Has there ever been a more wide open race for the MVP than what we are currently witnessing in the National League? I’ve had the St. Louis Cardinals on the brain this week (never a good thing), after mentioning Whitey Herzog in a SportsAttic post from the other day,
The White Rat was one of the most despised MLB figures of my childhood (and certainly Top 5 All-Time — now there’s a future blog post in the making), and I will need to save a deeper dive on all the reasons why for a later date. But the light rash that broke out on my arms and legs at his mere mention did help me come to realize that my “coast-centric” approach to the world of sports may cause me to miss out on some cool stuff going on in the middle of the country.
Which brings me back to the Red Birds. I was at a conference toward the end of May, where I ran into Adam the Cardinals Fan. Like many of the Cards fans I’ve met through the years, Adam is legit. Knows the game, not a terrible homer, and while certainly spoiled by his model franchise’s delivery of solid contenders on an annual basis, Adam was candid in his disappointment related to his 2018 squad.
We commiserated over the plights of our two, non-contending ball clubs, coming to an agreement that something “just wasn’t right” about the Cards this year. The rotation seemed to lack an ace, the pen was a disaster, and the everyday lineup didn’t have anyone that opposing teams feared. Hold that last thought.
Since that day in May, I’ve paid passing attention to the uninteresting progress of the Cards, writing them off as out of it as recently as a month ago, and viewing the shift from Matheny to Mike Shildt as nothing more than a placeholder until the long-term skipper could be identified in the offseason. Not so fast.
To my surprise (and this underscores the need to occasionally break away from my bias for the right and left coast), I just recently began to notice more and more articles touting Matt Carpenter for MVP. I checked the numbers, and it wasn’t as wild a stretch as I initially believed. Pair the roll he’s been on with the Cards’ surge in August, and he may just be the current front runner. Huh? Yup, the race is as wide open with a month to go as any I can recall, and if the season ended today those ho hum Red Birds would be hosting a Wild Card matchup against the Brewers at Busch Stadium.
I currently count no fewer than six leading candidates for NL MVP this year, any of whom could have a strong case made for why they are deserving:
*Matt Carpenter — 34 homers, 38 doubles, .963 OPS
*Nolan Arenado — .308, 31 dings, 91 RBI, .963 OPS and a killer third base glove
*Trevor Story — .289/26/85 at short with .884 OPS (do he and teammate Arenado cancel each other out? See Strawberry/McReynolds circa 1988)
*Javier Baez — .297, 28 HR’s, 97 RBI, .904 OPS
*Freddy Freeman — .313/20/78 and a .912 OPS
*Paul Goldschmidt — .292/30/76 with a .942 OPS
(SportsAttic note: I’m still not convinced Freeman and Goldschmidt aren’t the same guy.)
*And I believe many can make a case for any of the following among Rhys Hoskins, Ozzie Albies, Lorenzo Cain or Jesus Aguilar.
Like most years, the combination of a hot September separating one candidate from the field, accompanied by their team reaching the playoffs, will likely prove to the the differentiator. That being said, I’ve never seen such an unpredictable race heading into the last month of the season, with the winner completely still up for grabs. So who will it be?
To answer this one, I’ll begin by opening the SportsAttic mailbag from 30,000 feet. I’m returning home following a successful move-in of SportsDaughter2 to her Freshman dorm at NYU this weekend. While in the Big Apple, SportsAttic fortuitously benefitted from an innocent LinkedIn profile update and a couple of subsequent “fake” news articles, which pumped up our follower stats significantly in the course of a few days (hey, you know what they say about no such thing as bad publicity, right?).
Among those coming aboard as a result of this unexpected PR wave, was an old friend, Chief Redbird from St. Louis, who will lead off this week’s incoming commentary with the following impassioned plea for Carpenter’s MVP candidacy. Chief’s conviction was palpable, and in deference to the time and thought that so obviously went into his outreach, we will publish it in it’s entirety (SportsAttic reactions in parentheses):
*”Fresh off a record tying performance where Matt Carpenter proved to be too much double trouble for the Rockies with his four doubles, he continues to lead the surprising Cardinal resurgence. The Cards finished their six game road trip at 5-1, against the contending Dodgers and Rockies, and although interim skipper Mike Shildt has entered into the Manager of the Year conversation (Really? Don’t think so…), none of this probably happens without the glue in the mix anchored around Carpenter. His rebound after a horrific start to the 2018 campaign, where he stood at a .140 batting average six seeks into the season, now finds him in position to lead the National League in both doubles and homers, which hasn’t been done since Willie Stargell did it with the Pirates in 1973 (gotta like the Pops reference, but need a fact check here). If Carpenter wasn’t leading off, his RBI numbers would surely be elevated from his current level, as well. In a year where there is no great team or story in the National League, Carpenter has been a key clubhouse leader in the renaissance of the Cardinals play the past six weeks.”
Thank you, Chief, for this needed contribution from the middle of the country. Not to mention the always appreciated Stargell reference, and use of the word “renaissance” (gotta admit I’m kicking myself a bit for not using that one…).
Any other voices out there who would like to promote a candidate (Aaron Nola? Max Scherzer? I’ve never liked pitchers for MVP, but this is an odd year) — we are open to opinions from all comers here at SportsAttic.
Other incoming thoughts from the mailbag over the past few weeks:
*From St. Joe’s Bob down in Philly, also printed in it’s entirety: “Over my entire life I have never gotten a baseball that has gotten into the stands as either a foul ball or a home run. I have season tix at the Phillies right behind home plate and balls have rained down near me for decades and I have never had a sniff of getting one. Last night I was at the Phillies v Nationals at Nationals Park. We were seated in the second level in right field, a long poke from home plate, especially for a smallish second baseman for the Phillies, Cesar Hernandez. Lo and behold he hit one into the second deck last night and I got my first baseball. So cool!!!!!”
First of all, a hearty congratulations to St. Joe’s Bob. Maybe the most magical aspect of being a sports fan is its ability to transport us back in time — to being kids again. You step out of the tunnel into a fantasy world, as you see those bright lights illuminating the diamond and the deep green of the outfield grass. You hear the crack of the bat you grew up with, and the pop of fastball finding leather in the pocket of a catcher’s mitt, and off you go. And next thing you know, an ordinary second baseman for your favorite team can take his place alongside Mike Schmidt and Robin Roberts in the pantheon of one’s personal Hall of Fame. So cool, indeed!
My first ball came to me roughly 43 years after attending my first Mets game in the summer of ’71. The 2014 venue was Chase Field in Arizona. An early season matchup between the D’Backs and the Nationals with the roof closed to keep out the oppressive desert heat.
A strikeout ended the third inning, and as Nationals (for the purpose of this special memory, I will refrain from calling them the Expos) catcher Wilson Ramos trotted back to the visitors dugout (I had managed to get good seats among the crowd of fewer than 10,000 on this early-April Tuesday night), I stood up and frantically waved my arms to get his attention (I was fortunate there were no kids seated in my section to interfere with my destiny). Lost in the moment, I was completely oblivious to the absurd scene I was making.
Ramos saw me and my desperate gestures, as I utilized the universally understood signal for “toss me the ball” — hands opening and closing, my arms outstretched toward him, and just before he descended onto the dugout steps he flipped it my way. My shaking hands didn’t betray me (the easy plays are always the most dangerous, ya know), and I finally had my ball. And yes, St. Joe’s Bob, it was so cool!
I often wonder if Wilson Ramos would care if he knew that such a simple action, one he’s done thousands of times in his life, would make such an indelible imprint on some 49-year-old stranger from the Bay Area. But it did, and he remains my favorite non-Mets catcher to this day, as I root for a trade annually that will put him in blue and orange.
Hearing from St. Joe’s Bob, and thinking about how Wilson Ramos changed my life as a sports fan on that April Scottsdale evening, it got me thinking about all the near-misses. The dozens of balls through the years that had glanced off my grasping fingers, bounced the wrong way, been plucked from the air seconds before I could make my claim. There are too many to count, but like so many things in life, often it’s “the one that got away” that sticks with you longer than the one you land.
For me it always starts with my visit to New York Mets spring training, back in 1989. I was standing with a couple of buddies behind the Mets’ third base dugout as pregame infield drills were concluding. Baseball fans know this drill by heart, as each infielder fires their final grounder back to the catcher before trotting off the field.
The coach with the fungo bat leading the drill puts an end to the proceedings with one final, high pop in the air around the plate. The catcher gathers it in, and that’s that.
The catcher on this March morning in ’89 was Mackey Sasser. Sasser was better known for his unusual first name and streaky lefty bat, than for his work managing a pitching staff (he would become infamous a few years later when he inexplicably developed the “yips” on throws back to the mound, double-pumping and spraying his return throws all over the infield — yet another painful chapter in Mets history).
On this day, though, Sasser grabbed the pop without incident, and as he jogged off the field, he tossed the ball onto the roof of the Mets dugout, purposely spinning the sphere like a top so that it would bounce erratically on contact.
I watched helplessly as the kind, elderly woman on my right (who minutes before had been telling me about her husband, the diehard Mets fan, who was at home, too sick to join her that day), flailed in an awkward and ultimately futile attempt to grab the spinning baseball. She lunged and grabbed, knocked it away, lunged again, and finally ended up swatting it off to the side — and neatly into the waiting right hand of yours truly.
In a moment of selflessness quite unusual for 23-year-old me (frankly I’m still a little shocked when I remember it today), I handed the ball over to the woman and immediately began preparing the speech I’d undoubtedly have to deliver to a New York Times reporter when word of my magnanimous gesture began to spread throughout the ballpark.
She looked at the ball, and then at me with an expression of utter surprise on her face (I was beaming the smile of a man who changed lives for the better, no doubt), and then proceeded to turn and hand the ball to some guy on her right wearing a Cubs hat. The unnamed guy stuffed the ball in his windbreaker pocket and walked off briskly without so much as a look back over his shoulder. No good deed, as they say, goes unpunished.
What I remember the most about that moment, is how different people can view the same incident, at the same time, and come away with such totally different reactions.
What I had just been a part of was perhaps the most tragic sports moment of my entire life to date — simply gut wrenching in the most visceral of ways.
What my two buddies saw, however, was apparently some sort of a cross between the funniest Three Stooges scene of all time, and the type of hilarity you could only experience if you had front row seats for an Eddie Murphy’s standup routine. Yes, that’s how hard they laughed — at that exact moment, at dinner later that night, all day the following day, and on the plane ride home two days later. Yup, just an effin’ riot.
So thank you, Wilson Ramos, for somewhat easing the pain of Mackey Sasser Day for me, with that nonchalant toss of yours into the stands.
I’m guessing I’m not the only one with near-miss stories about those elusive souvenir projectiles that have so much meaning to us hardball fans. I’d love to hear them.
Back to mailbag, finishing out the Tuesday rounds:
*Thanks to Donny Baseball down in Central Jersey for reinforcing my recollections of Jeff Kent as one of least fan-friendly major leaguers of our time. After witnessing the prickly and defensively-challenged Kent on a rehab assignment one summer in Trenton, Don decided he’d rather have Choo Choo Coleman (appreciate the ’62 Mets reference, Donny) on his squad, than Kent and his lame pornstache.
*ErnieD in Florida questioned how “Sweetness” Payton couldn’t make the Best Ever/Best Never list of all-time great running backs? Walter Payton is definitely high up my list (my first NFL replica jersey was a Bears #34), but I’m sticking with O.J. and Barry Sanders as the best I’ve ever seen.
*ErnieH from the DC area (unless he’s recently relocated) recommends adding Summer of ’49 to my sports reading list. Thanks, Ernie, I will be ordering it as soon as I’m finished with Where Nobody Knows Your Name, by John Feinstein (shout out to Dennis the Dodgers Fan up in Eugene for gifting me this awesome book on life in the minors).
*Speaking of Dennis the Dodgers Fan, he was the only SportsAttic reader out there who seemed to relate to my Slick Watts reference awhile back. Not to be outdone, he conjured up recollections of “Downtown” Freddie Brown, instant offense on some amazing Sonics teams in the late-’70’s and ’80’s. The man could light it up!
*Hats off to JJ in Alamo, CA, who correctly points out that the Mets of our youth featured a Tug, a Skip, and a Buzz. Given more time and a different format, there’s a lot we could do with that! (As a side note, JJ also went down the dark road of early Mets free agent forays. While the Yanks were holding pressers up in the Bronx to introduce the likes of Catfish Hunter and Reggie to their championship-starved fans in the mid-’70’s, the Mets were trying to keep pace by signing — wait for it — Tom Hausman and Elliott Maddox. How did we root for these guys?)
*Nightman, somewhere outside of Dallas, continues to openly lobby for inclusion in another SportsAttic post. While we have to question anyone that has that on their priority list, we can’t help but give him another shout out for his “Altuve will be playing second base while riding a unicycle” line from last year’s ridiculous MLB All Star Game charade. Nightman goes on to cement the Altuve quip as his “one hit wonder” moment, though, by offering up this year’s gem: “After the break, Sean Doolittle will provide a traffic update.” Yup, crickets. You are gripping the bat too tight, my friend. Just let your natural humor flow!
*And JD from Denville, NJ (not to be confused with Danville, CA) reminds us that between his two stints with the Mets, Dave Kingman actually posted up some sick numbers in 1979 as a Cub, breaking windows on Waveland Ave. to the tune of 48 homers, 115 RBI’s and even an un-Kingman-like batting average of .288.
As usual, though, JD can’t leave well enough alone, using the uncoordinated Kong’s poor glove work as a reason to champion JD’s tired and impractical universal-DH cause. Sure, and let’s let them use aluminum bats while we’re at it. The DH is a bad idea way past its shelf life. Next topic.
*Lastly, from Brian the Fish Fan in Little Silver, NJ, on his expectations for his perennially disappointing Dolphins in 2018: “They’re getting no respect from the national media this year, but with Tannehill coming back and Amendola and Frank Gore being signed I wouldn’t be shocked if they surprise some people this year. Linebackers are the only question mark that could really hurt us.”
Linebackers? Okay, so let me get this straight — the Dolphins big offseason signing was Frank Gore (who I’m pretty sure just got his AARP card in the mail), but it’s the linebackers that Brian is worried about? Say hello to 3-13, Brian, and the 13 will include two losses to the J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS — it is Sam The Man time, ladies and gentlemen!