Miguel Cabrera took home the 2012 American League MVP award Thursday, edging out Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout. Cabrera’s Detroit Tigers made the playoffs. Cabrera won the Triple Crown by leading the league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in. Trout played much, much better. Nonetheless, though incorrect, Cabrera’s second (or fourth?) coronation is the best thing for baseball, and I’m glad it happened.
Don’t get me wrong: I would have voted for Trout. I would have voted that way, because if someone asks me a question, I make it a point to answer it honestly. Who was the most valuable player in the American League in 2012? Mike Trout. By a mile. By three miles. Or by three wins, anyway. Trout stole 49 bases with sensational efficiency, played defense as well as any outfielder in the league, and more or less matched Cabrera in terms of hitting value. He was clearly the most valuable player, and I’m surprised at the number of professional baseball writers who came to the opposite conclusion.
Here’s the thing, though: Baseball is a public, subsidized institution, a populist institution with a responsibility to society on an atomic and a molecular level. Baseball is one of the two most culturally important institutions in the United States, and it has a responsibility to draw close as many citizens as possible, so that they might learn what it is baseball has the potential to teach about being a good and productive person in the U.S.
I follow well over 1,000 people on Twitter, almost exclusively to hear what they have to say about baseball. An admittedly anecdotal, non-scientific analysis of my feed reveals the following: Most people who support Trout are hardcore baseball nuts like me. Baseball is in no danger of not reaching most of the people who share my fondness for Trout.
On the other hand, baseball has only a shaky hold on most Cabrera supporters. The best reason for voting for Cabrera over Trout is that Cabrera won the Triple Crown. Fans like me, the kinds of folks baseball has by the short hairs already, will tell you that the Triple Crown is really, really cool, but not particularly telling. The three stats that comprise it measure some of the same things, and measure some things the player doesn’t actually control. Other fans, though, fans who still want to really care about baseball, don’t understand that. They’re not stupid; they just have lives, whether it be middle-school relationship drama or their kids’ middle-school relationship drama. They probably never loved or analyzed baseball as closely as I do. They watch football in the fall and winter, basketball from March through June, and treat baseball as equal to those sports, no better. Those fans might know the term Triple Crown, but not that much else about baseball. It might really confuse, frustrate or simply alienate those fans to see that achievement go unrewarded.
My dad was three years old when Carl Yastrzemski won the last Triple Crown. His dad was 26. The Triple Crown was, until this season, so remote to me as to seem like hitting .400. It was just a funny thing that used to happen. My dad’s dad was three months old when Ted Williams did that. To my dad, though, or to my dad’s best friend, it probably doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, seem wildly remote. It probably always felt peculiar that no one had won within their sentient lives. It might even have led one to wonder whether the excellence, the transcendence that Frank Robinson and Mickey Mantle and Williams and Yastrzemski embody in the collective memory, had faded from the game somewhat.
No Latino player had ever won the Triple Crown. No infielder had won it since Lou Gehrig in 1934, no non-first baseman infielder since Rogers Hornsby in 1925. No player before Cabrera (in a 14-team AL) had won the Crown in a league of more than 10 teams. The Triple Crown has an historical significance that it only hurts baseball to ignore, even if the arbitrary value assigned to that historicity ends up distorting an award by which casual fans also set too much store.
DISCLAIMER: This argument is non-transferable. It applies to awards because awards are simply a celebration and reflection on the game, the sole purpose of which should be to heighten fan interest. The game itself should not be structurally altered to suit a broader swath of the country. What makes engendering baseball fandom worthwhile is the fact that baseball edifies, educates and enlightens those who embrace it in a healthy and balanced way. It’s a cultural institution. When baseball cheapens its long season by adding playoff teams just to boost passing interest and revenue potential, it partially invalidates my thesis. You MAY NOT use this argument to defend the second Wild Card, or the first one, for that matter, is what I’m saying.
It’s worth noting, too, that what Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News tweeted during the chaos following the announcement was right: The MVP award is a creation, literally a copyrighted property, of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, and they are free to hand it out to whomsoever they want. Not only that, but a case can be made–I don’t agree with the following, but a case can be made–that like elected representatives, they have a right to hold their finger to the pulse of their readership, their broadest possible audience, and vote in accordance with the preference of the masses. These reporters are something like the French radical who, seeing the mob racing down the street outside his house, cries out: “There go my people! I must find out where they are going, so that I can lead them!” (hat tip, Aaron Sorkin) Still, they can cast an honest and fair vote on that premise if they so choose. This all could be an endorsement of simply ignoring the MVP, or admitting that it doesn’t mean very much these days, and that’s exactly the course I recommend to my fellow Trout supporters. Still, there’s another way to view it: The Old Guard is losing ground. It might not feel that way; it certainly doesn’t this morning. But it’s true. Soon, the electorate for these awards will be overwhelmingly new-school. For now, perhaps letting some of the old-guard writers have this small victory (it is, after all, their award, and one substantially diminished in importance by the bevy of new information available to the public today) does more good than harm.
Institutions change for the better slowly, but can change for the worse very quickly. The former usually comes in fits and starts, through incremental inclusion and delicate enlightenment. The latter usually comes through heavy-handed moralism, enforced progress and excommunication of dissenters. If you watch baseball on a regular basis, you will be better for it. I believe that firmly. Whether you prefer Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout as players, whether you care more about baseball’s mythology or its micro-economy, watch baseball, soak in its rhythm, observe the relative lack of violence in it, be careful not to live or to die on any single game or series of games, embrace the sweet uncertainty and unpredictability of it (flip a coin 162 times. Have 29 friends do the same. You’ve just simulated an MLB season.), and you and I will have fun with this game together.Next post: The Miami Marlins’ Fire Sale: On Ball Clubs’ Responsibilities to Their Communities
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