Shortly before Cy Young Award-winning hurler Chris Carpenter threw the first pitch of the National League Division Series to San Diego Padres center fielder Dave Roberts, veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch baseball writer Rick Hummel submitted his ballot for the National League's Most Valuable Player. His top choice? Cards first baseman Albert Pujols. Ditto Cardinals beat writer Joe Strauss. "Pujols, Jones and Lee in that order," Strauss imparts via e-mail. "I believe it's the first time I've voted Albert at the top of my ballot."
With yesterday's announcement, the scribes learned they'd picked a winner.
Hummel doesn't always side with the MVP majority. His 2004 top choice, Cards third baseman Scott Rolen, finished fourth, with one first-place vote (Hummel's). Colleague Bernie Miklasz found himself flying solo with his 2004 MVP pick as well: Pujols, who wound up placing third. (MVP ballots contain spaces for scribes to write in ten picks, in descending order of preference, with first-place votes weighing heaviest in the point system used for tallying.)
In 1998 Hummel and then-Post writer Mike Eisenbath were the only voters to pick another losing Cardinal, Mark McGwire, who finished a distant second to the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa.
Hummel says the fact that he covers the home team doesn't affect his picks. "I generally try to vote for the best player on the best team," he says, adding that he voted for seven-time MVP Barry Bonds "at least four times" between 1999 and 2003. "The only thing is, you see [the Cardinals] play every game rather than other guys you might only see ten to twelve times a year, so your judgment is colored. If you're more familiar with a player who's a good player, you might tend to put him high on your list."
Every year baseball scribes representing the Baseball Writers' Association of America cast ballots for four prestigious awards: the MVP, the Cy Young Award (limited to pitchers), Rookie of the Year and Manager of the Year. In each of baseball's twenty-five big-league markets, eight votes are distributed, two per award.
Their choices are critical to players' and managers' livelihoods. Besides triggering contract-clause bonuses that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, BBWAA honors are potentially worth millions come salary-negotiation time, and they burnish the résumés of candidates for enshrinement in baseball's storied hall of fame in Cooperstown, New York another honor bestowed via BBWAA vote.
Theoretically, "homerism" is a moot point in the awards process: Every home team-favoring baseball writer has a counterpart in the "rival" city. But in recent years, increasing numbers of writers have opted not to participate, potentially skewing the results.
This year, for instance, sports editor Ronnie Ramos told his writers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution they were not allowed to cast votes. Atlanta Braves center fielder Andruw Jones finished second in the balloting, with thirteen first-place tallies, seventeen second-place nods and two for third place. Pujols earned eighteen first-place votes and fourteen votes for second. (Chicago Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee accounted for the rest of the 32 votes.)
"Everybody's writing these stories about how the AJC is gonna cost Andruw Jones the MVP," Ramos said last week. "They're just making the case for why reporters shouldn't be in this business in the first place.
"Their expertise is to be used to put stories in the paper and gather news, not make it," Ramos says of his writers, adding that he doesn't permit them to vote for awards in any sport. "I want to avoid any perception of being involved in something that could affect players' incomes and salaries, in an age when our credibility is at stake.
"You put reporters in a no-win situation," Ramos goes on. "They're expected to vote for Andruw Jones, and if they don't they're sort of going against the local team. Why should it be that two people in St. Louis vote, and the expectation is that they're going to vote for Pujols? That cheapens the entire existence of the award."
Ramos isn't alone. Other news organizations that prohibit sportswriters from voting in year-end baseball awards include the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and the St. Louis-based Sporting News.
Though the pool of writers has been shrinking for years, the Journal-Constitution's withdrawal was particularly problematic because it compelled the BBWAA to assign an Atlanta vote outside the Atlanta market. The Journal-Constitution's MVP vote went to ESPN.com's Jayson Stark, based in Philadelphia. Stark put Pujols at the top of his ballot. The region's other MVP ballot was cast by Travis Haney of Morris Publishing Group, which owns three papers in Georgia. Haney, the sole Braves beat writer to vote for NL MVP, says he picked Pujols as well.
"The Atlanta thing really bothered me," says BBWAA secretary and treasurer Jack O'Connell. "I was always worried that a one-newspaper town would do this. I've been permitted for the last eight years now to use national writers in emergency situations, but I'm never really comfortable with it. I'd much rather get people who are there."
Houston Chronicle sportswriter Richard Justice tapped Jones. But he says it may have been his last MVP vote.
"I personally think there are too many issues that smack of conflict for us to continue," Justice comments via e-mail. "My sports editor hasn't decided, but I'd guess he's leaning the same way. There's no way of getting around the fact that many players have bonus clauses for these awards."
"I think if you were just now starting the [BBWAA] awards, there's almost no way it would be set up the way it currently is," posits Mike Berardino of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "When baseball writers started this way back [in 1931], there were no clauses of any sort."
That said, Berardino believes writers make more informed decisions than, say, pitchers.
"I think the Gold Gloves are the biggest joke, and who votes on those?" he explains, referring to annual honors handed out for defensive prowess. "Managers and coaches and they always factor in hitting, which is ridiculous. You think Greg Maddux is really the best fielder in the league? He's 39 years old."
Rob Neyer, who covers baseball for ESPN.com, says the way to counteract homerism perceived or real might be to bar sportswriters from voting for hometown players. "But you could still manipulate the vote," Neyer notes. "For example, if you're in Atlanta and can't vote for Andruw Jones, just put Albert Pujols eighth."
Meantime, the folks in the Post-Dispatch sports department say everybody's getting their sox in a wad over nothing.
"It would be only [a conflict] if it affected the way I wrote about baseball, and it really doesn't," assures columnist Bernie Miklasz. "I wouldn't hesitate to write a column stating a strong opinion about who should win some of these awards, so I don't see the reasons not to actually back up that opinion with a vote. All the years I've voted, I've never known anything at all about who might have a bonus or not. It's something that never even entered my mind."
Seconds Post sports editor Larry Starks: "I haven't thought a whole lot about it, to be honest. I just don't see the conflict. I think it's perfectly OK to vote for awards, especially with the baseball writers. It's such a tradition."