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Time to pass out baseball's bon bons. As the regular season grinds to a close, the ballots for all the major distinctions are in the mitts of the baseball scribes. They have until the last out of the last game to cast them. Full of presumption, as usual, may we politely pre-empt them. And the nominees are.....
AL In a year in which all the competition is unusually intense, this most important prize is truly up for grabs and could even be decided by a single spectacular utterance the last week of the season.
Josh Hamilton, Miguel Cabrera, and Robinson Cano are the conceded top contenders and there'd be no grounds for complaint, whoever prevails. But who's most deserving? Probably Cabrera if you measure merit in terms of valorous performance against stiff odds. But his Tigers are middle of the pack fodder that never truly contended, which hurts his cause. So does the lingering memory of his drunken wig-out that destroyed the Tigers last season.
Cano has been wonderful for New York both at bat and in the field. He's at last made the jump to full stardom. But the bias against big payroll teams in general and the Yankees in particular is huge; something brilliantly illustrated when the scribes spitefully robbed Derek Jeter four years ago by anointing instead the Twins' Justin Morneau. Too many scribes have problems with players who are paid -- in their opinion -- too much. It's called "envy" and it's one of the deadly seven.
When he went down in September with battered ribs the Rangers' Hamilton, hitting .361 to go with 31 homers and other-worldly defense, was a shoo-in. He was having the sort of season Mickey Mantle had in '56, or Stan Musial in '48. He was on another planet. For him to sit out September on the DL hardly matters to the Rangers who virtually clinched their division in July. But it matters a lot to the voters. Out of sight out of mind, as it were. It's astounding to recall Hamilton was adrift in drug re-hab just four years ago.
Complicating this fascinating competition is a large secondary tier of decided worthies including Evan Longoria, the best player on the media's favorite team, the Tampa Rays. Longoria could cop the prize. So could the Twins' Joe Mauer, another media pet. The likes of Boston's Adrian Beltre, Chicago's Paul Konerko, and long-ball sensation Juan Batista of Toronto won't win, but will further scatter the voting. The Mariners' Ichiro, having smacked 200 hits for a tenth consecutive season, always commands attention. What a race!
NL It's a sweepstakes as lusty as the AL edition. Nominees are led by the Reds' Joey Votto, the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez, and the eternal Albert Pujols of the Cardinals, all of whom tracked deep into September with legitimate shots at the triple crown. But our own Carl Yastrzemski, who remains the last chap to turn that remarkable trick, can breathe easier. With a week left it's clear all three will fall short.
And if you don't like that bumper crop to pick from may I suggest Troy Tulowitzki who is having a September almost as magical as Yaz's magical hijinks in 1967 or even Babe Ruth's 1927 caper when he hit 17 homers the last month. When a kid who plays shortstop like Tulowitzki also hits .325 with upwards to 30 homers and 100 ribbies, he'd be MVP 99 years out of 100.
But it's that kind of year. Ordinarily, Adrian Gonzalez, mainstay of the upstart Padres, might contend. Some have suggested Roy Halladay who has swiftly become the N.L's premier pitcher on a Phillies' team widely picked to go all the way. Hardly a surprise. But pitchers aren't eligible here. They have their own schtick.
AL With a week to go, David Price, Felix Hernandez and C.C. Sabathia were neck and neck, like three prized stallions at the Derby. A surpassing effort in his last start could inch one of them across, although it's the opinion of this space that Hernandez -- with his 12 wins for a last place team having faced little pressure all season -- should not be in contention, his considerable skills notwithstanding.
But the scribes won't want to give it to Sabathia for reasons heretofore cited, even though the big lefty carried the Yankees through the interminable drudgery of the long, long season. They'd rather tap Price, near equally the meal ticket of the Rays. Boston's elite young hurlers, Masters Buchholz and Lester, will deservedly command support. But the prize should go to one who makes the promised land of the playoffs.
Two names one doesn't need to hear in this discussion. Cliff Lee, who vaguely disappointed in Texas and Carl Pavano, who became the ace in Twin Cities after four years of outrageous contract larceny in the Bronx.
NL Halladay transcends the field, at least in reputation. The Rockies' Ubaldo Jiminez seemed headed for 30 wins until he faded gravely the second half. Like Halladay, the Cards Adam Wainwright has 20 wins with an even lower ERA. But when St. Louis skidded in the stretch so did Wainwright's hopes. Scattered votes for Tim Hudson of the Braves.
Rookie of the Year
One places little stock in this category. Over the many years, too many phenoms have proven flashes in the proverbial pan.
AL Tigers' Austin Jackson, the stylish center-fielder the Yankees unwisely gave up on, and Neftali Feliz, who nailed down the Rangers' bullpen with 100 mile an hour heat. Local fire-baller Daniel Bard is also eligible.
NL There will be a rush to crown the Braves' Jason Heyward if only to affirm the wisdom of the many pundits who wanted to send him directly to the Hall of Fame last spring. A better choice may be Buster Posey, the catcher who inspired the Giants' improbable bid for the playoffs. Sadly Stephen Strasburg, who lit up the skies in Washington for a memorable month, is fresh from surgery and out of the discussion.
Manager of the Year
Plenty to choose from in both leagues.
AL The Twins' Ron Gardenhire seemed a lock until the Terry Francona boomlet got rolling. Adversity coaxed the best out of "Tito," but did anyone expect the Twins to lead the Majors in victories? Ron Washington of the Rangers blew his chances with his pre-season drug confessions. Why not Joe Maddon, whose Rays play the game's smartest ball? Cito Gaston should get a nod, but not Joe Girardi.
NL Nobody picked either the Padres or Giants to have winning seasons, let alone make the playoffs so the winner will either be Bud Black or Bruce Bochy depending on who survives the only good pennant race we had. There will be sentimental support for the Braves' Bobby Cox, who is retiring, but not for the Phils' Charlie Manuel, who deserves them.
No cheering in the press box, please.
It's Hamilton in the AL and Votto in the NL. Hamilton was just too good to deny and he remained healthy for as long as Texas needed him to be. There were no ups and downs with Votto. He was locked in high gear from the get-go.
Much the same reasoning verifies the Cy Young choices; Sabathia and Halladay. They were constant throughout; the very definition of ''the stopper.''
They're Jackson in the AL and Posey in the NL. Admittedly, Feliz was wonderful for Texas but coming from the old school, one has trouble voting for a chap who pitched about 60 innings over one who had more than 600 at-bats.
We'll go with Gardenhire in the AL which is not to deny Francona the credit he greatly deserves for his graceful handling of hard luck. In the NL, the pick is Bud Black. Hey, before the season they were saying the low-budget Padres, fresh off a fire sale, would be lucky to finish back in the Pacific Coast League.
So much for the experts!