Baseball brimming with MVP candidates; hidden-ball deception

Pity the poor voters who have to pick baseball's most valuable players for the 1985 season. The National League boasts more legitimate candidates than a New Hampshire presidential primary, and in the American League, New York's Rickey Henderson could find Kansas City's George Brett, plus teammates Ron Guidry and Don Mattingly, breathing down his neck for the honor. It's still early, of course, and the select group of baseball writers who pick the MVPs will watch carefully to see which players can sustain or improve upon their efforts during the next few months.

In the National League, the St. Louis Cardinals boast more contenders than any other team, with outfielder Willie McGee, second baseman Tom Herr, first baseman Jack Clark, and rookie base-stealer Vince Coleman all contenders. Now that McGee has overtaken Herr for the batting lead with a .340 average, he may have an edge. Willie has also impressed with his speed by stealing 37 bases and hitting a league-leading 11 triples. Herr is enjoying a tremendous year, though, and currently is second on the NL charts in four significant offensive categories -- batting average, hits, runs batted in, and doubles. Clark, meanwhile, is up among the league's power hitters.

Despite this quartet, it would be a mistake to print ``St. Louis, MO'' on the MVP mailing label just yet. Dale Murphy, a two-time league MVP, is slugging away in Atlanta, as is Dave Parker, the league's 1978 MVP, who has found playing in Cincinnati, his hometown, to his liking. Other everyday players in the race are San Diego's Tony Gwynn, Los Angeles's Pedro Guerrero, and Montreal's Tim Raines. Among pitchers, New York's Dwight Gooden certainly stands a chance and maybe the Cardinals' Joaquin Anduja r too.

There is no absolute standard against which MVP candidates are measured. Their choice is strictly relative, that is, based on a comparison to other players in any given year.

This helps to explain some seeming oddities in the outcome. For example, Detroit's Norm Cash finished a distant fourth in the American League's 1961 balloting, this while compiling a .341 batting average, 41 homers, and 132 RBIs. Cash's mistake, of course, was doing this the year Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's home run mark. By contrast, Yankee second baseman Joe Gordon, playing during the talent-depleted World War II era, won the 1942 award almost in spite of himself.

Gordon did bat .322 with 18 homers, but he also hit into more double plays than any other league player, plus led the circuit in errors and strikeouts.

``Keep your eye on the ball,'' is a rather universal admonition in sports. Its importance was underscored the other day when Doug DeCinces of the California Angels fell prey to a hidden-ball trick. The purveyor of this bit of chicanery was Boston Red Sox second baseman Marty Barrett, who has fooled quite a few unwitting baserunners in recent years. In this case DeCinces was on second when Jim Rice threw to Barrett after making a routine catch in left field.

Normally Barrett would have thrown on to pitcher Al Nipper, but instead he held the ball in his glove. Once his teammates sensed what he was up to they joined in the conspiracy. Thinking Nipper had the ball, DeCinces roamed off second, whereupon shortstop Glenn Hoffman sneaked in behind him, took Barrett's throw, and tagged DeCinces out.

One can debate whether this type of trickery belongs in the game. The Angels obviously don't think so judging from the brushback pitch that greeted Barrett during his next trip to the plate. Others, however, would argue that deception is a part of the game, and any player guilty of mental lapses must accept the consequences.

Deception even finds its way into Little League. During a game this writer witnessed, the team in the field used a variation of the hidden-ball theme. After a base on balls, the pitcher would nonchalantly throw over to first base before the runner arrived. The first baseman, in turn, would tuck the ball in his glove and wait for the unsuspecting runner to venture off the bag, then tag him.

In both cases, it's hard to imagine these tricks succeeding in ``broad daylight,'' with fans, players, and coaches all seemingly looking on. Baseball, however, is a patterned game in which certain actions follow from certain situations. We anticipate these things as we would the ``e'' on the end of ``hous..'' When something else occurs, it's possible to get caught napping.

The Wall Street fanatic who tunes in to the Financial News Network may be surprised to find football coverage among his stock quotations. But that's just what the 24-hour-a-day network is giving viewers these days. Call it diversification. Realizing there wasn't really a market for solid financial news after the markets closed, FNN has begun to televise Canadian Football League games on a delayed basis Sunday and Monday evenings. The games are one aspect of the network's growing schedule of sports programming, which goes by the generic name SCORE.

When putting football on the air, the Financial News Network doesn't totally ignore its bread and butter. Business coverage continues, only in the form of a non-stop ticker display across the bottom of the screen, a nice diversion during huddles. Actually two tickers, called ``crawls,'' are stacked, one giving closing stock prices, the other sports scores.

Has basketball coach Rollie Massimino started something? A month or so ago he turned down a fabulous offer from the New Jersey Nets to stay at Villanova, where strong personal ties prevented him from leaving the national champions. This week it was Gary Williams's turn. On Wednesday he spurned an attractive offer from Wake Forest to stay at Boston College, where he has grown attached to his present players. Not even a call from Wake Forest alumnus Arnold Palmer could pry him away.

By now, millions are aware that 17-year-old West German Boris Becker became the youngest champion in Wimbledon history. But did you know that he is actually several months younger than Leo Lavalle, who won Wimbledon's junior boys' title? Becker is playing in this week's US Clay Court Championships at Indianapolis.

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