Thursday, November 7, 2013

The BBWAA’s March Into November

By Bob Ekstrom

Baseball is a game better suited for discussion than observation. Between pitchers shaking off signs, hitters stepping out of the batter's box, and catchers constantly running out to the mound, it is far more cerebral than physical. That makes it hard to watch, but fun to debate. The real drama comes with the second-guessing and trade proposals and player value comparisons that we exchange around water coolers and over radio airwaves from the last out today to the opening pitch tomorrow.

But this is November. There are no more pitches to be thrown. No 40-minute pre-game shows on the radio, nor four-hour games on television. No post-game pressers or locker room interviews to cover. It's all unencumbered airwaves, fillable by the content of wild speculation. That's what makes this the best month of the season. And until the Hot Stove heats up (remember, Scott Boras doesn't like his clients jumping at the first offer), that speculation focuses on postseason award winners.

As baseball fans, we all share a paradoxical obsession with individual achievement in the context of a team sport. Even in the depths of a 2-1 World Series deficit, Boston-area talk show callers were as concerned about the series MVP as they were about manager John Farrell's handling of the National League style of play. Fans in every sport live vicariously through our favorite players. Like proud parents at a child's graduation, we want accolades heaped upon them because it's like they're heaped upon us, too. Baseball in particular takes it to another level.

The NBA shines in their ping-pong ball lotteries, the NFL at its college draft, the NCAA with its March Madness brackets, but MLB is the best-in-class when it comes to postseason awards. Perhaps no organization knows that better than the Baseball Writers Association of America, or BBWAA.

Last year, the BBWAA — those keepers of the Hall of Fame gates and arbiters of MLB's Rookies of the Year, Managers of the Year, Cy Young winners, and Most Valuable Players since the beginning of time — found a new way to bolster their prominence each November. They began an Oscars-like announcement of finalists for each of their coveted awards, and then took to the MLB Network to unveil winners a week later. The self-aggrandizing stunt seems to have served its purpose: the baseball world has been debating each finalist since Monday's nominees were announced.

There's little surprise that it took the BBWAA 105 years to reap this kind of exposure bucks. After all, this stodgy collection of baseball writers who make the Council of Ivy Group Presidents look like spontaneous school children isn't exactly known for being quick of foot. They kept their own doors shut to all but newspaper writers until 2007, and their presidential suite to women and blacks until the last two years, respectively. Broadcasters and most Internet writers are still persona non grata.

What's even less surprising is that the BBWAA's new standard operating procedure could have righted a wrong — real or perceived — but they didn't take it that far.

The BBWAA wields its gavel with Supreme Court-like purity, yet their decisions seem a consensus of biases dragged through a grassroots collection of local judges each with personal agendas. Some vote down the party line of traditional statistics, while others invoke the language of SABR. Within their ranks are both a tolerance for known PED offenders and an outright dismissiveness of even suspected cheats. Newly-elected president La Velle Neal himself disregarded his own constitution and used a personal prejudice against starting pitchers to deny Pedro Martinez of an MVP award in 1999. That's akin to our country's Chief Justice not recognizing the Bill of Rights.

The BBWAA could have bestowed some real significance on their contrived round of finalists if they had just made it a base to launch a runoff. Each voting member would be required to rank every finalist, because undervotes would split unassigned points on each ballot. It would protect the whole of the BBWAA from the sum of its individual flaws. Voters would no longer have the ability to disregard Jason Verlander for MVP, nor an opportunity to add illegitimate write-ins like Michael Young.

Unfortunately, the BBWAA didn't go there. They've made this a pointless announcement in a shameless pining for more autumn relevance, wasting our time with unnecessary subtotaling when final results were long ago tabulated.

None of my web colleagues on Sports Central figure to be admitted into the BBWAA ranks soon, but we can still have our say. I'm going to stay within the prescribed list of finalists and select Chris Archer and Jose Fernandez for best rookies, John Farrell and Clint Hurdle for best managers, Max Scherzer and Adam Wainwright for Cy Young, and Chris Davis and Yadier Molina as MVPs.

Maybe I'll let the BBWAA know how my votes were cast. But by self-addressed stamped envelope, of course. I don't imagine they've heard about the Internet yet

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