means more to his team than Ortiz means to the Red Sox.”

Each writer has his or her own method of deciding who deserves an honor as revered as Major League Baseball’s Most Valuable Player award. However, beyond the numbers, the vote should go to the player who has had the biggest impact for his team and for whom his absence would have left an unimaginable void. In the minds of Red Sox fans everywhere, that would be David Ortiz, and being the designated hitter does not make him any the less valuable to his team.

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