Monday, August 21, 2006

ES + HQ = MVP

Before I write about Yanks and Sox, Schilling and Mussina, Jeter and Ortiz, I want to report on the final day of the Koshien National High School Baseball Championship and something troubling. I've written a bit about this at Matsuzaka Watch but to quickly recap, Oh Sadaharu's alma mater, Waseda Jitsugyo, and defending champion, Komadai Tomakomai, fought it out for the 88th championship in the Summer tounament's history. In the game, played on Sunday afternoon, both teams played to a 15 inning 1-1 tie. The game ended a draw, and both teams were ordered to take the field the next day to do it all again.

Most high schools only have one reliable pitcher, so they throw him every day. Some teams, like the defending champs, try to go with the #2 guy but give in around the 3rd inning to their ace again. It's a big deal to win, so they go with the best. The Waseda ace, Yuki Saito, is a Matsuzaka-esque prince of baseball, who seems unhittable at times. He led the team to a tight 4-3 victory in the school's first ever crown at Koshien today, throwing 118 pitches a day after going a full 15 on 178 pitches. Actually, Saito pitched in 4 consectutive days, throwing 4 consecutive complete games. I don't have the exact figures on the previous two games, but you have to figure that the young man threw 500-550 pitches over 4 straight outings. Considering that he pitched something like 9 times in 10 days you have to marvel that he was allowed to throw 958 pitches in a week and a half. Criminal.

Still, my co-workers were all glued to their seats watching at work. Still they admired his hard work and his ability to fend off exhaustion to complete his duty. Only one teacher seemed versed in the American opinions on this, and I conversed with him in Japanese a bit about modern sports medicine and the effect of stress on young pitchers' arms. He understood. In typically Japanese fashion, he did not offer his own opinion, but he knows. I'm sure of it.

Now to the Yankees. You'll notice the equation I've used as the title of this post. It means, "Epic Story" plus "Heroic Quality" equals "Most Valuable Player". It's my way of explaining the way we REALLY choose our MVPs. I think it applies to all sports, but I'll expound on baseball.

To start, it's important to recognize the role that statistics play in choosing the Most Valuable Player in any given year. I think that without statistics, there can be no argument about who the MVP is. For this reason, we can annoint Alex Rodriguez the MVP while he plays for the last place Rangers. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of situation in history. When it's close though, I think we revert to ES + HQ = MVP.

Baseball is a part of our cultural fabric. It's out national mythology. From Ruth's called shot to Casey at the Bat, we have woven stories together that tell about who we are, and what we value. Like any mythology the struggle between opposing forces is important. The fight against all odds is the most satisfying. It tells us that we all have a chance, no matter how bleak it may seem. If you doubt this, think about how much the Red Sox beating their arch rival Yankees, against impossible odds, to buck history, was in 2004. It was the ultimate epic tale of heroes and underdogs.

The epic story is what keeps baseball a continuous thread from more than a hundred years ago until the present day. It's all connected and the story never ends. The players in this great mythology are the teams and the cities and the fans. Boston versus New York. Los Angeles versus San Francisco. The Cubs and the Cardinals. Those few examples are the greatest chapters in the epic saga of baseball, but there are plenty of subplots as well. Baseball means so much to so many because it has bent and twisted itself to the small nooks and crannies of America over the years. Small markets have had their Davids to the metropolitan Goliaths. There was Bill Mazeroski in Pittsburgh. Willie Stargell too. Lenny Dykstra is a hero in Philly, and they lost the Series in 1993. George Brett headlined the hey day of Kansas City, and Kirby Puckett in Minnesota. You can go back further and spread the net wider, but you get the point. The stories are connected.

I will argue that the first important ingredient to the MVPs candidacy is his role in the epic. It's simple to say that you want a player on a contending ballclub, but that's too clinical. Deep down we vote for the guy involved in the epic story. The struggle. The hero's quest for the Holy Grail. Without that story, the MVP is an empty award. Travis Hafner leads the world in VORP, but his team is without a role in the saga. Yes, they're losing, but more than that they're uninteresting. Joe Mauer may just yet win, but he's hurt by the possible exclusion of Minnesota in the final epic. The team has struggled against all odds to contend, and he's been outstanding, but they may find themselves on the outside, and that does not make for a very heroic finish.

To demonstrate this point further, I'll head to the "HQ" part of the problem. Heroic Quality is the point of a player's personality that helps him accomplish the impossible and carry his team to victory. Remember, this is about mythology. This is about Hercules. It's about Superman. We want someone to fill the role of Maximus. The thing is, depending on the context of the epic, we need different kinds of heroes. I'll run down a few of the myriad types and the players that best represent these qualities.

1. The Golden Boy: Derek Jeter

Jeter is the Joe Montana of baseball. He's a natural talent. Handsome. Perpetually clean, both literally and philosophically. He visits kids in hospitals and puts his jacket over puddles for ladies. Jeter spends his time away from winning championships rescuing kittens from trees. You get the idea. Kind of makes you sick, unless he's on your team. I despised Joe Montana and was thrilled to watch him get pounded into the turf in the NFC Championship Game in 1990 versus the Giants. Guys like this are so hard to hate that people have to spend over the top amounts of energy to dislike them. That's why they have a huge fan base, and an equally passionate movement of haters. For the record, Alex Rodriguez is shaping up as kind of a failed Golden Boy. Jeter steals his glory, and he always seems to grip the bat too hard under pressure. He's still a natural and Hall of Famer, but he'll never be as great a "Hero" as Jeter, if you follow me.

2. The Everyman's Hero: David Ortiz

This guy is never to pretty or muscular. He's not a Michaelangelo sculpture come to life in perfectly hewn form. He's rough. Unshaven. Imperfect. Fat. Goofy. Smiles a lot. Types in short, punchy sentences. Just kidding. Ortiz is likeable. Even Yankee fans like him, despite his untimely success against us. He's just so damn happy to be with his teammates, performing in front of his fans. His heroic moments grab all of us because we are this close to seeing ourselves out there too. He came out of nowhere and now stands with the best players of his generation over the last 3 seasons and likely more. I would put Manny in this category too, but he's really a weird hybrid of a few different types. He's hard to put your finger on, so Ortiz is the hero of the Red Sox, despite not being their best player.

3. The Hercules: Albert Pujols

Barry Bonds could have been this, had he not juiced himself up. He could have built his body on his own and hit 73 home runs and retired the All-Time Hercules of Baseball. Alas, he is the Fallen Hero and there is no epic hero's tale for him. Albert Pujols is the muscled giant of super-human feats now. At his still young age he has a chance to erase all the damage done by Bonds, and restore glory to the idea that Hercules is alive. The perfect physical specimen, shaking the Earth as he walks to the plate. The pitcher stands no chance and looks anemic by comparison. Pujols lifts the might bat and launches mere mortal offerings deep into the night. I see many MVPs in his future for his numbers and his perfect realization of this powerful hero's role.

4. The Working Class Hero: Jorge Posada

Okay, Jorge isn't an MVP candidate, but I struggled to come up with a current example of this character. In the past, I'd have gone with Lenny Dykstra, George Brett, or someone along those lines. These are good players who carry lunch pails and get dirty. They are tough and show emotion. Catchers make good Working Man's Heroes, as do guys nicknamed "Nails", or players that grind and dig. Sometimes these guys are given too much credit for things that they actually have no business getting credit for, but they bust their asses so much, people want them to be rewarded. Jim Edmonds is this kind of guy. Jorge is the Yankees' lunch pail player and probably deserved the MVP when A-Rod won it in Texas on a last place club.

5. The Little Man's Hero: David Eckstein

This guy gets a lot of credit for being small and the automatic underdog. Everything he does is inflated beyond reasonable proportion, but he's a hero to those who always believed they were the underdog. The chips were stacked against them. That's why a guy like David Eckstein always gets that lone head-scratching vote for MVP from some sports writer out there.

6. The Dying Hero: Curt Schilling and his Damn Sock

Willis Reed was the New York equivalent of the Dying Hero. He was that guy who was about to die on the court for the sake of winning the championship. Schilling and his Damn Sock are the most recent iteration of this hero type. They aren't season MVP candidates, but they are almost always assured of the Series MVP or Playoff MVP for their sacrifice for the team. Everyone loves this kind of story. The guy just cares that much, and that's what we want to see as fans.

There are probably a million more. I'm beginning to think that this season's AL MVP will go to the player that holds the golden chalice of victory to his lips to sip the mead of champions. All that nonsense means that the guy who best portrays the hero in fulfilling the outcome of the saga will win the MVP. Stats will play into it, but the mythology always wins out somehow. To that end, I'm leaning more and more towards believing that Derek Jeter will be this years Most Valuable Player. Before the current series began, I thought that David Ortiz would wrongfully claim the award ahead of his own teammate, Jeter, and Joe Mauer. ESPN is the holder of the storybook and push the chapters of the epic in the direction they feel it should go. As shamefully biased New Englanders, the smart money was on Big Highlight Papi for the award.

As the Sox drop further out of the picture, despite Manny and Papi's impressive efforts, it appears that the MVP may be slipping away too. Papi will still get his share of consideration from the blind, deaf, and dumb that can't see Manny as the More Valuable Red Sock, and he may still win the trophy. Joe Mauer is having an amazing year, but the Twins are still not in the playoffs. Jeter has all the "HQ", hero qualities, and the "ES", epic story, to go along with it. Jeter's 9th inning, 2 out hit against Papelbon to tie the game and send it to extra innings was just one more moment in his career that makes him shine. Red Sox fans know the guy that they don't want to see with the game on the line, as much as we know the two guys on their team that make our stomachs hurt. They had to know it was coming last night. It was just tailor made. Runner stranded on third, with two Yankees failing to bring him home. Last chance, Jeter at the plate. They knew he would get a hit and drive a spike into their hearts. We all knew it. He consistently fulfills his role as the Golden Boy despite not having a truly golden glove or home run power. The moments he produces are bigger that the everyday results (which aren't too damn shabby either).

The numbers are mostly there. The average, the VORP, the Win Shares. There are plenty of metrics to include Derek Jeter in the MVP conversation. I've made my case in the past. Mauer, Manny, Jeter. The thing is, this game makes people say and do irrational things sometimes. They go against science, metrics, and reasonable examinations of value. It's the reason that people like Joe Morgan and Tim McCarver are celebrated despite their clear lack of sense. The thing is, sometimes this unscientific influence that comes from ES + HQ = MVP helps the case of someone deserving. Sometimes it's the final piece that puts one guy above a group of similarly talented and deserving players. It's the reason that Ortiz was in the best position to win a few weeks ago, and it would be hard to argue too vociferously about it. Sure, you could argue, but it wouldn't have been a travesty. Ortiz is among a small, select group of players that is competing to be called "the best".

The more the Yanks win, and the more Jeter produces those memorable moments, the more he fulfills the hero's role that goes along with the statistical performance. The more he does to cement his legend in our minds, and in the minds of the fans that dread him, the closer he is to winning the MVP. There are plenty of people in the media that want to give it to him as much as they want to give it to Papi. With another first place finish in sight, they have the fuel to make that vote. They can give him the award that has unoffically belonged to him for a decade in the hearts of Yankee fans and the media horde that wants the epic story to have its Joe Montana. This year may be their best chance to make the move, and I'm beginning to think he will win it, whether the metrics bear it out or not.

For my money, I think he deserves it without the story, but it makes the whole thing a lot more sweet. See you tomorrow. Go Yanks.