By SEAN RAPOSA
July 29, 2008
Last week’s bashing of the most overpaid guys in baseball was a lot of fun (click on the link at the bottom of the page if you missed it or any of my other columns). The problem - in addition to my inexcusable omission of Richie Sexson‘s 15 million-dollar carcass - is that karma jumped up and bit me in the you know what. I ended the week on the DL with a sprained ankle and a bruised nose from, of all things, walking into a door. Apparently my knowledge of the force doesn’t extend to night-vision.
As a result, I’m getting back on the gravy train of praise for the duration of my rehab. We all love awards. The Oscars, the Grammys and the VMAs are all among the most watched TV events every year. As you know by now, I’m a man of the people if nothing else so I’ve decided to hand out a trophy of my own this week … (cue the Triple-H entrance music) … the Superbad Award! Despite being named in honor of last year’s best comedy, this award is no joke. I’ll only be handing it out once a year and the winner will be taking home a miniature Mr. T statue complete with fake gold chains to emblazon their badass-ness. Believe it: Mr. T’s on board.
My goal is to have this award be slightly less globally accepted than an Olympic gold and significantly more relevant than an ESPY for “Best Performance by a Breakthrough Athlete in a Comeback Upset.” There will be a time for MVPs to be handed out later, but there always seems to be squabbling about the credentials that make up an MVP and what the essence of the award is. The concept for the Superbad Award is simple - who will best channel their inner McLovin’ and forever stamp their footprint on this season? - and functional in conversation, as in “Hey Chachi, who’s crunkin’ the Superbad this year?” With fantasy football, NFL training camp and USA Basketball right around the corner, we’re going to do our part here at National Pastime to glorify this great season of our greatest game. The nominees are:
No. 5: Cliff Lee, Cleveland Indians
First of all, what a name this guy’s got! Clifton Phifer Lee. That could get you in My Five all by itself. If you didn’t know better, you might think he trots to the mound sporting a bowtie and a monocle. Luckily for the Indians, their de facto ace in the sans-Sabathia era has an arsenal of pitches that is far meaner than his name would imply, and boy is he having a season to remember. He currently has a major league-best 2.29 ERA and is tied with Arizona’s Brandon Webb atop the leader board with 14 wins. If he can keep his current pace he’ll become the first Indians starter to win 20 in three-plus decades.
His presence at No. 5 speaks to the quality of his competition for my Man-O-The-Year Award, as the fading of the Lee comeback story amidst the late-season media coverage will be through no fault of his own. To think that a No. 2 starter coming off back-to-back 14-plus win, 200-plus inning and 190-plus strikeout years could fall so far as to be demoted to AAA and moved into the bullpen only to return the very next season to start the All-Star Game and be a Cy Young front-runner is remarkable. Lee has continued his dominance following his impressive showing opening the All-Star classic. He’s 2-0 with a 2.12 ERA in his first two post-break starts, coming a mere three outs away from posting back-to-back complete games.
No. 4: Francisco Rodriguez, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
If we were talking straight numbers and getting into the record books, the man better known as K-Rod would take top honors. The all-time saves record of 57 that was set by Bobby Thigpen of the White Sox in 1990 is about to be obliterated. Rodriguez is on pace for a whopping 68 saves as he’s already posted 43 in just 46 opportunities. Another four conversions will put him in the top-20 all-time, and it’s not even August! His team should continue to give him plenty more chances and the Angels closer could make the A.L. Cy Young voting very interesting. Should he best the aforementioned Lee and fellow starter Roy Halladay for the hardware, K-Rod would be only the 10th reliever to do so and the first since Eric Gagne Grinched it in 2003.
The reason Rodriguez ends up at No. 4 in the pecking order is because the only way I see him being the most memorable player from 2008 is if the Angels win the World Series, and it’s just not happening. The Anaheim brass better hope I’m wrong because Mr. I Own This Closing Thing is a free agent at season’s end and he’ll be looking to cash in. I’m guessing owner Artie Moreno will be wishing he saved a few bucks from that Torii Hunter contract I praised last week, or more intelligently, extending Rodriguez before the season. He is really taking “contract year” to a new level and at 26, who knows what the price will be.
No. 3: Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
The swing: so smooth and effortless. The sound: crackling like a pistol. And the smile: as wide and genuine as you’ll ever see. The display of athletic genius that Hamilton put on at this year’s Home Run Derby was transcendent. The story of the wonder kid’s return from the bowels of heroin addiction has been written 100 times over, but the impact of that night cannot be overstated. Millions of Americans suffer from drug and alcohol problems, and to see those 28 first-round homers sail out of Yankee Stadium and a dream realized I’m certain has changed lives. The lesson, of course, is that there is no stopping determination, even if Elmer Fudd is throwing you BP.
I have no doubt that Hamilton’s power show will go down as the single most memorable moment of 2008. The last time I shouted so many oohs and ahhs at the TV, LeBron James was dropping 25 straight and single-handedly destroying the Pistons in the Conference Finals last year - that’s pretty good company to be keeping. The Rangers center fielder is hitting quite well in the games that count, too. As we round into the last two months of the season, he is still a legitimate threat for the Triple Crown. He stands 22 points out in batting average and only three homers shy of Carlos Quentin, and he is lapping the field by 25 RBI. In fact, he is on pace to push 163 runs across, which would leave him well short of the all-time record of 191 set by Hack Wilson of the Cubs in 1930 but would put him alongside Manny Ramirez as the only players to reach such a figure since the end of the 1930s. The problem with giving him my Superbad Award is, like the NBA Finals commercials said, “There is only one way to get the kind of respect that is undeniable: Win.”
No. 2: CC Sabathia, Milwaukee Brewers
It even feels weird to type it - the Brewers, really? Sabathia has been making headlines all year. It started with his impending free agency and contract talks, and then it quickly shifted to his double-digit ERA through his first five starts. Some spectacular outings followed, and then came the trade to an unlikely buyer within one of baseball’s most competitive divisions. Since moving over to the senior circuit, all CC has done is go 4-0 with a 1.36 ERA. He is also working on three straight complete games in which his WHIP has been a miniscule 0.67 - silly. This Matt LaPorta had better be some sort of slugger.
So … he’s the reigning A.L. Cy Young winner, he’s dealing like crazy and he’s brought a real hope to a mid-market team that has been to the postseason but twice and not since their only World Series appearance in 1982. How could he not be the winner? Pressure is my answer. The Brewers will make the playoffs and they might even win a series or two, but they aren’t winning it all. We all saw what happened to Sabathia when the heat was on in a must-win against the Red Sox last year: The pressure was too much. How hot do you think it’s going to get when all the franchise’s hopes for their first title come down to one month of do-or-die baseball? Along with Sabathia, the Brewers’ other ace, Ben Sheets, is also in a contract year and likely to walk at season’s end. They’ve got a one-year window and since they have a pretty steep hill to climb with two really tough teams in their own division in the Cubs and Cardinals - in addition to their Wild Card foes, the Mets and Phillies - they didn’t exactly pick the best year to go balls-out. Milwaukee would be wise to start a “Bring back Favre” collection and spin the profits to sign CC to another year and open that window of opportunity a little wider.
No. 1: Jon Lester, Boston Red Sox
If I accomplished nothing else with this column, I at least just made my buddy Garypie puke. He’s had to endure several outpourings of my love for the “Miracle Man” since April and this will certainly top them all. It seems only fitting that the object of my baseball man-crush gets to win my McLovin’ Award. The thing is, although I’m now living in San Diego, I’m a Massachusetts native and a Sox fan, so every time I try to hype Boston players I’m accused of being a homer. For your sake as my loyal readers, I do everything I can to bring an unbiased voice to this page and I think I do a good job. But since the First Annual Superbad Award is based on my view into the crystal ball of projection and no one deserves it more, I’m going for my guy.
At 24 years old, the left-handed bulldog already has it all. His stuff is a unique blend of finesse and power, but his true catalyst for success sits under his cap. Much like Hamilton, Lester’s recovery from thyroid cancer has been well documented but the story won’t stop growing. In his first ever postseason appearance last year, he went 1-0 with a 1.93 ERA in nine-plus innings and notched the World Series-clinching win in his only start. This year he reached the pinnacle of his profession with a no-hitter on May 19 in Boston against Kansas City. On Sunday he moved to 9-3 by beating the rival Yankees for the second time this month and improved to 4-0 in the five starts he’s had following a Red Sox loss. It is this mental toughness that could help shoulder the reigning World Champs through their injuries and chemistry issues and back to the top of the baseball mountain. And if this cool customer can close out his second consecutive Series with a no-no in between and cancer in the rear-view, he’ll be the guy we all remember from 2008. Ah, I can only hope, and if you don’t like it, people, it’s free to comment.
Sean Raposa’s My Five column runs every Tuesday here on National Pastime. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by The Associated Press
Be sure to check out our previous My Five columns: Starting rotations, The power alleys, MLB’s best bullpens, The table setters, Young guns, Burgeoning bats, Favorite first-half storylines, X-Factors, Financial blunders.