Year of the Pitcher sets the theme in baseball honors

This was the year of the pitcher in terms of baseball's postseason honors, with the mound corps capturing five of the six major awards. Rollie Fingers was the American League's Most Valuable Player as well as its Cy Young Award winner. Fernando Valenzuela also scored a double as National League Rookie-of-the-Year and Cy Young Award winner. And Dave Righetti took AL rookie honors, leaving NL MVP Mike Schmidt as the only nonpitcher in the group.

Of course there are some dissenting opinions (I have a couple myself), but by and large this year's awards went to those who figured to get them. As a result , they produced a minimum of controversy -- which is just as well, considering all the other problems the game had in 1981.

Oh, some of the votes were very close, and you can make convincing arguments for Tom Seaver, Tim Raines, and others who lost out. But every winner had such outstanding credentials that it was difficult to argue very hard against anyone of them even if you happened to favor another candidate.

My own feeling is that the two votes most open to question were the ones Valenzuela won -- not that he didn't have a phenomenal season, but just that I thought at least one other candidate in each race had an even stronger case.

The Cy Young race was mainly between Valenzuela and Seaver, though one had to consider Steve Carlton and Nolan Ryan as well. The voting reflected this, too, with nobody named on all 24 ballots. Valenzuela and Seaver each got eight first-place votes, but the Los Angeles Dodger rookie got one more second-place vote than the Cincinnati veteran, and this turned out to be his hairsbreadth margin of victory.

Valenzuela certainly had an incredible season. The Mexican left-hander became a folk hero throughout the country as he posted a 13-7 record and a 2.48 earned-run average while leading the league with eight shutouts and 180 strikeouts. But Seaver had a 14-2 mark for a major league-leading .875 percentage and a practically identical 2.49 ERA, while Carlton was 13-4 and 2.42 , and Ryan was 11-5, including a major league record fifth no-hitter. Also, it's hard to ignore the fact that after going 8-0 in the sort of spectacular start rookie pitchers sometimes enjoy until the hitters get accustomed to them, Valenzuela actually had a losing record (5-7) the rest of the way.

Fernando did enhance his stature by his great playoff and World Series performances, but postseason records don't count in the award voting. So in my book, when you consider the regular season only, and forget all the sentiment, romanticism, and folklore, it comes out Seaver.

As for the NL rookie award, it's the old ''apples and oranges'' question of trying to compare a pitcher and an everyday player. Usually, all things being relatively equal, the nod goes to the latter, and I think it should have gone to Raines in this case. The Montreal outfielder appeared en route to breaking Lou Brock's major league one-season base-stealing record until the strike came along , and he still finished with a rookie record 71 thefts while hitting .304. So again I'm a dissenter, but I'm not disposed to argue too hard in either case.

The other nip-and-tuck race saw Fingers edge Rickey Henderson for MVP honors, 319-308. This time I agree, but can understand those who don't.

Henderson was the spark plug of Oakland's drive to the AL West title, hitting .319, leading the league with 56 stolen bases, and excelling defensively in left field. Also, as noted above, the voters traditionally give the edge to the everyday player, as they did in 1978 when Jim Rice beat out Ron Guidry despite the latter's incredible 25-3 season.

But Fingers was such a big factor in Milwaukee's first-ever title of any kind , posting a 6-3 record with a 1.04 ERA and a major league-leading 28 saves, while giving the Brewers the confidence-building feeling that almost anytime they got a lead in the late innings they were home free.

Also working against Henderson was the fact that teammate Tony Armas finished sixth in the overall balloting and garnered the lone first-place vote that didn't go to one of the top two.

But despite Armas's 21 homers and 71 RBIs, and despite the fact that he won The Sporting News's annual players' poll for AL Player of the Year, I concur with the MVP voters that the contest was really between Fingers and Henderson, that it was close, but that Rollie deserved the honor.

As for the AL Cy Young Award, if Fingers was the MVP he had to be the best pitcher, didn't he? Well, not necessarily. Different writers are involved, as well as various theories about what ''MVP'' means, so the voting frequently varies. Not this time, however, as Fingers won easily over Steve McCatty of Oakland, with Jack Morris of Detroit third.

Schmidt, a unanimous MVP choice a year ago, got 21 of the 24 first-place votes this time. Montreal outfielder Andre Dawson topped two ballots, while Valenzuela got the other first-place vote. But Schmidt was a runaway overall winner, with 321 points to Dawson's 215. The slugging Philadelphia third baseman deserved the honor, too, leading the majors in homers (31) and RBIs (91) , hitting .316, and also leading his league in numerous other categories including runs scored, walks, and slugging percentage.

So the choice was no surprise, but perhaps the margin of victory was - especially since the players again disagreed with the writers and made Dawson their Player of the Year.

Surely this made little sense; Dawson was a big hitter for the Expos in their drive to the NL East title, but Schmidt is without question the best player in the majors at this time. In winning back-to-back MVP titles he joins some pretty exclusive company. Joe Morgan and Ernie Banks are the only other National Leaguers to have done it, while American Leagers who have achieved the feat are Jimmy Foxx, Hal Newhouser, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, and Roger Maris.

No one in either league has ever won the game's most coveted individual honor three times in a row, so Mike has something really special to shoot for in 1982.

Finally, Righetti certainly figured as the AL's top rookie with an 8-4 record , a 2.05 ERA, and some key wins for the Yankees after coming up in midseason.

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