1991: Was Cal Ripken a Deserving MVP?
And that triggered—in my mind—a very tainted memory from 17 seasons ago.
The 2008 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots include several new members who had long, and—while not great—pretty good careers. Ballot "virgins" include names like Chuck Finley, Travis Fryman, David Justice, Chuck Knoblauch, and Todd Stottlemyre, just to name a few. None of these guys will make it on the first ballot, if ever, but they were solid major leaguers for a long time.
Everyone used to talk about how 1998 was the "career years" for many big-leaguers, with all the home runs and great individual performances. We all snicker at that now.
Well, never mind 1998. I want to look back at 1991. It was a great season of baseball, and as everyone remembers, the Twins and Braves took part in one of the greatest Fall Classics of all time.
And I remember guys like Finley, Fryman, Justice, Knoblauch, and Stottlemyre having banner seasons in 1991.
Finley was an 18-game winner for the second straight season, going 18-9 with a 3.80 ERA as the left-handed trio of Langston, Abbott and himself all won 18+ games on the Angels staff.
Fryman, in his first full season, was the heir apparent to long-time great Alan Trammell, splitting time at short as well as third. He hit 21 dingers with 91 ribbies.
Justice and the Braves had a memorable season, and the 1990 Rookie of the Year was clutch, hitting 21 homers himself with 87 RBI. A great moment came in his hometown Cincinnati, where he took Reds closer Rob Dibble deep for a two-run shot in the ninth inning to turn a 6-5 deficit (and a game the Braves had trailed 6-0) to a 7-6 triumph on October 1st—a key victory in Atlanta's march to the NL West pennant.
Knoblauch and Stottlemyre were members of the division-winning Twins and Blue Jays, respectively, and faced each other in the ALCS.
Knoblauch was the '91 Rookie of the Year, and was an exciting youngster who brought a lot to the veteran-laden Minnesota squad that included Kirby Puckett and Jack Morris. Stottlemyre was a 15-game winner (his career high in victories) on a Blue Jays staff which had the league's best ERA, and earned a start in the ALCS for Toronto. For Stottlemyre, it was arguably his best season in the bigs.
Ah yes...great memories from that season. So, as mentioned Knoblauch was the American League Rookie of the Year. Roger Clemens won the Cy Young with his 18-10 record and AL-best 2.62 ERA. The AL Manager of the Year award, of course, went to the Twins' Tom Kelly, for leading Minnesota from "worst to first."
And what about the MVP of the junior circuit? Surely that went to a member of the division winners—the Twins or Jays, right? A Puckett or a Joe Carter won it for leading his team to the top, right? Maybe Roberto Alomar?
Okay. Well, Puckett, Carter, and Alomar's numbers weren't great. But the MVP went to Cecil Fielder (tied for the AL lead with 44 homers for the second-place Tigers), or Jose Canseco (co-AL leader in dingers), or Paul Molitor (top five in several offensive categories) or even youngsters like Frank Thomas or Ruben Sierra, right?
And this was the worst ever voting in the history of baseball. Cal Ripken Jr. of the Orioles? Were the baseball writers on crack?
This was 1991—not '89 or '92 or '93, when the O's actually were in contention. This was 1991, when the O's fell out of it early, plummeting to sixth place almost right from the start of the year, and stayed there throughout, finishing with ninety-five losses. They finished 24 games out of first, and didn't end up dead last only because the sad-sack Indians lost 105 ballgames. And every AL West team finished .500 or better, meaning Baltimore was No. 13 out of a 14-team league.
So how could a player from a team that went 67-95 win the MVP? Yes, he had all-around strong numbers and continued his iron man streak. But MVP? Come on. This did not make any sense for the following reasons:
1. Ripken's team had a losing record. No matter how great his season was, no way he should have won if his team couldn't even play .420 baseball.
2. Ripken's numbers actually weren't that great. He didn't hit 61 homers or drive in 150 runs. Not even in the top five in batting average. He hit only 34 homers, which was well below Canseco and Fielder, putting him on par with Joe Carter's 33. And oh yeah, Carter, who also played in all 162 games like Ripken, played on the AL-East leading Jays. So, that "iron man" argument in favor of the O's shortstop just doesn't fly. In fact, not only Carter, but also Fielder—who lost out to Rickey Henderson in 1990—played all 162 for his team.
3. Kirk Gibson's 1988 MVP season had set the precedent after the Andre Dawson nonsense the previous year. Yes, different league. But that showed you didn't need great numbers to win the MVP as long as your team was a contender. Carter, Alomar, and Puckett, ironically, finished 5-6-7 in the voting, a dumbfounding fact considering their teams won. You could have made an argument that any one of those three deserved it ahead of Ripken.
History will show 1991 as a great baseball season, with the likes of Justice, Finley, Knoblauch, et al, having pretty good years, though none will make it to the Hall of Fame. 1991 was a season with a great World Series.
But 1991 must also be remembered for that tainted MVP award for Ripken.
History will also show that Cal Ripken Jr. won two MVPs. The first one in 1983 was deserving as Baltimore won the World Series. But the 1991 was very questionable, to say the least.
To put things in perspective, in 1983, Boston was 78-84, 20 games behind Ripken's Orioles. The Red Sox's best hitter, Jim Rice, topped the AL with 39 dingers and 126 RBIs, and hit .305 too. I didn't see Rice steal Ripken's MVP then. So what happened in 1991?
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