Baseball award voters disagree on what ''Most Valuable'' means

Baseball's Most Valuable Player awards usually raise at least as many questions as they answer - and this year was no exception. Things were cut and dried in the National League, where Chicago Cubs' second baseman Ryne Sandberg's election was a foregone conclusion. But the choice of Detroit relief ace Willie Hernandez in the American League brings up all the standard arguments.

First there's the issue of where pitchers fit into the MVP picture. Can they possibly be compared in terms of value with everyday players? Even if so, what about relief pitchers, who put in only 100 to 150 innings compared to a regular's 1,500 or so? Should they, in fact, even be eligible for the award.

Several pitchers, including both starters and relievers, have won MVP honors in each league - yet a feeling persists in many quarters that it somehow isn't quite right.

My own belief is that a pitcher should be eligible (after all, he is a ''player''), but that he must have a truly phenomenal year to be considered.

One can hardly argue, for instance, with the 1968 choice of Denny McLain, whose 31-6 record made him the game's only 30-game winner between 1930 and the present day. Ditto for the 1963 selection of Sandy Koufax (25-5, 1.88 ERA, 306 strikeouts).

But to me, a pitcher has to have a year of such proportions - and I'm not sure Hernandez makes it. Willie was an outstanding late reliever, compiling a 9- 3 record with 32 saves, but so was Kansas City's Dan Quisenberry (6-3, 44 saves) , who finished third in the voting. One might ask, in fact, what made Hernandez' year any better except that his team finished higher. And can you really stack either one up against Minnesota's Kent Hrbek (.311, 27 home runs, 107 RBIs), who was second, or Baltimore's Eddie Murray (.306, 29, 110), who was relegated to fourth?

Both the choice of Hernandez over Quisenbery and the downgrading of Murray point to another perennial problem: What do the words ''Most Valuable'' mean?

By any reasonable thought process, the MVP is the player who had the best individual season. But every year more voters seem captivated by the faulty logic that a player can only be ''most valuable'' if his team wins a division title, or at least comes very close.

This is fine when the player who has the best year happens to be on a winner. Thus no one can quarrel very much with the choice of Sandberg, who led the Cubs to a division title by hitting .314 with 19 homers, 84 RBIs, 114 runs scored, 32 stolen bases, and outstanding defensive play. But too many times a player like this gets overlooked if he isn't on the right team.

I have never been able to figure out how this factor has anything to do with it. A player's value is shown by his accomplishments, not those of his teammates. But the current breed of baseball writers who vote in these elections can't see it that way.

Thus when Jim Rice hit .315 and led the American League in home runs and RBIs in 1978 - and his Boston Red Sox team was in the race all year - he was the MVP. But when the same player had almost the same year in 1983 for a club that didn't do very well in the standings, he was a distant fourth in the voting.

Murray is an even more glaring example. A year ago when he hit .306 with 33 homers and 111 RBIs for Baltimore's world champion Orioles, he was a close runnerup to teammate Cal Ripken for the award. This year, however, despite almost identical figures plus the general consensus that he was the most dangerous clutch hitter in the league as well as an outstanding defensive first baseman, Eddie was nowhere in the voting. But of course! The Orioles weren't in the race this season.

Since the words ''most valuable'' are the ones that seem to confuse so many selectors, the obvious solution to these ridiculous voting patterns is to change the name of the award to something like ''Player of the Year.'' Unless and until this is done, however, the letters MVP will continue to mean what they have come to represent in recent years: the best player who was also fortunate enough to be on a successful team.

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