Heading into the final six weeks of the baseball season, the inevitable "Who are the MVPs?" stories are starting. In the National League, the MVP race can be summed up in one word: Pujols. But the AL race is up for grabs. According to one gambling Web site, here are the odds as of Monday afternoon:
Manny Ramirez (8-5) -- Just two weeks ago, the Red Sox were trying to give him away for 50 cents on the dollar. Now he's the favorite to win the MVP. Go figure. Since the trading deadline passed, Manny is batting .435 (15-for-35) with 4 homers, 16 RBI and 7 walks, carrying his team for two straight weeks (which would have also happened had he been traded to the Mets, by the way). Throw in the fact that he's playing for a potential division champion and headed for 150 RBI ... and that's enough to make him the favorite.
Only one problem: All the "Manny being Manny" stuff aside, should you win the MVP award even though you dogged it for two weeks in July, caused a major distraction and nearly caused your team to give you away? Something doesn't feel right about that. On the other hand, what happens if he finishes with a .300 average, 45 homers and 160 RBI on a 98-win team?
(My reason for not voting for Manny: I don't even think he's the MVP of his own team. More on this in a second.)
Alex Rodriguez (2-1) -- After what happened last season, you could make the case that he's had more pressure on him than any non-steroids guy this year. But A-Rod has been superb in every respect -- you have to hand it to him. During the Sox-Yankees series at Fenway last month, he even reached "I'm scared every time he's at the plate" status for me (which hadn't happened since he joined the Yankees). Even if the Yankees miss the playoffs, he could sneak into the award if Ortiz and Manny split the vote -- kinda like when two actors from the same movie split the "Best Oscar vote" and someone else sneaks in.
David Ortiz (3-1) -- He's on pace to approach last year's numbers (.301, 41 HR, 139 RBI, .977 OPS), he's the leader of the Red Sox clubhouse, and he's indisputably the premier clutch hitter in baseball. Check out these numbers:
• Runners in scoring position: 114 ABs, .368 BA, .480 OBP, .605 slugging, 65 RBI.
• Runners in scoring position with 2 outs: 47 ABs, .383 BA, .525 OBP, .723 slugging, 29 RBI.
• Close and late: 53 ABs, .340 BA, .438 OBP, .717 slugging, 5 HR, 21 RBI.
That's ridiculous. And you know what? I don't care that he's a DH. Would you rather have someone not playing the field, or someone who's a solid D-minus out in left like Manny? What's the difference?
Vlad Guerrero (6-1) -- Would have been in the mix if he hadn't gone on the DL in May and June ... still, he's headed for a typical Vlad season (.325, 35-40 HR, 110-120 RBI, .975-1.000 OPS), and he's been single-handedly keeping the Angels in the division race lately (7 HRs, 23 RBI and a jaw-dropping 1.523 OPS this month). Needs a huge finish to pass the Boston guys though.
Gary Sheffield (15-1) -- Well, he's been the Comedy MVP this season, that's for sure.
Four other people are listed on the ballot: Miguel Tejeda (15-1); any pitcher (15-1); Mark Teixeira (20-1); and Hideki Matsui (65-1). None of them have a chance. And that's the list.
So here's my big question, as well as the reason for today's post ...
Where the heck is Johnny Damon???
You never hear his name mentioned in these MVP conversations, which is weird because he's been the best all-around player on the Red Sox. Offensively, he's having the second-best season of his career -- he's the league-leader in batting average (.337, with a stellar .384 on-base percentage), he's headed for a combined 30-plus steals/homers and 45-50 extra-base hits, and he's batted .313 or higher in every month this season (not a single swoon to be seen). Defensively, he's having a career season (second in range factor for center fielders, only one error). He's been astoundingly durable, as always (107 starts in 115 games). And he's been stellar in big spots, as his "close and late" (.339) and "scoring position, 2 outs" (.356) splits prove.
Of course, few people take him seriously because of the off-field stuff. From the moment they won the World Series and he made that dopey cameo on "Saturday Night Live" just 72 hours later, Damon has seemed hell-bent on turning himself into a crossover sports celebrity -- something that started last season when he grew out his hair and looked like a cross between the Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer and Christ, then snowballed with the whole "shaving the beard for charity" thing ... before we knew it, he was writing a book, making daytime talk-show appearances, doing the "Queer Eye" thing and everything else. When "ESPN Hollywood" launches Monday night, not only did they make him their feature segment, it would have been surprising if they chose someone else.
Now, you know me. I hate this stuff. And so does just about everyone in Boston. In fact, had Damon struggled out of the gate, the fans would have run him out of town by the All-Star break. But you have to hand it to him -- Johnny D took care of business on the field. Other than Fred Lynn's '75 and '79 seasons, you could even make the case that Damon is having the single greatest season by a Red Sox center fielder in 55 years (since Dom DiMaggio's career year in 1950), as well as one of the defining contract years in recent memory. Seriously, what non-steroids guy has boosted their price more than Damon has? How many wins would he have been worth to the Yankees or Cubs?
And then there's this: Damon submitted the most important one-game performance of any Boston player this season, which everyone will probably forget if/when the Sox win the division title by 10 games. Back on July 26, the Sox were coming off an ugly 4-7 stretch after the All-Star break, including two ominous series against the White Sox and Yankees (combined record: 2-6). After a Monday loss in Tampa, they were 54-45, tied with the Yanks in the loss column. And then the following things happened in the second Tampa game:
1. Cruising with a 5-0 lead, not only did their best starter (Matt Clement) get nailed in the face by a line drive, he didn't move for about 3 minutes and got carted off on one of those NFL stretchers. New reliever Chad Bradford came in and immediately gave up a grand slam. Unbelievable.
2. For whatever reason, Manny picked this particular game to shift into full "I don't give a crap mode," leading to the infamous replay of Manny jogging halfheartedly down the line on a double-play grounder where the errant throw ended up nearly hitting him in the head.
3. They scraped together two runs in the top of the ninth to tie the game, leading to Schilling (still trying to convert to closer) entering the game and searching for some semblance of confidence.
So here's what happened: With two outs in the ninth, Jorge Cantu came up and crushed a Schilling hanger to left-center. Johnny D sprinted back at full-speed, timed his jump and scaled the wall to pull back a certain game-winning home run -- one of those "This Week In Baseball" catches right out of the late 70s. End of the inning. Then he led off the the top of the 10th and crushed a home run on the first pitch; 9-8, Red Sox. And this whole sequence happened in about 0.3 seconds.
Not only did they win the game, that jumpstarted a 14-2 winning streak and "hottest team in baseball" status. Now they lead the Yankees by 4½, and even the most diehard Yankees fan would have trouble arguing that their starting pitching can hold up. You could make a pretty strong case that the 2005 Red Sox decided to start defending their title on July 26, with Johnny D leading the way.
Does that make him the MVP of the American League? Probably not. Truth be told, the MVP of the 2005 Red Sox has been the Manny-Big Papi combination -- in tandem, they are the most unstoppable force in the American League. But at the very least, Johnny Damon's name needs to be thrown in the discussion, and not because he's a crossover celebrity, or because the ladies dig him, or because he possesses the most famous hair in baseball history. The guy has been playing the best baseball of his career since Opening Day. On a team now favored to make their second straight World Series, that should count for something.