“It will be the toughest year to pick an MVP in some time,” Mark McGwire said.
Yet as the season hits the final week, Braves third baseman Chipper Jones has spoken the loudest, and surely has done the most for baseball's winningest team. He should become the franchise's first since Terry Pendleton in 1991 to earn the MVP award. Though ballots are due from the Baseball Writers' Association of America before the playoffs start, the results will not be released until November.
“If you look at the award strictly in the sense of the most valuable player, I'd have to say to the Braves this year, he's the most valuable guy we've got,” said pitcher Terry Mulholland, who witnessed Sosa's MVP campaign last summer as a Cub. “Obviously you have to exclude pitchers, but with what he's contributed on a daily basis, it's amazing.
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“This team offensively is not playing to the potential it would play with Andres (Galarraga) in there and Javy (Lopez) in there, if Brian (Jordan) was healthy. Given that, everybody says Bagwell has had to pick up the slack for Moises Alou being out and I'm sure he has. But it just seems we've been in more of a battle than they have. I mean that series we just played with the Mets, Chipper was a one-man wrecking crew.”
If there is a strategy to winning the vote, Jones' timing in the Mets series (four homers, seven RBIs) was critical, for he out-performed two chief rivals (New York's Ventura and Mike Piazza) in front of a large contingent of writers. But then, Jones has been at his best in big series all summer.
In 33 games against the Mets, Cincinnati, Houston and Arizona, Jones hit .372 with 16 homers and 34 RBIs. He is second in NL total bases (353) to Sosa, third in slugging (.649) to Walker and McGwire.
No one in the league has batted better after the sixth inning than Jones (.370), nor has any regular come through late in close games (two-run games from the seventh inning) than Jones, who is hitting .415 in those situations. With 10 homers and 20 RBIs in the first 19 games of September, he is willing the Braves to their eighth consecutive divisional title.
Yet Jones will not view life in these terms.
“I don't know,” he said. “Certainly the possibilities are there but a lot of other guys have had great years as well, who are going to have something to say about it. You talk about the numbers Bagwell has put up pretty consistent all year. It's hard to imagine him not winning it.”
Of the five chief candidates --- Jones, Piazza, Ventura, Bagwell and Arizona's Matt Williams --- Bagwell has the most similar case to Jones. While Piazza and Ventura profit by hitting in a lineup studded with seven .300 hitters, while Williams is surrounded by the dangerous Luis Gonzalez and Jay Bell, Jones and Bagwell have been compensating for missing stars.
At the same time, unlike Bagwell, Jones hasn't come to the plate with Craig Biggio standing on second base all year, ready to be driven in.
“That's not Bagwell's fault,” Jones replied. “He's playing his game and his teammates are playing their game. He's put together some phenomenal statistics. But I've had a lot of help.
“People don't realize for all their stuggles in the first half, my one and two guys (players hitting first and second in the batting order above Jones at No. 3) have done a pretty good job of getting on these last couple months. Would people be saying the same things about me if we hadn't had the injuries and hadn't had the tight pennant race?”
Jones isn't finished. His next double (No. 42) will set an Atlanta record. Three more home runs --- not inconceivable for a player with 10 home runs within his past 18 hits --- and Jones surpasses Hank Aaron's franchise record (47 in 1971). He has already broken the NL record for homers by a switch-hitter and has set an Atlanta record with 86 extra-base hits.
The ones who have watched all of the at-bats have been the ones most awed.
“He learns from his previous at-bat,” teammate Brian Jordan said. “He keeps that book in his mind how that particular guy pitches to him. I'm still learning to do that. I'm just trying to play off talent alone. The mental side of the game, he's already learned.”
At 27, Jones has little left to prove in his career, except perhaps driving the Braves to another world championship. The last week may well determine the MVP vote but it will not determine much about the three weeks that follow.
“(The MVP) would be an honor, to say the least,” Jones said. “I'm having one of the best years certainly I've ever had. But you know, it's not first and foremost in mind. I don't go out there every day saying, 'If I have a bad day, I might lose the MVP.' I'm going out there concentrating on what it's (taking) to win ballgames.
“I'm not really thinking about it. I think if I was not in a pennant race, maybe it might get to me somewhere down the road. But the fact of the matter is the National League East.”
Spoken like a true candidate.