You'd think, after watching 12 dozen MVP awards get handed out, we'd have some idea by now what that magic word "valuable" means. But apparently not.
On 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. Not Noah Webster. Not William Safire. Not Peter Gammons.
We sure don't know what it means over in this corner of the ESPN.com universe. Because we can think of many words to describe A-Rod: "smooth" ... "dependable" ... "multitalented" ... even "great." But "valuable"? In some ways, sure. But in the context of this award? Sorry. We don't see it.
We've held a few MVP ballots in our hands over the years. So we've had to devote many hours of thought to this momentous question. When you actually have to fill out that ballot, it's not an academic exercise. It's not just an excuse for an easy column. It's not simply the world's most perfect talk-show topic. It's a huge responsibility.
So after all that thought, we came to the conclusion that if you were trying to determine what the word "valuable" meant, you ought to ask yourself two questions:
1) How have all the other voters defined it over the last 70 years? and
2) Where would this player's team have finished without him?
Those aren't questions you need a doctorate to answer. They're basic questions that help us narrow in on what an MVP is -- and has always been.
The answer to the first question couldn't be more revealing. Of the previous 145 MVP awards, only four were won by players on losing teams. And just one (Andre Dawson, 1987) was won by a player on a last-place team.
So what should that tell us? It tells us that hundreds of voters, over more than seven decades, almost always thought "valuable," as it applied to this award, meant a player's team at least won more games than it lost. Ideally, it contended for or finished first.
If we're wrong about that, then how come the voters for this award defined it that way for just about everyone else in the American League?
Of the 26 players besides A-Rod who got a vote, only two -- Anaheim's Garret Anderson and (hold your chuckles, please) Tampa Bay's Aubrey Huff -- played for teams with losing records. They finished 14th and 26th, respectively.
Nobody even thought about throwing a vote to Dmitri Young. Or Rafael Palmeiro. Or Troy Percival. Or Jody Gerut. No matter what their numbers looked like. That ought to tell us something. Shouldn't it?
Of course it does. It tells us most of those voters also asked themselves our second question: Where would those teams have finished without those players?
If you ask that question about Alex Rodriguez, you know the answer. You know his team would have finished in exactly the same place without him as with him.
Granted, there are lots and lots of people who deserve to be blamed for that more than A-Rod. (OK, all together now: CHAN HO PARK.) But that's not the point. The point is that the only difference A-Rod made by having another excellent year was in his own stats, in his own Hall of Fame credentials.
He wasn't the difference in winning or losing for a team that needed to win every day, because his team had a winning record for exactly one day all year -- opening day. Heck, his team finished more games out of first place than the Brewers did.
So in our mind, whether that was his fault or not, it should have ranked him behind a bunch of players who did make a difference between winning and losing for teams whose seasons were defined by that difference down the stretch. Especially in a season in which half the teams in the league were still in serious contention in September.
OK, here's a little game for you. These are the stats of two top-five finishers in the MVP race after July 1. Which is which?
Player A: 27 HR, 67 RBI, 12 doubles, 4 triples, .642 slugging pct.
Player B: 27 HR, 65 RBI, 17 doubles, 2 triples, .661 slugging pct.
Before we reveal the names, which would you vote for if we told you Player A's team was already 21 games out of first place -- and 15½ out of the wild card -- when that stretch began, while Player B's team was only 3½ of first and hanging onto the wild-card lead by 1½?
Well, Player A was Alex Rodriguez. Player B was Boston's David Ortiz. We're not suggesting that Ortiz is a better player than A-Rod, or that he's a clear-cut MVP, or that you ought to write in his name in your local presidential primary.
We're just suggesting there were players other than A-Rod who made a significant impact down the stretch on not just their own numbers, but on the pennant races. And that's what MVP's do.
But we also understand this was one of the most bizarre MVP fields ever. How else can we explain how Manny Ramirez and Shannon Stewart wound up getting at least one vote in all 10 slots on the ballot, from first to 10th? (Last player to do that? Joe Carter, in 1991.)
How else can we explain how five different players got at least three first-place votes? (That tied the all-time record.)
How else can we explain how one guy who got a first-place vote (Jason Giambi) still managed to finish 13th? (The record there is 19th, by Dixie Walker in 1947.)
Those are voting trends that sum up the insanity of this election just about perfectly. They tell us there were way too many legitimate candidates -- but also way too few whom anybody could feel great about voting for.
So how does a guy from a last-place team win an MVP election? That's how.
He won because nobody had any idea who to vote for. So they handed the best player in the league a consolation prize, a career-achievement award, a picturesque-numbers trophy, a We're Sorry You Never Won Before award.
It was a magnanimous gesture and a fine little tip of the cap to a great, great player. Except that's not what the MVP award is. It's supposed to be about this year, about which team won and which teams didn't and about which player had the most to do with that.
It's supposed to be about how you define that word "valuable." Who knew it would turn out be tougher to do that this year than to win a World Series against the Yankees in Yankee Stadium?