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MVP? Sammy’s The Man

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sammy Sosa finished second to Mark McGwire in the memorable home run race that highlighted the 1998 season, but he won the National League’s most-valuable-player award Thursday in a surprisingly one-sided vote that didn’t reflect the similarity of their overall statistics.

Seven of the 32 members of the Baseball Writers Assn. committee did not even include McGwire among the top three on their 10-player ballot, a shocking disregard for his positive impact on the sport while hitting 70 home runs to smash the record of 61 set by Roger Maris in 1961.

Sosa, who hit 66 home runs and drove in 158 runs while leading the Chicago Cubs to a wild-card playoff berth, received 30 first-place votes and two seconds while accumulating 438 points.

McGwire, the St. Louis Cardinal first baseman, got the other two first-place votes, along with 20 seconds, three thirds, one fourth, four fifths, one sixth and one seventh for 272 points. Moises Alou of the Houston Astros was third with 215 points, followed by San Diego’s Greg Vaughn with 185.

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Sosa, who was back at Wrigley Field for the announcement after returning from a series of games with a major league all-star team in Japan, leaves again for the Dominican Republic this morning to continue his fund-raising and humanitarian efforts in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Georges.

“The MVP is great, the 66 homers are great, but I have to go home because so many of the people continue to suffer,” he said. “There are so many with no homes and no hope. There is no time to celebrate. I have to try and take care of my people.”

The announcement of Sosa’s selection did ignite a celebration in the Dominican akin to the hero’s welcome Sosa received when he returned at the end of the season. It also completed an MVP sweep by Latin American players. Juan Gonzalez, who is Puerto Rican, won the American League honor Wednesday. Sosa is the second Dominican to win an MVP, the first in the NL. George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays won the AL award in 1987.

In a conference call, Sosa said he would have voted for McGwire, still considers him the man, “but a lot of players had great years and only one can win the MVP. It’s a great honor and feeling.”

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The MVP criteria have long been murky. Should the award go to a player who has the best statistics or does his team have to win?

A letter accompanying the ballot stipulates there is “no clear-cut definition” of “most valuable.” The first criterion, however, reads: “Actual value of a player to his team both offensively and defensively.”

Nowhere does it say that the team has to win.

Sosa suggested he won because the Cubs won--at least in the context of a wild card. In the standings, they won seven more games than the Cardinals.

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“It’s tough to hit 70 homers and not win,” Sosa said of McGwire. “We had almost the same year, and that’s unbelievable.

“But I took my team to the playoffs. He hit 70 and I hit 66, which is not that far away. I’d have been happy if he had won.”

Before leaving for a vacation in Australia, McGwire, who was recently named player of the year by the Sporting News and won a similarly titled award in a vote of his peers conducted by the players’ association, said the MVP should go to the player “who has the best overall year, no matter if his team is last or first.” In a statement, McGwire said he was happy for Sosa and the Cubs.

“He did a great job of carrying the Cubbies back to the playoffs,” McGwire said. “I am proud of what this year meant for the sport, reaffirming its position as America’s pastime and passion. To put it in his words, today Sammy is the man.”

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There is no disputing Sosa’s legitimacy. How McGwire could be voted so low on that many ballots is the surprise, especially considering the question of who had the most “actual value” to his team is debatable.

Sosa batted .308 and led the league in RBIs, runs and total bases. His RBI total of 158 was the fourth highest in National League history, but only 11 more than McGwire’s. Of course, the Cardinal first baseman was pitched to far less frequently, drawing a major league-leading 162 walks, only eight shy of Babe Ruth’s major league record. McGwire batted .299 and also led the league in home runs, on-base percentage, extra-base hits and slugging percentage. His .752 slugging percentage was the highest in more than 70 years.

The MVP committee comprises two reporters from each league city. McGwire’s first-place votes came from Rick Hummel and Mike Eisenbath of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Each had Sosa second.

Eisenbath said he voted for McGwire because he felt McGwire was the most valuable player to the game in 1998.

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“I basically took valuable to a new place,” he said, adding that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the fact that the Cubs were the wild card.

“Until they beat the [San Francisco] Giants in that playoff, they won only six more games than the Cardinals,” he said. “I mean, it wasn’t as if they won the division. Mac was penalized basically because the Cubs had [an effective relief pitcher in] Rod Beck and the Cardinals had [an ineffective relief pitcher in] Jeff Brantley. I also couldn’t fathom looking back years from now and trying to figure out how a guy who hit 70 homers, drove in 147 runs and had a .752 slugging percentage wasn’t the MVP.”

In that context, Eisenbath said he was flabbergasted that anyone could vote McGwire sixth or seventh.

“Was it a reaction to that whole androstenedione controversy?” he said. “Was someone mistreated by Mac along the way? I can’t imagine those votes were based on performance unless someone took this issue of how the team did to extreme. . . .”

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In placing McGwire seventh on his ballot, Joel Sherman of the New York Post said he would have had McGwire first if this was a player-of-the-year award. But “the mandate is to select the most valuable player, and as astonishing and historic as McGwire’s season was, his team was never in the race. We always hear players saying they’d trade their stats for a chance to be in the playoffs, and the players I had one through six had a much more direct correlation to [their team having won] and thus, were more valuable.”

Five of the six, Sherman said, were on playoff teams, and the sixth, Jeff Kent of the Giants, was on a team that tied the Cubs for the wild-card berth.

On and off the field it has been a lively debate that Sosa, who received a $250,000 bonus for winning, and McGwire are likely to resume in 1999.

“I know I can’t have a year like 1998 every year,” Sosa said, “but I believe in myself, I have a lot of ability, and if I’ve done it once I know I can come back and do it again. I know I’ll never forget ’98.”

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Who will?

Take a look back at Sammy Sosa’s MVP-winning season. Photos, charts and stories of his home-run race are on The Times’ Web site at https://www.latimes.com/homeruns

COMING WEST?: Reports say Mo Vaughn could join Angels as early as next week. Page 15

MOVING DAY: Arizona signs Stottlemyre for 4 years, $32 million. Page 16

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sosa vs. McGwire

Sammy Sosa won the NL MVP award in a landslide over Mark McGwire, mainly because the Cubs made the playoffs while the Cardinals did not. But who really did the most to help his team win? A look:

Battling with runners on:

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McGwire

AB: 223

H: 69

HR: 37

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RBI: 114

Avg.: .309

*

Sosa

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AB: 317

H: 95

HR: 29

RBI: 121

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Avg.: .300

*

Battling with runners in scoring position:

McGwire

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AB: 115

H: 32

HR: 20

RBI: 79

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Avg.: .279

*

Sosa

AB: 150

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H: 47

HR: 13

RBI: 81

Avg.: .313

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*

Batting with runners in scoring position and two out:

McGwire

AB: 35

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H: 10

HR: 7

RBI: 26

Avg.: .286

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*

Sosa

AB: 58

H: 15

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HR: 6

RBI: 27

Avg.: .259

*

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Close and late (After sixth inning with lead or deficit of two or less)

McGwire

AB: 85

H: 26

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HR: 16

RBI: 32

Avg.: .306

*

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Sosa

AB: 106

H: 33

HR: 11

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RBI: 27

Avg.: .311

*

Home runs that gave his team the lead or tied score:

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McGwire: 36

Sosa: 29

*

Total season statistics:

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McGwire

AB: 509

R: 130

H: 152

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HR: 70

RBI: 147

BB: 162

SO: 155

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Avg.: .299

OB%: .470

SLG%: .752

Team record: 83-79

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*

Sosa

AB: 643

R: 134

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H: 198

HR: 66

RBI: 158

BB: 73

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SO: 171

Avg.: .308

OB%: .377

SLG%: .647

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Team record: 90-73

Researched by HOUSTON MITCHELL / Los Angeles Times

The Vote

Sammy Sosa

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First: 30

Second: 2

Third: 0

Total: 438

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*

Mark McGwire

First: 2

Second: 20

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Third: 3

Total: 272

*

Others

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Alou, Houston: 215

Vaughn, San Diego: 185

Biggio, Houston: 163


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