Greatest of this generation
With Barry Bonds winning his sixth MVP Award -- and in a landslide, no less -- it's certainly reasonable to wonder if perhaps he's not the greatest player, ever. After all, nobody else has won six MVP awards. Nobody else has won four MVP awards. Which is to say, Bonds has been named MVP twice as many times as anybody else.
Of course, this does ignore the facts that 1) the modern award really wasn't instituted until the 1930s, and 2) the voters don't always get the right guy. Still, six MVP awards should not be taken lightly.
What's more, over the last three seasons, Bonds has been about as good as anybody has ever been over the course of three seasons. Prior to 2001, however, Bonds went through a seven-year stretch during which he was merely the best player in the major leagues, rather than historically awesome.
Bonds' career is notable for both its quality and its length, uninterrupted by military service or serious injuries. But the battle for the title of "Greatest Player Ever" is still being waged. Bonds has certainly muscled his way into the fight, along with Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays.
Can you reasonably argue that as baseball has "matured," it's become more and more difficult to dominate the competition? Absolutely, and that's a big point in Bonds' favor.
Can you argue that perhaps no other player has combined Bonds' power, his patience, his speed (at least earlier in his career) and his defense (ditto), resulting in a matchless all-around package? Sure (though Wagner might have an argument), and that's a point in Bonds' favor, too.
But while I don't have any doubt that Barry Bonds is one of the five or six greatest baseball players who ever lived, I'm not yet convinced that he's the greatest. Honus Wagner was the Alex Rodriguez of the National League, except he was better, longer. Babe Ruth was one of the game's best pitchers for a few years, and the best hitter for more than a decade. Ted Williams, if not for World War II, would have dominated his league over a 10-year stretch like nobody before or since. Mantle and Mays ... well, you know about them.
I'm excited about Barry Bonds. We're all excited about Barry Bonds, because in a sense he's ours. Our fathers had Mays and Mantle, and their fathers had Williams and DiMaggio, and their fathers had the Babe and the Iron Horse. We have Bonds, and it's natural to think that ours is the greatest.
And maybe he is. But let's give us a few more years to get our bearings. And let's give Barry Bonds a few more years to put the fear of God into the pitchers. Because it looks like he's not nearly done yet.
Last week, I described those two writers who ignored Hideki Matsui in the Rookie of the Year balloting as "clowns." This wasn't particularly collegial of me, and I probably shouldn't have done it (which isn't to say I won't do it again, because it makes me feel good and anyway duels are illegal where I live).
So today, as I attempt to rebut some of Jayson Stark's arguments about the meaning of "value," I will avoid name-calling and various other sorts of ugly smear tactics.
Jayson -- who, by the way, is a prince of a guy, which is another reason to avoid getting nasty -- essentially wrote Monday that anybody who thinks Alex Rodriguez was the Most Valuable Player simply doesn't understand the meaning of "value." That "value" resides solely in making a difference in the standings. As Jayson wrote, "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."
Well, let's take that argument to its logical extreme. Jayson seems to be saying that if Jim Bob plays for a team that finishes 80-82, he shouldn't be considered as the Most Valuable Player, but if Jim Bob's team finishes 82-80 then by golly he's an MVP candidate.
Maybe I'm taking Jayson too literally. But what his argument boils down to is this: there is little or no value in finishing below .500, or (especially) finishing in last place. To which I would respond, "Speak for yourself, buddy." I've made this argument before and I'll make it again ... Alex Rodriguez was something like seven games better than a replacement-level shortstop (for the sake of argument, David Eckstein). Which is to say, if Alex Rodriguez had ruptured his spleen on Opening Day and missed the season, the Rangers probably would have won six or eight games fewer than they actually did win.
Jayson Stark, and a lot of other baseball writers, will argue 'til they're blue in the fingers that those six or eight games don't mean anything, because the Rangers wound up below .500 (and -- gasp -- in last place!). Well, I would submit that baseball writers who think six or eight games don't mean anything have forgotten what it's like to be a baseball fan. A baseball fan lives and dies with his team for six or seven months every season. Day in, day out. And as a baseball fan, I can tell you that eight games makes a big difference, and any player who turns those eight games from losses into wins is darn valuable.
The Rangers finished in fourth place, which happens to be last place in the American League West. If they'd played in the American League Central, they'd probably have finished third, ahead of two or three other teams. Would that change Jayson's opinion of Alex Rodriguez's "value?" And if it would, then I submit that this house of cards, atop which Jayson's definition of "value" rests, has just collapsed under its own illogical weight.
Of course, baseball's just an opinion. That's mine.
P.S. The instructions sent to MVP voters are clear: "value" is equivalent to "strength of offense and defense." But then, the instructions sent to Rookie of the Year voters are clear, too ...
Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site
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