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Oddly, no doubt, and entirely out of sentiment a most favorite day on one’s sporting calendar has always been the last day of baseball’s regular season, a notably mellow moment even when not a single game has any meaning, which was certainly not the case this year.
The vast majority care only that the interminable business of running out the string is finally over and the games that really matter -- the post-season stuff -- are finally at hand. But if October is the frosting on the cake the subject’s true substance is to be found layered mountainous high from the end of winter to the beginning of fall. And on the last day, the Great Book closes with a solemnity that is timeless.
In one of the earliest of the baseball literary classics based on genuine scholarship, Jim Brosnan called it simply “The Long Season” and he articulated the extraordinary stresses and strains of it with a fair amount of brilliance considering that he was a vagabond relief pitcher with little more than a decent fastball and a lot of moxie.
Brosnan’s thesis held that baseball was much more complicated than the sum of its numbers and was as much about the interactions of will, desire, fear and personality as the dynamics of pitching, hitting and fielding. He argued that it was the only game with a distinct culture all its own as well as its own highly stratified sociology. Small wonder that he wore glasses, was called “Professor,” and wasn’t terribly popular with his peers.
But I found him delightful. We had a terrific conversation about his novel take on his game and its people in the coffee shop of the old Kenmore Hotel one afternoon 45 summers ago and I remember it well, which is amazing considering that nowadays I have trouble remembering where I left my car keys.
Whatever, I think of Jim Brosnan every year at this time, when the shadows lengthen and the aura of the days becomes misty and suddenly the ‘‘long, long season’’ is over and there will be no more games in most of the towns and no more pennant races to decide. Someone will win the World Series and there will be a lot of hoopla about that. But even more interesting to me is how it all came to this. The numbers are in and they are final and immutable as well as relative and ambiguous. As Brosnan was one of the first to insist, to be properly understood the numbers have to be disected in near infinitesimal detail. But then what else are the winters for?
In the meantime, there are the big individual prizes to consider. Here’s one man’s take on all that:
As the season ends, the surge of support for Dustin Pedroia begins to look like an avalanche, such is the mounting respect for the little guy’s spunk, intense focus, and old-school manner plus, of course, his skills that surpass anything anyone suspected. Pedroia is widely deemed the number one reason the Red Sox contend for another championship while the Yankees disperse. In the old days, it was the Yankees who had the Pedroias while the Red Sox had the Robinson Canos.
While there will be support for the likes of the Twins’ Morneau and Mauer, the Rangers’ Josh Hamilton, Angels’ super-closer Francisco Rodriguez, and Pedroia’s equally able but much less popular teammate, Kevin Youkilis, it will be the plucky little second baseman in a breeze.
And a last note on this category. In recent days three prominent baseball pundits have listed Alex Rodriguez among the MVP contenders. That is hogwash. You don’t need to dissect the numbers in “infinitesimal detail.” A cursory glance will quickly expose A-Rod’s stats as the most hollow and shallow in all of baseball.
It will be Albert Pujols in a waltz even though the Cards never really contended and the voters prefer candidates who excelled in the thick of the race. One who did that was the Phils’ Ryan Howard, MLB’s homerun king. But he hit .250 and strikes out a third of the time. Forget it! Who else remotely contends? And spare me that nonsense about Manny Ramirez who spent less than a third of the season in the NL and deserves nothing but scorn for his antics in the AL.
AL Cy Young
My vote would go to the Angels’ Rodriguez. He saved nearly two thirds of the wins of the winningest team in baseball. He was awesome. But the voters will be seduced by the glittering stats of Cliff Lee (22-3), even though the Indians were never in contention. The Jays’ Roy Halladay and the Yanks’ Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera should show up in the voting. It would be deserved tributes to class acts.
NL Cy Young
C.C. Sabathia confuses this issue. While he spent only half the season in the NL he unquestionably carried the Brewers to the playoffs performing downright heroically the last week. Still, I think the Diamondbacks’ Brandon Webb with 22 wins and the Giants’ Tim Lincecum with 18 wins and 265 strikeouts laboring for a pathetic team are more worthy. In the Giants’ long and illustrious annals only Christy Mathewson (267) had more whiffs than Lincecum. Anyone who stands shoulder to shoulder with the incomparable Matty makes it with me. If you can live with a reliever you can’t beat the Phils’ Brad Lidge. They wouldn’t have won without him.
AL Rookie of the Year
It’s the Tampa Rays’ Evan Longoria in a landslide. The White Sox Alexei Ramirez deserves votes as do both Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury and New York’s Joba Chamberlain (both technically eligible) but Longoria was the MVP of the nicest Cinderella team baseball has featured in a long time. It will be no contest.
NL Rookie of the Year
It’s universally conceded to the Cubs’ hotshot catcher, Geovany Soto. But I still like the Reds’ hotshot lefty, Edinson Volquez.
AL Manager of the Year
Could be the most interesting category. The Rays’ Joe Maddon, who took an historical joke of a franchise from worst to first in one marvelous jump will win it and well he should. He’s also, by all accounts, a terrific chap.
But many kudos ought to be extended to Terry Francona in Boston, who doesn’t get near the credit he deserves, and Ron Gardenhire of the Twins, who loses franchise players like Johan Santana and Torii Hunter every year and yet still contends, year after year, and maybe there should be a nod to the Angels’ Mike Scioscia, who merely managed the team that posted baseball’s best record. There are many fine managers out there and the semi-literate, gum-chewing, beer-swilling, good old boys are a thing of the past.
NL Manager of the Year
Lou Pinella, a huge media favorite, will win it for making it possible for the Cubs to mess it up again. But Florida’s Fredi Gonzalez may be more deserving. His team’s entire payroll is less than what the Yankees are paying the left side of their infield but he had the Marlins scratching to the wire and killing the Mets in the end. The Phils’ likeable and easily over-looked Charlie Manuel deserves consideration. “What about the Dodgers’ Joe Torre,” says you? ‘‘No,’’ says I.
Such an interesting field. They play 162 games and if you count the pre-season and the post-season, the eventual winner has to answer the bell more than 200 times. There is nothing in all of sport like baseball’s grueling grind. It’s a marvel, as Jim Brosnan properly noted. And at the end of the endless road, on the last day of the regular season, you have the Mets foundering and the Brewers grasping while the Twins and White Sox are still hacking away. Remarkable! Brosnan would have been amused.