By Dan McGrath
A month ago, Kris Bryant seemed the front-runner for the National League MVP award. His offensive numbers stand up to anybody’s, and his multiposition versatility in the field helps define the distinctive approach of a team that owns the best record in baseball.
Bryant’s 5-for-5, two-homer performance Thursday was another loud reminder of how good he has been this season. And yet Anthony Rizzo, in a manner that defies easy description, has seemed slightly better and a bit more dangerous as the point man for much of what the Cubs have achieved.
Add to the mix his understated role as a clubhouse presence and the MVP election swings toward Rizzo . . . for now. How the competition plays out over the final six weeks will be a far better sidebar to a compelling Cubs story than billy goats, black cats, Bartman and all the other nonsense that’s certain to be regurgitated as the national media arrives in search of “fresh” angles.
Joe Maddon and the Theo Epstein regime have kept the landscape refreshingly free of such detritus. In its place they have unwittingly developed a cult of hero worship within a deliriously expectant fan base: As it rolls toward 100 victories, is this not just the best Cubs team of all time, but the best team period?
And never mind the Bryant-Rizzo MVP race. A larger question is which telegenic young slugger gets to Cooperstown first and takes his place alongside the legendary David Ross.
Just kidding. But if a 1969 Cubs team that never won anything can produce four Hall of Famers, shouldn’t the best-ever Cubs team be enshrined en masse?
MVP is a good starting point for a Hall of Fame discussion, but it’s hardly definitive. Juan Gonzalez won twice in three years from 1996-98, and you had to like Dale Murphy’s chances after he went back-to-back in 1982 and 1983 at age 27. But the careers of both men lacked staying power, for various reasons, and neither got close.
Jason Giambi, Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton and Miguel Tejada all won MVP awards in this century, but none of them gets into the Hall without a ticket. Eddie Murray never won an MVP, but he went in on the first ballot.
Jeff Bagwell was the choice in 1994 and finished in the top 10
six other times, but joined-at-the-hip Houston teammate Craig Biggio beat him into Cooperstown without ever being MVP. That oddity is expected to be addressed in this year’s voting, in which Bagwell and Tim Raines (another non-MVP) are likely to cross the 75 percent threshold.
It’s now or never for Raines in his 10th and final year on the ballot. I saw a lot of the Rock in his early years; I can’t say I knew I was watching a Hall of Famer, and usually you do. But the Sabermetrics crowd has been good to Raines, and they have become an influential voting bloc.
A first-timer on the 2017 ballot poses a testy dilemma for Hall voters. On credentials alone, Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is a no-brainer as the best two-way catcher since Johnny Bench. But former teammate Jose Canseco fingered Rodriguez as a steroid user in his ghastly bad memoir from 2005, and the body that earned Pudge his nickname underwent some noticeable transformations during his 19-year career.
Canseco’s book is the testimony of a goofball, true, and might not stand up in a court of law. But none of his aggrieved targets ever tested him by following through on their bellicose threats to sue, so the stain remains.
Five years from now, voters will face an even trickier call if David Ortiz goes ahead with plans to retire. As the fuss over him at last month’s All-Star Game reminded us, Big Papi is revered as a baseball treasure. But media reports identified him as failing a test during the 2003 season. His denials could not have been more heated and no one has ever done a better job of image restoration. But Big Papi remains on the suspect list.
That eliminates him in the eyes of voters who favor blanket rejection of drug cheats, and we’re a powerful enough lobby to deny Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and all the awards, records and history they represent. A-Rod — is it possible to be a bigger jerk than Canseco? — adds to the stash as we continue to behave as if an entire era never happened.
There has to be a better way