Twenty years ago, there was a team with two young stars batting in the middle of the lineup. The way Baseball-Reference.com calculates wins above replacement, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez of the 1996 Seattle Mariners finished first and second in the American League, and nobody else was close.
Either one of them could have been the AL's Most Valuable Player that year. Neither of them won it.
Rodriguez finished second. Griffey finished fourth.
Nothing against Juan Gonzalez, the Texas Rangers outfielder who won the MVP that year, but it's easy to believe some voters picked between Griffey and Rodriguez and ended up costing both of them the award.
Had Griffey's four first-place votes gone to Rodriguez, A-Rod would have won. Instead, he finished second in one of the closest MVP votes ever.
So yes, if you're wondering whether Chicago Cubs friends and teammates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo could cost each other the MVP this year, it is possible. History and logic say it's highly unlikely, but it is possible.
It happened before, and it seems A-Rod never forgot it.
"To this day, he's never really forgiven me," said Jim Street, who covered the A-Rod/Junior Mariners for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and put Griffey ahead of Rodriguez on his ballot (but voted Gonzalez ahead of both of them). "Five years later, he saw me in the Texas Rangers clubhouse and introduced me to Michael Young and Ivan Rodriguez as 'the guy who cost me the MVP in '96.'"
It's hard to imagine either Bryant or Rizzo doing that. It may never come to it, anyway, because there's half a season to go and there's every chance that by the end of September their numbers won't be similar. There's every chance that one of them, or someone else entirely, will be an obvious MVP choice.
For now, they both should be near the top of the list. Bryant has a few more home runs (25-20), a few more RBI (64-61) and a slightly higher slugging percentage (.574-.560). Rizzo leads in batting average (.282-.278) and on-base percentage (.402-.369).
Cubs players and staff say Rizzo is more of a team leader, but Bryant gets credit for starting games at four different positions.
"One guy drives the bus one day, the other guy drives the bus the other," catcher David Ross said. "I can't choose. It's a good problem to have."
It's good for the Cubs—potentially bad for the writers who follow them and may need to choose. The consensus among Cubs beat writers seems to be Bryant would be the pick right now, but obviously that could change.
"It's a great debate," said Jim Deshaies, the Cubs television analyst. "You can make a compelling argument for both of them. I might go 51-49 for Bryant right now."
There's no guarantee that either of them will win, or even that either should win.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports put Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Matt Carpenter of the St. Louis Cardinals ahead of both Cubs candidates on his hypothetical midseason ballot (although both are now on the disabled list). Joel Sherman of the New York Post picked Bryant, but with Kershaw, Nolan Arenado of the Colorado Rockies, Carpenter and Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals behind him.
The ultimate choice won't be announced until November, and it will belong to 30 writers selected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, which gives out the MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year. In theory, that means two writers from every National League city, although with newspaper consolidation and restrictions on voting, it doesn't always work that way.
Even so, the MVP panel has enough balance to overcome regional biases that can affect awards like the Heisman Trophy. History shows that in most cases, teammates don't take votes from each other, or if they do, it doesn't swing the election.
Over the last 50 years, 50 teams have had multiple players receive first-place votes in the same year. In 25 of those cases, one of those multiple players receiving votes won the award. In six, players from the same team finished first and second.
In almost all the other cases, even adding all the first-place votes for players from one team together wouldn't have changed the outcome.
The '96 Mariners were the exception, but there were also exceptional circumstances that season. Significantly, the Mariners didn't make the playoffs, finishing 4.5 games behind Gonzalez's Rangers.
Street, who had one of the votes assigned to Seattle (Bob Finnigan of the Seattle Times had the other), said he would have voted Griffey first had the Mariners won, but switched to Gonzalez when the Rangers held on.
Street said he voted Griffey second and Rodriguez fourth because he believed Griffey had a bigger impact on the team, and because others were telling him the same thing.
"We had a three-city trip in September, and I went to each opposing manager and asked, 'Who do you most fear in this lineup?'" Street said. "I talked to Mike Hargrove in Cleveland, Bob Boone in Kansas City and Tom Kelly in Minnesota. They all said Griffey was the MVP on that team."
In a 2013 retrospective for the Times, Finnigan wrote that he went to Mariners manager Lou Piniella with the same question. Piniella, he said, chose Griffey.
"I'm not going to say Lou swayed me," Finnigan wrote. "He only confirmed what I thought I saw, what I truly believed: When it came to most valuable, Griffey was the only choice."
Finnigan also went to A-Rod, who told him Griffey was the Mariners' MVP.
Rodriguez, though, had slightly better numbers. Outside Seattle, most writers voted him ahead of Griffey. An exception was John Hickey of the Oakland Tribune, who voted Alex Rodriguez seventh and Ivan Rodriguez of the Rangers third.
Had Hickey reversed those votes, A-Rod would have been the MVP. But he didn't, and it was Street and Finnigan who felt the most heat.
"The columnist at my own paper [Laura Vecsey] came out and said the Seattle writers didn't have the guts to vote against Griffey," Street said. "Our newspaper had a Star of the Year banquet, and when Alex won, he said, 'It's a good thing Street and Finnigan didn't vote for this.'"
Twenty years later, the arguments go on. Gonzalez often makes lists of the most undeserving MVPs (including this 2011 Bleacher Report list by Arad Markowitz). A-Rod should have won, Markowitz wrote.
Twenty years from now, you wonder if someone will say the same about Kris Bryant or Anthony Rizzo.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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