Editor’s note: This article appears in the October 10 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Earlier this summer, I read a sentence that included the phrases “Juan Gonzalez” and “two-time MVP.” I couldn’t stop staring at the words; I must have looked like Mike Tice during every Vikings collapse. There were two seasons in which Juan Gone was the most important American Leaguer? Why couldn’t I remember either of them?
An Internet search revealed Gonzalez took the honors in 1996 and 1998 and yielded an even more startling tidbit: Mo Vaughn won in 1995. Since Big Mo played for my favorite team, I should probably have remembered this, right? It’s not that I never knew about Mo’s award. Surely I cared at the time. I guess I just chose to stop thinking about it. And when not one situation in the past five or six years triggered the memory, eventually it just disappeared.
That doesn’t make the award meaningless, it just says it has a shelf-life. An award like this is subjective to begin with. When two candidates have strong cases — like A-Rod and Big Papi this season — we have no definitive way to determine who means more to his team. So we pick sides like two Springsteen fans debating the merits of “Jungleland” and “Incident on 57th Street.” But here’s the crucial difference between music and sports: I can listen to those songs and still feel just as strongly about the brilliance of “Jungleland” as I did 25 years ago, just as I can watch Shawshank and Forrest Gump again and still sulk because Gump won Best Picture for 1994.
In sports, we follow a season, become consumed by it and then let it vanish into thin air. Ten years from now, will anyone give a crap about A-Rod vs. Big Papi? Why would you? Our brains are like computers: once you stop thinking about something, it moves from New Documents to the Recycle Bin, eventually leaving the hard drive altogether.
Well, you ask, isn’t that what following sports is about, arguing about dumb things? Absolutely. But you have to admit, with each passing year these subjective arguments become a little more uninteresting. Baseball player gets “snubbed” by All-Star voters, we go crazy … and never mention it again. Same for the Heisman and any Coach of the Year, or for Sportsman of the Year and the Best Team ESPY, for that matter. This year some of us have reached a curious low, hotly debating the AL Comeback Player award, with Bob Wickman backers claiming Jason Giambi isn’t worthy because his past struggles were related to steroids. Wait, now we’re assigning moral significance to our awards? By the way, can you remember anyone who has ever been Comeback Player of the Year? Name the two winners from 1988. I’ll give you two seconds.
(One … two … )
Time! The answer: Storm Davis and Tim Leary. Even Howie Schwab wouldn’t know this. So why are we wasting time worrying about this year’s winners?
Believe me, I’m not innocent of engaging in such mindless arguments. I’m the guy who wrote 300,000 words trying to crash Steve Nash’s MVP bandwagon. In my defense, an NBA MVP award carries significance because in that league an alpha dog can actually break away from the pack, although the right player still wins only 60-70% of the time. For example, MJ was snubbed twice in his prime because people were tired of voting for him. And that injustice actually devalued the MVP’s meaning to some degree.
And maybe that’s the problem. If we recognized the right person every time, awards would matter more. This doesn’t just go for sports. Three of the defining TV performances of 2004 belonged to Glenn Close (The Shield), Jeremy Piven (Entourage) and Terry O’Quinn (Lost). Did any of them win Emmys? No. As with anything else, human error screws up a good thing. Yet we keep watching and following and hoping that this time, it will be different.
As for this year’s AL MVP race, A-Rod backers point to impressive stats and excellent play at third, conveniently ignoring a lack of leadership and a comical tendency to turn into Roy Hobbs only during blowouts. When the Yankees are leading by 30 or more runs, A-Rod is hitting .950 with 19 HRs and 45 RBIs. All right, I made that up. But he’s certainly no David Ortiz, the most dangerous clutch hitter in baseball, in addition to being the soul of Boston’s clubhouse and the emotional center of the team. Without him, this year’s Sox would be a .500 team, or worse. That makes him the MVP. But since he doesn’t play in the field, the door will stay open until the AL East plays itself out.
Of course, if my man Big Papi gets screwed over, I can take solace in one thing: 10 years from now, I won’t remember it ever happened.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy’s World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book “Now I Can Die In Peace” hits bookstores on October 1st and is available right now on Amazon.com.