King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The MVP voters get it right at last: How valuable! Plus: The readers write about baseball and steroids.


Salon Staff
November 20, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

I told you Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez were the two MVPs and it wasn't close. Of course, I told you that last year, when Bonds and Miguel Tejada won, but I'm glad the baseball writers have finally come around to my way of thinking. Bonds won his record sixth National League Most Valuable Player award Tuesday, a day after A-Rod took home the American League award for the first time.

Rodriguez's win was close. That's fair, given the year he had -- not his best -- and the years that others, most notably Carlos Delgado of the Blue Jays, had. But the idea that Rodriguez, who has been the best player in the American League for years now, had never won the MVP is just ridiculous.

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A-Rod's problem has been the definition of the word "valuable," a subject we've covered before in these pages. Jayson Stark of ESPN.com had kind of an overheated reaction to Rodriguez's win Monday. "A man from a last-place team (Alex Rodriguez) won an MVP award -- a clear sign that no living human really knows what 'valuable' means in this goofy world we live in," Stark wrote.

No living human! Not even Stark, presumably.

Actually, there are two kinds of people in this goofy world in which we live, if I may put it in a way more pleasing to Miss Thistlebottom. There are those who believe, like Stark, that if you don't play for a contender you have no value, and those who, like me, believe that an individual baseball player's value is fairly constant, and the success or failure of a great player's team has to do with the value of the other players on the team.

In other words -- and here I'm going to borrow a metaphor I saw used on the Baseball Primer blog Clutch Hits -- think of Rodriguez's value as a building block toward a winning team. With enough other building blocks, a winner is created. Without them, Rodriguez is still the same block.

The Stark argument is that the Texas Rangers, A-Rod's team, finished last with him, and they could have finished last without him, so he has no value. This is silly, I think. The Rangers were actually tied for 10th place in the 14-team league. Without Rodriguez, they're the Detroit Tigers, or worse. Of course he has value.

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The reason Rodriguez won this year is that there was no clear dominant player on a playoff-bound team. Those voters who believe a player on a last-place team can't win split their votes among Delgado, Jorge Posada of the Yankees, Shannon Stewart of the Twins and David Ortiz of the Red Sox, who all got at least three first-place votes. Five others got one. Rodriguez got six, one more than he got last year. The difference was that this year that was enough.

I'm glad. I'm glad that Rodriguez finally got the recognition he deserves, and I'm also glad because his victory weakens the argument that the MVP can't go to a player on a last-place team. It lets me say, Oh yeah? Then how come Andre Dawson won in 1987, and how come A-Rod won in 2003? I used to only be able to talk about Dawson.

Unlike Stark, I think pretty much everybody knows what "valuable" means. There's just disagreement about it. I don't think the people who define it differently than I do are stupid. I just disagree with them. I also wouldn't use the word "stupid" to describe people who think Shannon Stewart or David Ortiz was the MVP of the American League this year. I would just wonder what color the sky is in their world.

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Steroids in baseball: The readers write [PERMALINK]

I got a lot of great letters in response to Tuesday's column about steroid use in baseball, in which I said ... uh, I've just re-read it and I can't figure out what I was trying to say. And yet onward! You readers have actual things to say, more about steroids than about baseball. First, a longish, fascinating note from Richard Shearmur, a Montreal professor who used to run track, then some other highlights from the in box.

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Richard Shearmur: As an ex- (low-level) international track and field athlete, I have, of course, come up against competitors on drugs. Back in the '80s -- and I am sure it is the same today -- the fact that many top athletes, and a good proportion of lesser ones, were on some sort of performance-enhancing drug was a given. The real question was how well-connected their coach or sponsors were (the better connected ones tended not to get caught).

But this has not turned me into an anti-drug crusader. A long time ago I had a discussion with Frank Dick, then the British national athletics coach, and asked him to define what a drug was in the context of track and field. His answer was something like "Any substance taken to enhance performance." I pointed out that many athletes (myself included, sometimes) ate a Mars bar just before a race hoping to be on a sugar high when the gun went off. Was I on drugs? This point was laughed off dismissively, but since cold medications (everything but water, as you rightly say) are now banned substances, maybe I should admit to my kids that I, too, was a drug taker.

The danger of allowing a drug culture to take over sports has not so much to do with the current generation of athletes, as with the kids who look up to them as role models. Needless to say, it is tempting for some to ingest some pills in order to shave a few tenths of a second off that 400-meter time. But if this becomes accepted practice, then it will discourage many parents from putting their kids into sports programs -- which will be a great shame. I, and most other amateur athletes, benefited hugely from the physical activity, competition and fun of sports.

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The problem is that taking drugs is a natural extension of the sports mentality (faster, higher, stronger...), and that in order to be a top athlete you need to be almost obsessive about your training. Such obsessive behavior can easily lead to the taking of drugs, without it seeming a major step. After all, it is entirely compatible with everything else the athlete is doing to enhance his or her performance (changing sleep patterns, diet, taking food supplements and, of course, intensive training).

So is there a solution? Not the Dick Pound Draconian approach -- too many innocents get caught, and it takes away from the beautiful spectacle of sports. Maybe the best thing is to advertise to all sports people the long-term effects of "real" drugs. If, faced with full information on the long-term effects of performance-enhancing drugs, athletes decide to take them, then they do so at their own risk. At present, full information is not available: I know of no systematic follow-up of athletes from the 1980s, of former East German athletes, which looks at their current state of health. I know of no open investigation of former top athletes who have fallen down dead in their late 30s or 40s.

I have so far felt no deleterious side effects from my pre-race Mars bars.

Mark Phillips: Can you tell me why people get so upset at someone wanting to improve their God-given strength by using steroids, yet no one ever has a problem with people improving their God-given eyesight with glasses? Why shouldn't someone who is blessed with good eyesight have an advantage over someone without, if that is the judgment we make about speed or strength?

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In my mind, the difference stems from the damage steroids can do to a person and the importance of keeping young people from trying them. However, if this is the only problem, would a complication-free steroid be all right?

Kevin Madigan: Why is it OK for Edwin Moses to apply all of his engineering know-how to allow himself to dominate hurdles (just as an example), why is it OK for athletes to use state-of-the-art techniques of training (including weight training) and rehabilitation from injury and every other advance in the science of sports medicine except performance-enhancing "drugs"? Why are some results of scientific research OK, and others aren't? And where do you draw the line? Now some people argue that a lot of these performance enhancers are dangerous. All the more reason for them not to be banned. If we bring them out into the light, then athletes will be able to get good information on what works best with the least side effects.

Joshua Freeman: I must say that I was a bit disappointed in your latest article about steroids in baseball. I just felt that you were missing a key point. I agree with your sentiment that, deep down, who really cares if players are using steroids to hit balls out of the park and create a more entertaining game.

However, the problem with steroids in baseball is the health of the player, in the context of them competing with each other. If steroid use is not sufficiently discouraged in baseball, players will use steroids, and thus endanger their own health, not just to hit more home runs, but simply because the guy next to them in the locker room is doing it, and he feels he must do it to keep his own job. Just as in Olympic sport, isn't the issue with steroids that it's cheating? Not cheating fans and purists of the game, as you discussed, but rather cheating other players out of the opportunity for refusing to cheat, for refusing to endanger their lives?

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Bill Kirkpatrick: You are ignoring what I consider the most persuasive argument for strict enforcement: fair competition among workers for jobs and wages. The problem isn't the so-called integrity of the game nor the health of the individual abuser. The problem is that every steroid user hitting 50 home runs takes a job and money away from an un-doped 40 HR-hitter. Staying competitive under lax enforcement comes to increasingly require doping, since steroids raise the bar for all players. In other words, if a player refuses to poison his body, he is at a significant competitive disadvantage in the workplace. That's not a standard of fair labor that I want to see catch on.

Al Mascitti: I fall squarely into the who-cares camp, mainly because the Olympic experience has shown that this is a fight that can never be won. In the end, it will end up like all wars on drugs -- as an expensive jobs program for those who do the policing and prosecuting. But what if (or should I say when?) science invents the no-harmful-side-effects steroid? Are we against them merely because they can cause harm later, or because they feel like "cheating"? What if, instead of a drug-free Olympics, we held a training-free Olympics -- participants would be called out of the stands like on "The Price Is Right"?

Jay Ackroyd: There is only one good argument against permitting performance -enhancing drugs. If they are effective and harmful, then players are put in a lose-lose situation. If they don't do them, they may not be able to perform at a high enough level to make elite status. If they do them, they endanger their health. You end up, as fans, taking advantage of shortsighted people who don't care about their health. My problem with that argument is that I don't know whether the initial premise is true. Are steroids, given under a doctor's supervision, harmful? There's a reefer madness quality to the claims of damage from 'roids.

Scott Exum: What's all the fuss regarding steroids? Seems to me you should start young, and maybe, just maybe, you can grow up to be governor of California.

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